The upcoming fall issue of NC State magazine includes articles on two alums — Vivian Howard and Vansana Nolintha — who have had tremendous success with restaurants that harken back to the cultures of their childhoods.
Howard, a 2000 NC State graduate, is the chef and co-owner of Chef & the Farmer, a seasonal, farm-to-table restaurant in downtown Kinston, N.C., not far from the farm in Deep Run, N.C., where Howard grew up.
Nolintha is the owner of Bida Manda, a Laotian restaurant in downtown Raleigh that pays homage to his parents and his native land.
We asked them to share recipes for our readers who wanted to try their hand at some of their culinary creations. Enjoy!
Howard’s Grilled Corn with Bacon Lime Mayo and Parmigiano Reggiano
To grill the corn…
Brush each ear of corn with olive oil. Over a medium grill, brown the corn on three sides. Remove from the grill, season each ear with salt and roll it around in the mayo. To serve, grate fresh parmigiano reggiano over the ears like snow. Serve with lime wedges.
Lime and Bacon Mayo
1 egg yolk
zest of 2 limes (removed with a microplane)
1/3 cup lime juice
1/2 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. hot sauce (we use siracha)
1 garlic clove
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup bacon fat (melted)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Blend the first 8 ingredients until smooth in a food processor. Start streaming in the bacon fat slowly to emulsify and finish with the vegetable oil until nice and thick. Adjust seasoning with salt and lemon juice to taste.
Bida Manda’s Crispy Rice Lettuce Wrap
2 cups cooked jasmine rice
1 teaspoon curry spice
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1/3 cup chopped mint
1/3 cup chopped green onion
1 tablespoon crispy fried garlic
3 tablespoons lime juice
1/2 cup crushed peanuts
Mix jasmine rice, curry, salt, and sugar in a small bowl. Mold the mixture into thick patties. Fry the patties until golden brown. In another bowl, break the patties into small pieces, and add cilantro, mint, green onion, fried garlic, peanuts, and lime juice. Toss until fully mixed. Wrap the mixture with fresh lettuce leaves.
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Kinston, N.C., is apparently enjoying its moment in the national spotlight.
Vivian Howard, a 2000 NC State grad who is the chef and co-owner of Chef & the Farmer restaurant in downtown Kinston, is the star of a new series, A Chef’s Life, airing on PBS stations around the country. The series focuses on Howard, her restaurant and her celebration of Southern food traditions.
But Kinston and many of its residents are front-and-center in the series, much of which is shot in the restaurant or with Howard as she visits local farmers or others in the community. The fifth episode of season (out of 13) aired last week, and Howard says the reaction has been almost entirely positive, both locally and nationally. She says the show is the most-searched cooking show on PBS Food.
“Our community is super excited about it,” she says. “Everyone is excited to be from Kinston again.”
The story of Howard’s gamble and ultimate success with Chef & the Farmer will be featured in the upcoming fall issue of NC State magazine. In the magazine article, Howard talks about her decision to leave New York City to return to her roots in Eastern North Carolina and open an upscale, seasonal restaurant in downtown Kinston, an area that has seen its share of economic difficulties.
“There’s a huge sense of pride in our community,” Howard says. “Everybody here likes the show.”
Everybody includes Howard’s parents, John and Scarlett Howard, who helped Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, with the financing to open the restaurant in 2006. Howard says her father, a 1962 NC State grad, has enjoyed talking about the show with the friends he routinely meets for breakfast.
“My parents are enjoying this tremendously,” Howard says. “I can’t tell you what a kick they’re getting out of it.”
The only criticism Howard has heard is from a few viewers who were confused about the segments when Howard explores Southern food traditions such as canning tomatoes or making strawberry preserves. Some viewers were upset that the segments didn’t provide full instructions in how to perform the task at hand, but Howard says they were never intended to be “how-to” segments. Instead, they are a chance for Howard to explore long-practiced food customs with members of the community.
