“I’m not going to lie: Sometimes I would like to wake up on a Sunday and decide where to get brunch,” says Vivian Howard, star of the PBS show A Chef’s Life. Instead of queuing up for eggs Benedict, Howard—who also runs the kitchen at Chef & the Farmer, in the tiny Eastern North Carolina town of Kinston—spends the day off cooking for her family.
What middle-of-nowhere Kinston lacks in hip, cortado-dispensing cafes, it more than makes up for with soulful culinary traditions. The family-run farms and time-honored culinary rituals of the region are what inspired her to pursue the PBS project.
“The South isn’t all fried chicken and meatloaf,” says the native of rural Deep Run, where her parents were tobacco and hog farmers. “Frugal farmers ate vegetables and grains, with meat dotted in as a condiment. I want the rest of the nation to understand our history and the wisdom, skills, and passion of our people.”
The South isn’t all fried chicken and meatloaf.
Storytelling was always part of Howard’s long-term game plan. After a miserable stint in advertising, she set out to become a food writer, “working in New York kitchens as a means to get closer to the stories.” But the restaurants—Scott Barton’s Voyage, Wylie Dufresne’s wd~50, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market—captured Howard’s imagination with their “camaraderie and fast-paced atmosphere,” so she squashed the journalist dream to become a cook.
Through A Chef’s Life, which snagged a Peabody Award earlier this year, Howard immerses herself in regional foodways, proving that Southern-focused reality television can have more depth than Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. When she’s not regaling viewers with tales of tomato sandwiches and butter beans, she reimagines Southern cuisine by serving the likes of rice-crusted catfish and pecan-date-country ham cheese balls at Chef & the Farmer, where her husband, Ben, is the GM.
Howard didn’t think she’d come back home after amenity-fueled New York living, but when her parents wooed with the promise of helping back a restaurant of their own, Chef & the Farmer was born in a onetime mule barn in 2006.
“We scratched and clawed our way to make it on the air. I’m still reeling from the attention people are paying,” Howard says of the show, which is about to wrap its second season. “But it doesn’t change my life on a daily basis, except I do most of my work during the day now since my guests want to talk to me at night.”
Chances are those conversations revolve around food. From empanadas that quelled homesickness, to memorably overcooked chicken, here are 10 of the dishes that have inspired Howard’s belief that food and storytelling are forever intwined.
Empanadas in Argentina
When I was in college, I studied abroad in Argentina. I had an accident the first week I was there and struggled because my language skills were terrible. The first thing I connected to was the country’s food—empanadas, in particular. I became obsessed with the small restaurants dotting the city that sold empanadas of all varieties: beef, tuna, corn, and onion. That experience was the first time I thought about food as a career, and I even came back to the States with the idea of opening a shop called Viviana’s Empanadas, which thankfully never happened. (Photo: Ristparmio Casa)
Truffled Scallops with Grits and Red Eye Gravy at Voyage (New York, NY)
I was an opening staff server at a Greenwich Village restaurant called Voyage, which looked at Southern food through the lens of the African diaspora. As a Southerner, I had never really thought about the food I ate growing up other than what was on the table. And here, chef Scott Barton was exalting it. There was this one dish, truffled scallops with grits and red eye gravy—essentially a play on shrimp and grits—that was so interesting to me. No one was making Southern food like this back then, and it made me appreciate what I was eating. Scott paved the way for so many other chefs. (Photo: Lauren Klain Carton/NYMag)
Corned Duck on Rye Crisp with Purple Mustard and Horseradish Cream at wd~50 (New York, NY)
As an intern at wd~50 after it first opened, I spent much of my time in the basement peeling onions and garlic, and fixing family meals. Eventually, I was able to work garde manger. We sold so much of the corned duck on rye every night it was basically my job to plate [it]. For the first time, I paid attention to how food looks on the plate and realized the importance of balance and texture. The chef de partie complimented me and said I had a real finesse for plating. Whether or not I did, that compliment took me a long way and gave me confidence that I could do this on a high level. (Photo: Tastespotting)
Butter Poached Lobster at Blue Hill (New York, NY)
At around the same time I was at wd~50, my then boyfriend and I were strapped for cash, but we heard so much about Blue Hill and its austere approach to food, we had to go. It was my introduction to the stories behind purveyors. I remember our server coming to the table and describing how the lobster had gotten on the plate. There were so few ingredients, but how loudly they sang to me informed the way I do things now. (Photo: Blue Hill)
Blueberry BBQ Chicken
I had been running Chef & the Farmer for two years and struggling to find my voice as a chef. That changed when we ended up having 500 pounds of blueberries and I made vinegar out of it, translating the idea of Eastern North Carolina BBQ to chicken. People often think of pork when they think of the region, but those who actually live here eat a whole lot more BBQ chicken. (Photo: Josh Woll)
Miso Sake Snapper at Lantern (Chapel Hill, NC)
We were, at this point, doing the food we do. But we were not connecting it to other cultures and traditions. I was at Lantern in Chapel Hill, and Andrea Reusing made this beautiful dish with miso butter over rice. That’s when I started thinking about how I could make something like that my own, crossing over between Asia and Eastern North Carolina. I made a flounder with miso butter and marinated cucumbers that was so Eastern North Carolina, in the style of what I had at the table growing up, but it was also so Asian. Having that meal at Lantern shaped what we do now. (Photo: Facebook/Lantern)
Chicken and Rice
Howard’s take on chicken bog, an obscure Southern speciality.
I never followed my mom’s instructions for chicken and rice. As a chef you know you are not supposed to boil the chicken to death, but rather poach it and be gentle. I always made chicken and rice in that way, and it never turned out well. One day my mother asked to make it with me and we followed her instructions, overcooking the chicken and letting the rice burst, which is something you would never do in a professional kitchen. But it was the flavorful chicken and rice I grew up eating. This taught me that not all kitchen wisdom comes from a professional; there are other masters out there. (Photo: Southern Foodways Alliance)
Country Ham and Celery Risotto
This dish allowed me to develop friends in the culinary world. When Ashley Christensen invited me to a truffle festival in the mountains of North Carolina, and to participate in a risotto competition, I had never been invited to cook with chefs before. I badly wanted to, but because we are in an isolated community, it hadn’t happened. Then I went to this event and met Scott Crawford, John Currence, and Matt Kelly, and I just had the best experience. Everyone responded so strongly to my risotto dish, it gave me some validation and the feeling I was doing good work; it allowed me to be part of a chef community, not operate in a bubble. (Photo: Facebook/National Truffle Fest)
Collard kraut was the impetus for the show. These guys in their late sixties and seventies have been making it in the backyard every November—only when the moon is in a certain phase—for their entire lives with the same seeds, and they invited me to join them. Fermented food had just become trendy, and here I am in the backwoods making kraut with this family. The kraut and the folklore behind it was storytelling, and I became obsessed with telling these stories that weren’t being told. Making a documentary around these food traditions ended up becoming the show. (Photo: A Chef’s Life)
Tom Thumb is a relic from the hog-killing tradition, when families used to get together to preserve meat for the winter by hanging a pig’s appendix stuffed with sausage in the smokehouse until it was time for a celebration. What it really is, though, is a well-developed and complex form of charcuterie native to our country. People forget about it, and what I’d like to do is shed more light on the charcuterie of the American South beyond country ham. Tom Thumb represents my passion moving forward. (Photo: Rex Miller)