I feel a certain kinship with Vivian Howard, even though we’ve never met. We both left home at an early age, finding big lives and successful living elsewhere; we also both followed our inspirations as they directed us back to our regional homes, where we’ve found hard-won fulfillment. Vivian works with food as her medium, much in the way that Alabama Chanin works with cotton jersey. She explores regional food traditions and seeks to translate them into a modern light.
We are thrilled that Vivian Howard will be the featured chef for the month of July in our café, and also visiting us here at The Factory on July 25th for our second “Friends of the Café” Piggy Bank Dinner, benefiting the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Vivian is originally from Deep Run, North Carolina – born to tobacco and hog farming parents. After her college graduation, she moved to New York and found some success in the advertising world. But when that work proved largely unfulfilling, Vivian found work in Chef Scott Barton’s restaurant, Voyage. This surprisingly sparked her interest in cooking and she enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education. She eventually worked under such innovators as Wylie Dufresne and Sam Mason at wd~50 and Jean Georges Vongerichten at Spice Market.
She and her husband, Ben Knight, started a catering business out of their Harlem apartment and considered opening a storefront in New York. But, eventually Vivian’s parents convinced them to move back home with an offer to help them open their own restaurant in North Carolina. In 2006, Vivian and Ben renovated a 100-year-old mule stable into what is now Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina. Vivian takes the lead in the kitchen, while Ben works as the restaurant’s general manager. Together, they manage to balance work, education, family life, and raising their twins, Theo and Flo.
Inspiration for Chef & the Farmer’s approach evolved as Vivian learned more about local and regional foodways of Eastern Carolina. She realized that some of the molecular gastronomy techniques she acquired from Dufresne and others were not necessarily a good fit for small town North Carolina. She developed relationships with local farmers and producers who provide her with fresh, local ingredients; this approach and these relationships influenced her creative process and her menu. Currently, Chef & the Farmer sources 70% of their foodstuffs from producers within a 60-mile radius.
The more Vivian learned about local foodways and the region’s unique approaches to food and (as we call them) “the living arts,” the more inspired she became to celebrate their culture. She wanted to document the food and farming traditions that surrounded her and approached friend and documentarian, Cynthia Hill, to help. They approached PBS with a finished episode and it was very quickly picked up for 13 episodes of “A Chef’s Life”. The show premiered in September 2013.
The television show examines Southern ingredients from both traditional and modern standpoints. Some larger goals of the television show are to preserve food traditions and to represent the people of Eastern Carolina – and of the South, in general – as real people and not stereotypes. “Our show is just one of many spokes in a wheel going ‘round in pursuit of preserving food traditions,” Vivian says. “From renewed interest in canning and pickling, to the fact that farming is once again seen as a ‘cool’ thing to do, there are a number of signs that show our culture’s urge to connect to the hands-on way we once set the table.” In 2014, “A Chef’s Life” received a Peabody Award and was a James Beard Media Award finalist for Television Program on Location.
We are incredibly proud to host Vivian for the upcoming Piggy Bank Dinner, a fundraiser for the Southern Foodways Alliance – a cause near and dear to our hearts. Stop by the Factory Café for recipes inspired by Chef & the Farmer and the Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook, beginning July 7.
Photo of Vivian courtesy of Rex Miller.