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.
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.