2017 Tar Heels of the Year: Eastern North Carolina’s star chef and author, Vivian Howard
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The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year
The News & Observer recognizes North Carolina residents who have made significant contributions in the last year and beyond. This year, we asked readers to tell us about people who have made a difference in our state. Here are our stories.
The Chef & the Farmer restaurant burned one January morning in the first week of 2012, while New Year’s resolutions were still fresh and hanging in the air like a country ham. The fire started in a trash can and filled a room with flames so hot, glass melted and everything else turned to ash. A closed door kept the fire from spreading, but smoke and soot covered the dining room and kitchen and filled the nooks and crannies of appliances.
Six years into the restaurant, this was going to be the year owners chef Vivian Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, took a step back, spent more time with their family – including infant twins Theo and Flo – and got back to their other passions.
Restaurants are always a gamble, but gambles are rarely as big as Chef & the Farmer – that fine dining could find a foothold in a small depressed town in Eastern North Carolina.
The fire was perhaps a signal to move on, that a point had been made, but that the experiment had run its course. Now it was time to move on to Wilmington or Asheville or Raleigh. That’s what some expected.
But Howard and Knight cleaned up their restaurant and put it back together. They finished building their house on her parents’ property. They let a town – and the region – know they were here for the long haul.
“The fire was a perfect out for us, and we could have left the community, but it became clear to the community that we planned on staying and being a part of Eastern North Carolina,” said Howard, now 39. “It felt like we were just starting over.”
With a clean slate, Howard and her restaurant launched into the stratosphere. The fire and its aftermath were documented in the first season of “A Chef’s Life,” filmmaker Cynthia Hill’s award-winning PBS documentary series, which premiered in 2013. Searching the dying foodways of Eastern North Carolina, the show explored the past and present of Southern cooking but also Howard’s daily life and her evolution as a chef balancing the roles of wife, mother of now 6-year-old twins, and business owner.
Viewers loved it and Howard’s charm and vulnerability. Now in its fifth season, 4 million viewers see each episode, and the trophy case includes Daytime Emmy and Peabody awards and a Best Television Personality James Beard award for Howard.
Meanwhile, Howard’s food has made her an influential voice in modern Southern cooking, highlighting relationships with farmers and the African roots and home cooking traditions of the regional cuisine. She’s been a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast five of the last six years, only missing out the year of the fire, and has filled downtown Kinston parking lots with out-of-state license plates.
“One thing’s for sure, she’s brought a lot of people to Eastern North Carolina who never would have come otherwise,” said Sam Jones, the prince of Eastern North Carolina barbecue and heir of the iconic Skylight Inn in Ayden.
While Howard has built an empire of three restaurants, including the new Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington, she’s also helped inject pride in a region still recovering from the economic losses of tobacco and textiles. It’s a claim she’s reluctant to embrace or take credit for.
“Since we’ve moved back (in 2005), the area has changed in some significant ways, and not at all,” Howard said. “There’s still a tremendous amount of poverty here; a lot of the people who live here feel trapped and would like to live elsewhere. But based on some energy in our community downtown, there is a shift in how some people feel about Eastern North Carolina.”
Dreams of storytelling
Kinston has been in tough shape for several decades. John Howard, Vivian’s father, saw the writing on the wall for tobacco in the 1980s and started shifting his acres of farmland to hogs. For decades he’s been one of Lenoir County’s largest farmers, responsible for around 5,000 acres. Howard and his wife, Scarlett, raised four daughters in Deep Run – an unincorporated community 10 miles from Kinston – to be the breadwinners of their families, not necessarily on the farm, though he’d be thrilled to turn it over to family one day.
Eastern North Carolina is mostly scenic low land farming country, the thousands of acres telling time by how tall the tobacco is in the summer and the fluffs of cotton in late fall. But serene and pastoral are words that belie how hard it is to farm; bucolic is a word used by folks who don’t smell manure every day. Vivian, the youngest Howard daughter, imagined a different life.
“The struggle for me about being from here really related to that fact that I felt like I was less than because of where I came from,” Howard said. “My parents were tobacco farmers, and I did not respect that as a profession. In a lot of ways I was taught by my parents to respect doctors and lawyers and teachers and nurses, and no one in my family wanted a life on the farm for me.”
Instead, she had aspirations of becoming a storyteller. Growing up, she’d make up stories to entertain herself or break the tension when she was in trouble.
She went away for boarding high school in Winston-Salem, then NC State for college, majoring in English with plans of becoming a journalist or writer.