Taping for the show’s second season is already underway, with filming for four of the 13 episodes largely finished.
Meanwhile, Howard says the show has prompted friends from high school and college to reach out to her after years of not being in touch. “It’s good to know it’s reaching people in other places,” she says. “Everybody’s been very gracious.”
But not everyone in Kinston is watching the show each week, which airs at 9:30 p.m. on Thursdays on PBS stations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia (Check local listings for times in other markets). Howard saw the early versions of each episode, but says she can’t bring herself to watch herself each week.
“That’s pretty painful,” she says.
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The overflow crowd that gathered at Chef & the Farmer in downtown Kinston, N.C., on Thursday night already appreciates the culinary magic that NC State alumna Vivian Howard has brought to town.
Now they hope that A Chef’s Life, the new PBS documentary series starring Howard, will spread the word to others.
“It’s a pretty incredible experience for the region,” said John Chaffee, president and CEO of North Carolina’s Eastern Region, an economic development agency for Eastern North Carolina. “We have an urban, very chic restaurant in a relatively small town.”
Chaffee and others came to Chef & the Farmer Thursday night to watch the series premiere. The 13-episode season is airing on Thursday nights in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia and on a variety of nights and times on PBS stations throughout the country.
The show, which has been in the works for about three years, was initially conceived by Howard as a way to showcase Southern food traditions that were in danger of being lost to time. The show does that, but it also follows Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, as they deal with the challenges of running an upscale restaurant serving fresh, seasonal food in an economically depressed area.
In the moments before the show aired last night, Howard told the crowd of local business and government leaders, friends and family that she hoped the show would help viewers across the country see that Southern towns are not filled with rednecks and “bumbling idiots.”
“I hope it’s something you feel proud of,” she said. “It presents our region the way that we see it.”
Stephen Hill, co-founder and CEO of Mother Earth Brewing and chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce, said he hopes the series will bring more visitors to Kinston in search of a good meal and, yes, a cold beer.
“It puts us in a much better light,” he said. “This is like we really are, not what they think we are.”
The first episode was clearly a hit with the crowd that filled a large banquet room above the restaurant. They nodded knowingly when they saw someone they knew on screen and laughed when Howard playfully rebuffed Knight when he tried to kiss her at the restaurant. And they rose to applaud when the episode ended.
“This is a special moment for us, for our community,” Knight said. “We tried to put our best foot forward.”
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Vivian Howard has found success as the chef and co-owner of Chef & the Farmer restaurant in downtown Kinston, N.C. People drive from the Triangle and throughout Eastern North Carolina to enjoy her latest twists on traditional Southern food, and she has won critical acclaim for her cooking.
Now she’s about to find out what life is like as the star of her own television show.
Howard, a 2000 graduate of NC State, is the central character in a documentary/cooking series airing on PBS this fall. A Chef’s Life premieres at 9:30 p.m. Thursday on PBS stations in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. It will air at other times and dates in other markets nationally. (If you’re curious, check out this preview.)
The show is the result of a collaboration between Howard and Cynthia Hill, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Durham, N.C. Like Howard, Hill grew up in Lenoir County. And like Howard, Hill left the area when she went off to college and vowed never to return.
“We both said we would never come back unless it was for a funeral,” says Hill, at least partly in jest.
Yet they have joined forces to document the foods and culinary traditions of Eastern North Carolina, from canning tomatoes to making homemade wine. Howard, who will be featured in the upcoming fall issue of NC State magazine, serves as the show’s central character. She visits with the local farmers and others who are still practicing old food customs, and then prepares a dish with the featured food each week in her kitchen at Chef & the Farmer.
“I proposed the idea of documenting these food traditions,” says Howard. ” I didn’t really want to be in it. But, all along, she thought it would be something I was in. She wanted the restaurant as a component. She wanted my parents and families to be a component.”
