The South's Best Chef 2019: Vivian Howard
Not just good, not just great—the best.
Some chefs prepare a handful of dishes that we all agree are Southern, while others exalt food that is only found in their corner of the region and their kitchen. Chefs and their specialties differ, but our devotion to those who can peg the essence of a specific place or an emotional connection is universal. They meet our taste expectations in ways that feel familiar but in evocative forms we’ve never considered or even seen before. Their plates are stories about ingredients, seasonality, points of view, themselves, and us—all anchored in pride of place. There is no rigidly defined way to be a great chef.
Vivian Howard did not set out to become a chef at all, much less a Southern one, and certainly not in Deep Run, her tiny hometown in rural eastern North Carolina. Like many of us, she was anxious to grow up and move on, but her path wound up resembling a well-flung boomerang that arced far and wide before circling back, landing her (and her husband, Ben, a Chicago native whom she met in New York) back in the same place she had vowed never to return. That’s right; Vivian Howard came home.
The couple acquiesced to her parents’ offer to help them open a restaurant in Kinston, North Carolina, a place that had seen better days, and to live next to them in an old house that her father referred to as his “nap shack” in Deep Run. The two hoped to make enough money to ricochet back out at some point, but instead they took root. Deep Run Roots, in fact,
is what she titled her first cookbook. It won awards, accolades, hearts, and minds for its honest exploration of what it takes to live, farm, and cook in eastern North Carolina, and by extension the South, where preserving tradition is one way forward. She ended up with three restaurants (Chef & the Farmer, Boiler Room Oyster Bar, and Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria), two children, one television series under her belt, and a new one that’s in the works.
Howard may be talking about Deep Run specifically, but she’s telling food stories that resonate and radiate much farther and are hitting home among her many fans. These days, she might be a celebrity Southern chef, with many accolades pouring in from across the country, but back home, she strives to be a good citizen. In recent years, North Carolina has been pummeled by hurricanes and ravaged by flooding, taking dire tolls in communities where those with the least lost
the most. In response, Howard launched efforts to raise dollars and awareness of the realities in those overlooked and underappreciated places.
She asked fellow chefs to put a simple, iconic fish stew on their menus and donate the proceeds to Hurricane Matthew relief, and they did. After the most recent round of record-breaking flooding, she went on social media and encouraged people to purchase a gray T-shirt that read “Country as Cornbread” in support of the North Carolina Community Foundation’s Relief to Benefit Jones County (where many residents live below the poverty line). And they did, to the tune of 4,775 shirts and $50,000 in donations in mere days. When people hang on your every word, you can sometimes get them to really listen.
There is no one way to be a great Southern chef. However, using good food and cooking to convey shared passion and pride for disparate things in the service of our families and communities is as Southern as can be. Howard knows and does just that. In your book–and ours too–she’s the best.