An internship at “CBS Sunday Morning” took Howard to New York one summer. It was easy to fall in love with the city, and she discovered New York through its pizza and sushi, bowls of ramen and eggplant parm.
Another summer, she studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but the trip quickly took a disastrous turn. She was hit by a car in the first week.
“It really set the tone for the rest of my experience,” Howard said. “What ended up happening was that I felt as if the only thing I could do well was eat. I couldn’t speak Spanish. All I could do was eat, and I did. That’s where I think I first latched on to food as a means to understand culture.”
‘Lit on fire’
After college, Howard went back to New York, leaving Deep Run and North Carolina, presumably for good. She was an account coordinator for Grey, an advertising agency, and seemed set on a path that would lead her anywhere she wanted. But she quickly learned it wasn’t what she wanted at all. She went to work in a restaurant called Voyage (rhymes with mirage), which cooked Southern food by way of the African diaspora. She met Knight there, and they were some of the restaurant’s first employees, working as a server and once waiting on the late North Carolina poet Maya Angelou.
“I was just lit on fire by the whole situation,” Howard said. “Since living in New York, I never felt like I was good at anything I was doing, and working in this restaurant was the first time I felt like I was doing something well. I wanted to do more of it.”
In love with the connection possible through food, Howard wanted to be a food writer. She decided she needed to work in a kitchen to do so, which led to the Institute of Culinary Education. She interned at chef Wylie Dufresne’s temple of molecular gastronomy WD~50, one of the country’s most avant-garde restaurants at the time. Howard said her first task there was to vacuum-seal bags of pork belly in a sauce.
“I learned from WD~50 that I had a lot to learn,” Howard said.
The Howard who worked in the basement of WD~50 is far from the one who would open Chef & the Farmer a few years later. Though a world away, some of it stuck, showing up in the inventiveness of dishes like Howard’s fried okra with ranch ice cream.
“I realized at WD~50 that it’s actually very powerful to play with very familiar flavors and familiar things because people are automatically drawn to them,” Howard said.
‘The biggest joke in town’
Separated by about 500 miles of constant worry, John Howard finally succeeded in getting his daughter out of New York, and all it took was helping her open a restaurant. Knight and Howard, who were running a soup business from their apartment, left New York with an idea of opening a soup and sandwich shop in downtown Kinston, but switched gears when they found two in town already, with not enough business to support a third. So they looked to fine dining.
“What I didn’t see was anywhere to go to and have dinner and ambiance and a decent glass of wine,” Vivian said. “I felt as if that’s what the town needed more. ... The transition to doing this fine dining thing was not something everybody on our team was excited about. After we opened and struggled, and it was a disaster for a while, I was reminded many, many times that we could have just been doing a soup and sandwich shop.”
Destination dining isn’t something to build a business plan around, somehow hoping for a spark that could draw diners hundreds of miles and hours of travel just for a meal, particularly one in Eastern North Carolina.
“She’s super compassionate and believes in what she does,” said Hill, a fellow Lenoir County native and founder of Durham-based Markay Media. She created “A Chef’s Life” with Howard.
“That’s what makes you a true visionary, seeing something no one else does,” Hill said.
John and Scarlett Howard bet on it, though, at least silently. They helped front the money for the restaurant on West Gordon Street in a century-old building that once was a mule stable. Vivian’s father is the “Farmer” in the restaurant’s name.
“I can assure you one thing,” John Howard said. “We didn’t think it would work. People thought it was the biggest joke in town, no way it would ever make it.”
When the Chef & the Farmer opened in June 2006, it was busy from Day One, but was spectacle more than anything, the fancified stylings of John Howard’s citified daughter. But that daughter could really cook. The restaurant initially survived on the birthdays, anniversaries and special occasions of diners coming from Goldsboro, Greenville and New Bern, a more elevated experience than could be found within 100 miles.
“The rumor was John Howard’s daughter had moved back home and was opening some fancy restaurant and it was going to fail and everybody came to see what that looked like,” Vivian said. “There were bets on how long we would last. But for the most part I think people came and kind of enjoyed it.”
Finding her voice
Howard embraces the unexpected. When Chapel Hill’s TerraVita Festival threw a tribute dinner for Crook’s Corner chef Bill Smith this fall, Howard grilled hot dogs with pork chili and rutabaga relish. People lined up for seconds and some chose them over dessert. This Thanksgiving, she eschewed the traditional turkey dinner and made a feast of Chinese food. When she and Knight decided to get married in 2008, they eloped to China.