Howard says she was initially uncomfortable in front of the camera, but Hill says she knew immediately that the show would work with Howard as the centerpiece. “As we say in the industry, she really popped,” Hill says. “She was very good on camera. She’s a working mom, running her own business. She’s just a good character.”
The series will run for 13 episodes this year, and a second season is already being shot. When asked about their favorite episode in separate interviews, Hill and Howard both mention one that focused on Howard learning how to make buttermilk biscuits from a local woman who has been making them all her life.
“I like to think of myself as a very accomplished chef, but I could not make these freaking biscuits,” Howard says. “She was just forming them with her hands, and I was a bumbling idiot.”
But Howard promised to make the biscuits for her family on Christmas morning. It had been a family tradition to have sausage biscuits on Christmas morning, but they had relied on canned biscuits in previous years.
“I tried, and it was a disaster,” Howard says. “I used the wrong kind of flour, and had to throw them in the trash.”
Howard and Hill both say they enjoyed the humor of the episode, but Howard is quick to point out that she can make biscuits. Just not those particular biscuits. “I just want you to know that,” she says.
Hill says the series benefits from that fact that she has known Howard since they were children. She says Howard trusts her to tell her story.
“Because of that relationship, she’s very honest and vulnerable in front of the camera, which makes for really good programming,” Hill says. “She’s awfully compelling.”
Hill has a track record of working with PBS, having made documentaries on tobacco farming and migrant farm workers that aired on the public television network. “Everybody in the South has a story to tell,” she says. “I love listening to people, telling their stories.”
Hill and Howard traveled to Miami in May to preview the show for programmers from PBS stations across the country. Hill says the programmers loved what they saw, and notes that it has a prime slot in New York City (7:30 p.m. on Sundays), where Howard got her start in the restaurant business.
“We all predicted that it would have wide-reaching appeal,” Hill says. “But this was the confirmation, getting picked up all over the country. It does have a real strong character-driven narrative. It makes it feel more like a drama.”
Howard is excited and wary about her starring role in the series. She welcomes the chance to share some of the Southern food traditions that she cherishes, but but has no interest in being seen as a “celebrity chef.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want out of this,” Howard says during an interview at her restaurant. “In the beginning, it just seemed very farfetched. Now, out of this I would like for this place to be packed every night. I would like for people to want to come here, and for it to kind of rebrand the area.”
The success of Chef & the Farmer has already started that process, and Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, recently opened a second restaurant in downtown Kinston. It is called The Boiler Room, and it is a more casual restaurant focusing on simpler fare — oysters and burgers.
There were plenty of skeptics who wondered whether an economically depressed area such as Kinston would or could support a restaurant like Chef & the Farmer when it opened in 2006. But Howard and Knight have succeeded, all while raising two young children and building a new home in Deep Run, N.C. where Howard grew up.
And that, Hill says, makes for a compelling documentary series.
“The thing I love about the show is it’s really happening,” she says. “She’s just doing what she does and we just film it. It’s real reality instead of the fake kind.”
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When Vivian Howard ’00, above, moved to New York, N.Y., to start an advertising job, she wasn’t thinking about a career in the kitchen. But after a year and a half of work she found unfulfilling, she left behind office life to cook in some of New York’s best restaurants.
Today, the English major and daughter of a hog farmer owns Chef and the Farmer, a fine-dining restaurant in Kinston that specializes in dishes using local and organic ingredients. She talks here with Deborah Neffa about her restaurant and her work.
Why open a fine-dining restaurant in Kinston?
I’m from Kinston, and my background is more fine-dining. When my husband, Ben, and I worked in New York, we had a catering business and specialized in soups. It was called Viv’s Kitchen. We made weekly deliveries and also did soups for some coffee shops. That’s actually what we had planned on coming back and opening—a soup and sandwich shop. But everyone in Kinston said it needs a nicer restaurant where people can have a nice meal and a glass of wine. (more…)
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