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.
What’s on your menu and where does the food come from?
My menu changes every week. Not everything transitions, but it’s constantly evolving. It’s extremely seasonal. I work with about eight or nine farmers and we work on the ingredients we want to source and the degree of ripeness. So I work on a very hands-on level in that respect. . . . The name “Chef and the Farmer” reflects our relationship at the restaurant with local niche produce farmers. We source about 70 percent of our ingredients from within 30 miles of the restaurant.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Mostly from the seasonal aspect of things. . . . We’ve been getting a lot of red tomatoes, so I try and use them in as many unique and tasty ways as possible. I’m inspired by what comes in my door. . . . My own cooking style and way of showcasing ingredients has really evolved since I’ve been down here [in North Carolina] and the constant pressure of developing a menu and having it be interesting and changing has really helped me use my culinary creativity.
What would you be doing if you hadn’t opened Chef and the Farmer?
I would probably be working in someone else’s kitchen in New York. I certainly don’t think I would have my own restaurant anywhere else. This is a really great opportunity for me. Cooks and chefs [can] spend their lives in a background position cooking someone else’s food.
Would you consider opening a restaurant somewhere else?
Absolutely. My husband and I have talked about opening other restaurants. We enjoy living in rural areas, so if we were to open another restaurant, we talked about it being really farm to fork. We’d have about 35 seats, and we would do a lot of the production of produce and protein. It would be on a small scale and would call for a rural setting.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of occasional blog-only interviews with NC State alumni. Know an alumnus who’s doing something interesting? Let us know. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Photograph courtesy of Vivian Howard ’00)