Fan Girl Moment with Chef Vivian Howard

I mean, ya’ll….year made.

Originally posted in YES! Weekly  with more embarrassing detail here.

I’ll start off by saying I ADORE Chef Vivian Howard of PBS’ A Chef’s Life and owner of Kinston’s Chef & The Farmer. I’m pretty certain anyone who watches that show has fallen in love with her. 

Chef Vivian has had quite the adventure the last decade. After leaving New York to open up a restaurant in one of the poorest communities in the state, if not country, she’s turned her dream into a household name. And she’s turned into the darling of PBS.  Her show, A Chef’s Life is a huge hit and a winner of the Peabody Award. And she has become an author. All the while championing our state and her beloved Eastern NC and the farmers who feed us. If there’s anyone who embraces “Love thy farmer,” it’s Chef Vivian Howard.

Vivian and her husband, Ben Knight, opened Chef & The Farmer ten years ago. A Chef’s Life chronicles her life as a fine dining restaurant owner but also celebrates the ingredients and heritage of Eastern North Carolina.  We got drawn in the very first episode which showed the gut-wrenching fire that nearly destroyed her restaurant and their dreams.  A few years later now the show has parlayed into a book deal. And the new author has been on a book tour for the past few weeks stopping in cities all across the region to promote her book,  “Deep Run Roots.” It’s a collection of stories and recipes from her “corner of the South,” in Deep Run, NC. It reads much like her beloved show, weaving stories from the area, taking an ingredient at a time and bringing it into the kitchen where it deserves to be celebrated. You can hear her voice, with her charming southern drawl in each and every page. The book is a beast. A beautiful one. It’s 563 pages thick and filled with Vivian’s reminiscing about her childhood, her memories of desperately trying to get out of Eastern NC, her reluctant return and her rise to success in a way she never fathomed. And there are some 200 recipes too. I haven’t had a lot of time to delve into many of them, but I can speak for the collards recipe and the cornpone (kind of like corn bread without dairy or eggs) and I highly recommend. Together even. 

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Chef Vivian’s visit to the Triad in early November was a huge indicator of what this home-grown chef means to North Carolina. More than 250 people attended her sold-out event at Scuppernong Books. More than 460 contributors the following night attended Reynolda House Museum of American Art’s annual fundraising gala…a private affair sold out months in advance with a multi-course dinner inspired and prepared by her and a local culinary team featuring the who’s who of Winston-Salem restaurants. Then on Saturday, 275 more people attended “A Morning with Vivian Howard,” for brunch and book reading and a chance to meet her and have her personally sign their copy of her book.

As I said straight off…I am a fan girl. I might have geeked out for a minute. I definitely stalked her to get some photographs of her and I edged my way in to a snap as well…not to be denied a chance get a photo and a lasting memory of my favorite TV chef.

And for a split second, while this glowing, unassuming celebrity was filling her plate with fruit salad, mini-biscuits from her cookbook and pumpkin muffins. I introduced myself (we follow each other on Twitter!!), then I followed her to her table and inserted my interview question. And she graciously accommodated me while her daughter, Flo, hung on her like she was a baby tree. Such is the life of a mommy (she and Ben have twins Flo and Theo) and someone who’s been thrust into the spotlight. I might also add that I got a little excited seeing and speaking to her mom, Scarlett as well. She’s become quite the celebrity herself. 

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She told us she started out her career wanting to be a food writer. She began working in restaurants in New York as a way to learn what goes on behind the scenes in a kitchen. But it’s there she honed her skills under the tutelage of Chef Scott Barton. She and Ben started making and selling soup on their days off. Finally she moved back down south as her family invested in her restaurant. A fine dining establishment in an area that is known for BBQ and…for being impoverished.  As she and Ben made Chef and the Farmer a success, opening another, more casual restaurant next door called The Boiler Room, she still saw herself as a storyteller. That’s how the show came about in the first place. And she says the opportunity to write a book was like a dream. “My publisher gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted to do, so that was a very positive experience and I’ve since learned that it’s not always the case. What I didn’t understand was that writing a book also meant promoting it and that has been interesting… as well as taxing.” But she adds that it’s also been very rewarding to see the excitement of the show’s fans while she’s on tour. “People who watch the show…it’s different than a typical cooking show….people are rooting for me and feel invested in the stories so it’s a great feeling.”

I had a ton more questions to ask, but alas, that is all the time I got before someone whisked her away. One of the things I love about her show is how she deals with the dynamic of having a successful restaurant and this show and all the opportunity that comes with those things like a book…but also public appearances. How she wants to be in the kitchen and struggles with the need to be there but also with her family. Add to that the professional obligations that come from the opportunity. I certainly would want to see her in the kitchen when I finally get my chance to visit Chef & The Farmer. But you don’t build a brand just to keep working like crazy. I get it. 

Later at the event, Vivian addressed the 275 member audience, giving us the brief history of how she set her sites on New York City, found herself back in North Carolina at the helm of a now popular restaurant and read from two chapters of “Deep Run Roots.”

The  visit was also a part of Reynolda Museum of American Art’s seasonal installation, “Grant Wood and the American Farm.” The campaign asks, “What is your farm story?” She told the audience, “I was ashamed of growing up on a farm and being back woods, saying over yonder and I’m fixin’ to and I reckon.  She attended Salem Academy for a period of time, where she says, “I realized that my classmates were southern, but I was country and with that knowledge, my shame grew.”  She then set off on numerous adventures and finally returned to her roots. “The irony is that, now…I am incredibly proud to have come from a farming background and that my parents, who still say over yonder and fixin’ to are some of the smartest, resourceful people I’ve ever met.”

Allison Perkins, Executive Director of Reynolda House and Associate Pro Vost of Reynolda House and Gardens says Vivian’s restaurant, her celebration of farmers and North Carolina ingredients made a perfect fit for fundraising gala and that it tied naturally into the Grant Wood exhibit as well as partnering with Bookmarks. “We desperately wanted to weave her into a weekend of events and tie it into Grant Wood. But more than that, Reynolda was also a farm. This harnesses the history and legacy of Reynolda, which is on the eve of celebrating its Centennial.”  The gala featured local farms from the Triad as well as the rest of nation and featured dishes in Deep Run Roots. “We really wanted to honor farmers. We unfortunately undervalue our farmer, who grows our food and the event was really about lifting them up and a way to honor the farm as well as share with our donors and supporters what’s to come in 2017.”

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Chef Vivian says she applauds Reynolda for exalting the American farm. “It’s not something that’s often done. It’s very easy to overlook. The folks who grow our food don’t often have a voice in our culture. It’s something I’m trying to do on “A Chef’s Life” and Reynolda is dong the same here.”

More info:

A Chef’s Life Season 4 is currently airing on PBS. Check local listings. 

“Grant Wood and the American Farm” is on exhibit at Reynolda Museum of American Art through December 31.

Chef & The Farmer is at 127 West Gordan Street, Kinston, NC.

Deep Run Roots can be purchased at Bookmark, Scuppernong Books or at most booksellers.

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