The Best Chef You’ve Never Heard Of (Part 2)
Small-town girl moves to New York City, learns to cook, and then moves home to Kinston, North Carolina, to open Chef & the Farmer. Fast forward eight years later. Her PBS show, A Chef’s Life, wins a Peabody Award, shining a light on rural eastern North Carolina. We asked Vivian Howard to talk about how the show has changed her life, and we came away with a greater understanding of what makes this chef tick and how her people and place inform her cooking.
Here’s an extended version of our recent conversation. (Editor’s Note: The portion of this interview that ran in the June 2014 print edition was edited and condensed for space.)
Hunter Lewis: I can’t get over those biscuits that the woman was making free-form on your show.
Vivian Howard: I know. That actually informs my cooking here at the restaurant tremendously, just that style of biscuit and the way she did it. We did it with duck fat as a topping for pot pie. She’s great, and she’s become a recurring character in season two. That’s Willie. We’re doing a holiday special for next season. We did a hog killing, and [Willie] was the only person who really had any idea what to do. She eviscerated the hog. She’s awesome.
HL: Before I watched the show, I’d come to the restaurant, and I had this idea of what you were doing and what you meant to the community and the region. But on the show, there's an interchange where you’re teaching a lot but you’re also learning a lot and incorporating that at Chef & the Farmer.
VH: Absolutely. The best part about making the show has been these heritage-and-tradition teaching sessions that I have with older folks in our community. They teach me how to make something very simple, but they use a technique that I’m not very familiar with, like the biscuits. Most recently, there was a woman who owned this café. We called it a café; it was a barbecue restaurant. [When I was] growing up, they always had something next to the cash register called applejacks. I grew up eating them. It was one of those things I always remembered. The café closed. Over the years, I tried to re-create the applejacks and was never able to do it. I sought out the owner, and she taught me how to make them. It’s very simple, but the way she did it and the fact that she used dried apples and the way she rolled out her pastry hadn’t occurred to me. We’ve taken that technique and applied it to some of our pastries here at the restaurant.
That’s one of the things I like about the show and dislike about modern media in general—[our culture is] very young-person-new-information-new-ideas-driven, and I don’t think people call on the wisdom of older folks very much. I don’t think we respect them very much either. Through doing this, I’ve just learned so much from older people in our community. To be able to get information from them, and for them have the sense that they’re able to share the information and that people care about it, has been wonderful.
HL: One of the things I wanted to ask you about are the people you have working for you. They are straight-up eastern North Carolina. How have you managed to train this crew?
That’s actually a hot topic for us right now. We’ve received a lot of criticism for the way I deal with our staff on the show. First of all, I think it’s an honest portrayal of kitchen relationships, and I don’t think you see that very much on other shows about chefs. We’re not in an area with a restaurant culture, so there are not aspiring chefs going from restaurant to restaurant, building their resumes and learning new techniques. People go to vegan chef school here to learn how to work in a jail or a cafeteria where they only open cans. That’s a reality. The last three [apprentices] who came here from the local culinary school did not know how to dice an onion, so that is something we have faced from day one. That being said, I have three people who have worked in my kitchen since we opened eight years ago. One started as a line cook, and we found out that was not the right fit. So now he’s our butcher. He’s been trying to find his niche in our operation. Number one, we look for people who are dependable and will show up. Number two, we look for people who just want to cook, whether they know anything about it other than what they’ve seen on the Food Network. Those are our two requirements.
When we find someone who has the physical stamina and level of dependability we need, we try to find a place for them in our organization, whether it be at Chef & the Farmer or on the floor or office or at the Boiler Room. We are just very creative with the people we do find.
HL: Tell me more about the criticism.
VH: Saying I’m a witch and that I treat my staff like I’m better than all of them; that I’m condescending. Things like that. But there are also other people who write and understand the issue. I’m not paying any attention to the criticism, but it is one of the primary negative things that stands out. Sometimes I am a witch, I guess. I think anyone who says they’re not is lying.
HL: I wouldn’t want a camera on me as a manager.
VH: I’m willing to take the hit because I feel very strongly that I want the show to be realistic, and I want to show what the restaurant business is truly like, whether it’s the restaurant business here in Kinston or somewhere else. It’s important to show the realities of it because the major media glamorizes it and makes it something it’s not.
HL: Tell me more about the show. Has it changed anything about your work in the community, how you work, or how you feel about Kinston?
VH: Our town is very excited about it. We come from an area where we’re always apologizing for being from eastern North Carolina. It’s like the armpit of the state in a lot of people’s eyes. Because the series is so popular in North Carolina, people from Kinston and Lenoir County and the surrounding communities have a little pep in their step and they’re excited to be from here again. So many people have said to me, “You made me remember the way my grandmother made biscuits or strawberry preserves.” For that sector of the community, watching the show makes them remember the things they loved. For my sector of the community, it makes them proud to be from here. Everyone around here has been excited for us and the community as a whole.
HL: Are folks stopping you on the street?
