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.”