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The Taste of Home: Vivian Howard, ‘A Chef’s Life’, and the Heart of North Carolina

By Chris Privett | December 28, 2015 | Explore NC

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Into Vivian Howard’s Kitchen

As a regular viewer of A Chef’s Life since its launch in 2013, stepping into Chef & the Farmer felt more like I was visiting a production studio in Hollywood than a restaurant in Kinston, North Carolina. I’d never been to Chef & the Farmer before, but I knew exactly where everything was. Even the staff of the restaurant – the cast from the show – looked and acted as I expected they would, all playing their roles convincingly.

I had to remind myself that they’re not scripted characters, they’re real people. Despite my weekly “visits” to Chef & the Farmer via public television, I don’t actually know any of them.

I bore that in mind when I sat down to interview Vivian Howard, head chef and co-owner of Chef & the Farmer, not to mention a rising media personality. It took quite an effort to avoid slipping into “hanging out with a friend” mode, since Vivian is just as charming in person as she is on TV. If I’m honest, she’s even more charming in person.

BCBSNC has been a sponsor of A Chef’s Life since the show started, and our social media team was eager to interview Vivian about the burgeoning popularity of the show, its impact on Kinston and what the future might hold for her family. For someone who is a genuinely reluctant TV star, Vivian is photogenic, youthful, smart, and witty. And though she’d surely deny it, she’s a natural in the media age.

Photo: Allison Bonner

That Public Eye

Of course, being a notable person doesn’t mean everyone is going to be a fan. And in this era when virtually everyone has the communication tools to express their opinions to the world, Vivian hears a lot of them.

“People send us comments about my hair or my lipstick shade, they disapprove of how I talk to my husband Ben,” she said. “I feel like because I’ve opened myself up to all of that, I have to listen to their feedback, both the positive and the negative. The negative feedback isn’t something anybody wants to be immersed in, but it’s what I signed on for, I think.”

Vivian’s husband, Ben Knight, is co-owner and manager of the restaurant. This makes them partners on more levels than a typical husband-wife team. Vivian explained that can lead to some tension at work and at home: “I’d like to say we just leave all the stress here at the restaurant, but that’s not necessarily the case. Now that I’m required to do so many things outside the restaurant, it puts more stress on my partner… But we’re getting better at it.”

The television show doesn’t shy away from revealing some of the tension, which Vivian said can make her a little uncomfortable: “Sometimes I watch the show and I’m like, oh, my God…”

If you’ve never seen the show, there isn’t really one label that suits it. It’s part-documentary, part-cooking program, part-cultural exploration. Vivian’s own explanation of the show is the best I’ve heard: “I like to describe our show as a documentary series about people, place and tradition, told through the lens of food. We use food as a storytelling mechanism to write this love story to North Carolina.”

Photo: Allison Bonner

Small Town Goes Big Time

A Chef’s Life honest depiction of family and working life in a small Southern town has proven popular, earning Peabody and Daytime Emmy Awards, generating appearances for Vivian on the Today Show, prompting a two-book publishing deal for Vivian, and introducing millions of Americans to Kinston.

Vivian takes particular pride in helping raise the profile of Kinston and all of Eastern North Carolina. After a childhood in Deep Run in southern Lenoir County, she spent several years in New York City, where she met her husband Ben, before moving South to Kinston to start a restaurant and a family.

“I think a lot of young people, no matter where they’re from, have an undeniable urge to flee their home base,” Vivian explained. “I was always fascinated with a big city. I wanted to order Chinese food and have it delivered, I wanted to walk places instead of using a car. I wanted to live somewhere where there was an Applebee’s, believe it or not!”

Today, Kinston sports an Applebee’s, along with plenty of other dining options. In fact, Kinston is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, with new businesses and attractions drawing visitors from across North Carolina and beyond.

While visiting Chef & the Farmer, my colleagues and I went on a “Kinston Krawl,” touring the downtown area and meeting with some local business owners. Walking around downtown Kinston, you don’t see many empty retail spaces. The city has the feel of a community on the rise.

Kinston’s downtown area has welcomed a number of new businesses in the last few years, including The O’Neil, a seven-room luxury hotel in the former Famers and Merchants Bank; Mother Earth Brewing and Mother Earth Spirits, producers of fine beer, whiskey, gin and rum; and a range of restaurants, including Vivian’s second restaurant, The Boiler Room oyster bar, the Asian fusion of Ginger 108, and an authentic California taco restaurant, Olvera Street Taqueria. (My colleagues and I can personally vouch for Olvera Street Taqueria’s tacos – they’re unspeakably good. Even our resident, and skeptic, Californian was in heaven.)

Photo: Allison Bonner

Some have credited Kinston’s current ascendence to A Chef’s Life, with the show drawing fans from distant locations who want to sample Eastern North Carolina cuisine and culture. Whether the show is responsible or not, Vivian’s connection to Kinston is personal rather than commercial.

“I love being close to my family,” she said. “I understand what the word ‘roots’ means. I like that everyone at the grocery store knows my kids’ names, they know what kind of lollipops my kids like, I know all of our kids’ teachers. I feel a sense of responsibility to this community. Now that we’re back here, I’m certain we’ll stay.”

Vivian’s affection for Kinston and its people is a major theme of A Chef’s Life: “I think the major divide in our country is between rural and urban – and I want to show that rural people and urban people aren’t that different. What I’ve learned through the show and how it speaks to people all across the country is that North Carolina represents a lot of the country, people watch the show and find themselves in it. The story we tell speaks to them.”

Beyond the Chef’s Table

When that story is eventually fully told, what are Vivian’s plans? What’s the next challenge in this chef’s life?

“What people may not know is that I got into cooking because I wanted to be a food writer. I moved to New York because I wanted to be a journalist. So the opportunity to write this book has been a long-term dream for me,” Vivian explained. “In the next five years, I don’t see myself with more restaurants. We’re kind of a two-restaurant group. I hope to have written my second book and be done with that book tour. I have a few ideas for other television projects that I’d like to pursue that also deal with bringing people together through food. I hope I can do all of that from my home here in Eastern North Carolina.”