VH: Within town, people don’t bother me very much. A lot of our staff tells me they get stopped and sign autographs. The situation in the restaurant is different because we have a lot of people traveling to eat here—way more than before, and they want to see me. If I’m not here, they’re disappointed. But I don’t want to be here all the time. I can’t be here all the time. I have two young children, and now I have so many obligations. It’s a delicate balance. I don’t want to disappoint anyone who comes to see me.
HL: You started eight years ago, and you and [your husband] Ben made this commitment to plant roots. The restaurant is on solid ground, and people beyond the region are really curious. You’re cooking at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, and people are traveling to come see you and eat your food. What’s next? How do you see your role growing as a chef?
VH: I feel a great responsibility to eastern North Carolina and my region in general now. A lot of people within the region are saying, “We’re cheering you on. You’re doing it for us.” I don’t know what that means. I feel a great responsibility to do what we’re doing and keep the momentum going.
HL: For our readers, what do they need to know about the region if they haven’t watched the show or traveled there? How would you describe it?
VH: First of all, it’s beautiful. There’s lots of beautiful farmland, forestland, and rivers. Our beaches are unparalleled. Very underdeveloped, and I’d like to keep it that way! We have a lot of challenges here as far as economics go. There are a lot of things to be tasted, and there is a wonderful culinary heritage that we’re doing many things to resurrect. There are more restaurants like ours that are popping up. It’s completely different from the rest of the state, for sure. I think it’s a really beautiful place worth someone’s weekend.
HL: Tell me about some of these other restaurants.
VH: On the Square is in Tarboro. SoCo in Wilson—that’s a former sous chef of ours who built a restaurant in an old tobacco barn. Several places here in Kinston. We’re really doing everything we can to take advantage of the interest. Stephen Hill, who owns Mother Earth Brewing, has renovated the building that we put the Boiler Room in. He’s opened an Asian bistro in another part of it. One of the brewers is opening up a cool Mexican restaurant that will be chef/owner-operated, which says a lot about the potential quality of the place. There are breweries opening up all over eastern North Carolina. There’s a new restaurant in Goldsboro. Down in Morehead City, Circa 81 is a chef-driven restaurant. People are beginning to realize they can do this, and—it is a cliché—but if you build it, they’ll come. So hopefully that momentum continues.
HL: Talk more about Kinston. You’ve got this incubator going on for cool stuff.
VH: Within these four blocks, really cool things are happening. Kinston is on the Neuse River. We’ve got a grant to do a river walk. Mother Earth Brewing is here. The Asian bistro. A couple from Carrboro is doing something food related. My sister opened a deli called Queen Street Deli. She makes great lunch fare, and she’s really into baking. She grinds her own flour to make cakes and cookies. There’s the Red Room—a music venue. A lot of different things are happening here in Kinston. On any given night, we have 20 to 50 people coming into town to eat at Chef & the Farmer. All of our restaurants are packed because people have seen the show. Stephen Hill, who owns Mother Earth, has two buses that he sends to Greenville or Jacksonville and people get on the bus to come spend an evening in Kinston. There’s a fun atmosphere.
HL: This is the annoying reporter question. If you had to boil it down to a few sentences, what’s your philosophy about cooking now?
VH: You know, I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m always kind of a student. I’m very interested in regional cooking and really exalting my specific region. I’m explaining eastern North Carolina cuisine through the technique and balance that I understand as a chef, but I’m also constantly learning new things from other chefs and through regular people who have cooked all their lives. My philosophy is maybe that I don’t have a philosophy, and I’m always trying to learn and just keep going.
HL: The show is an oral and documentary-style history lesson. Are there any books that you’re looking at to help you understand the region and its foodways?
VH: I wish I could say that there were. I use my parents—I call them our fixers. You know how Anthony Bourdain goes to another country and has his arranger who arranges everything and guides you? We start talking about an ingredient that we’ll explore, and I’ll ask my parents questions about their experiences growing up. My mom started talking about run-up turnips and that it’s the best green you can eat. They’ve overwintered, and they’ll sprout up in early spring. We began exploring that and asking other older folks about the turnips and their root-to-green ratio. We’re really learning from people. When you Google a lot of these things that we consider our foodways in eastern North Carolina like Tom Thumb, collard kraut, and run-up turnips, there’s almost no information about it. I don’t think there’s been much recorded about it. Run-ups are any green that’s over-wintered and you didn’t plow under. I’ll get my first run-ups of the year on Saturday, or so I’m told. (Editor’s Note: This interview took place on February 27.) They look like broccoli rabe. No root, just green. You’ve also got Tom Thumb [a semi-cured sausage-stuffed pig’s appendix traditionally hung in a smokehouse and cooked around Christmas or New Year’s]. All of these are things that I’ve learned about but only through oral histories. I grew up hearing about Tom Thumb from my dad. We developed it from my dad’s memory and through taste tests and him saying, ‘that’s not right.’ ”
HL: What about a book by Vivian Howard?
VH: I’m working on a book. I haven’t sold it to a publisher. The book will address these particular things like our eastern North Carolina foodways interpreted through our kitchen.
Have any more questions for Vivian? Tag your posts, tweets and Instagrams with #SouthernFoodNow. You might just be featured on The Daily South.