Wary of settling too much into a routine, Howard began to see the rest of her life in a restaurant, which was never the plan. Then one day, the Mills brothers, neighbors from down the road, dropped a bag of collard kraut on her front porch as a gift. To Howard, the milky, funky discovery connected a thread from Eastern North Carolina to current haute cuisine’s fascination with fermentation.
“I still had not fully bought into my region as a culinary mecca,” she said. “The people in my backyard, I didn’t think they knew anything I didn’t know, but they actually had a whole arsenal of cooking skills that I didn’t have.”
The next year, she made collard kraut with the Mills family and wondered what other overlooked traditions were in her backyard.
“It was an overwhelming experience,” Howard said. “It felt like I was an anthropologist and I was learning, that I had stepped back in time, but was learning what was a really current trend (in food nationally).”
She ran home and wrote what she was feeling and chased more of those connections. She found her voice as a chef with a smoked chicken dish mopped with a blueberry vinegar sauce, mimicking the whole hog cooking famous in the region.
“I started thinking about the things I saw growing up, all the women in my family putting up corn, my grandmother canning tomatoes,” she said. “I grew up hearing about my extended family coming together and having hog killings. I started asking questions and realizing there was a whole host of things that were on the cusp of absolutely disappearing.”
Those ideas crept onto Howard’s menus – now marked in the top left-hand corner with an “AF,” for “After Fire” – and eventually “A Chef’s Life.” The show looks at Eastern North Carolina as something to be treasured, and Howard explores it with TV star charisma, a melodic native accent and self-deprecation.
“The Southern storytelling tradition was in her and she reluctantly had given it up (with the restaurant),” Hill said. “She was longing for that opportunity, she had lost her voice in that respect, and now she saw an opening to get it back.”
The show’s success let Howard become the storyteller she dreamed of becoming, sharing her newfound respect for her hometown and allowing her to become one of the region’s most visible cheerleaders.
“The show allowed her to be vulnerable,” Hill said. “She still doubts herself, even with all the success. She still wonders if she is talented enough. And she is, but I think that’s why she’s still so motivated, still trying to prove stuff to herself.”
A region of pride
Season five of “A Chef’s Life” follows Howard on a book tour throughout the Southeast, with lines often stretching around buildings for the chance to meet her. Of the fans, Hill said she’s most encouraged by the children who look to Howard as someone to emulate, particularly those from Eastern North Carolina who may grow up never knowing geography as a barrier to their dreams.
“Young girls and young boys come up to her and get emotional, little kids watch the show and are inspired by her,” Hill said. “She shows what a strong female character can be and shows young boys the potential for a woman in an industry dominated by male figures. Having that role model is powerful.”
When Howard and Knight came to North Carolina more than a decade ago, virtually every storefront in downtown Kinston was vacant. Queen Street, once dubbed the Magic Mile, needed a miracle.
Since Chef & the Farmer opened, the blocks around it have filled with businesses, many based around food. Mother Earth Brewing opened in 2008. There’s now a coffee shop, a pizza place, two organic food stores, Howard’s oyster bar, the Boiler Room, and her bakery, Handy and Hot, on the way.
“There’s been a lot of money spent and a lot of chances taken in that area of Kinston,” John Howard said.
Still, Howard stakes no claim to saving Kinston or Lenoir County, which still rank among the poorest locales in the state. Much of Kinston is still struggling. High paying jobs are few and far between, utility costs are among the highest in the state, and the lack of high speed internet for much of the region creates further isolation.
“The thing I always cringe at when I read it is I read‘Ben and Vivian have revitalized their town,’” Howard said. “All you have to do is drive around this town and see that we most definitely have not done that. I never want to give that impression or take credit for something that hasn’t happened. I think we’ve given people, some people, hope. But I would say that’s the thing most people most often want to say and want to give us credit for that. But we have a long way to go before I’ll take credit for that.”
Howard has started using her voice and profile to challenge local leaders touting small businesses to put their money where their mouths are. Instead of seeking the next manufacturing plant to replace the ones that were lost, Howard urges them to offer those incentives to small businesses. Kinston can’t survive on food alone, but Howard believes the model can work if the next generation sees a hometown worth investing in.
Howard, herself, will keep pushing.
“I feel like a lot of people depend on me,” Howard said. “We have these businesses and I feel responsible to all the people whose livelihood I’m in some way responsible for. I feel a responsibility to keep pushing and making the show and telling the story of Eastern North Carolina and make people who live here feel prideful.”
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson