Rooted in family and tradition.Vivian Howard, star of ‘A Chef’s Life,’ serves up food with a story.
Story by Lance Hanlin + Photos by Arno Dimmling
The food of the frugal farmer. That’s how Vivian Howard describes the food she loves most — the cuisine of North Carolina’s coastal plain.
“No waste. Use every part of the animal,” Howard explained. “Lots of preservation, pickling and fruit preserves. Lots of fermentation. Fish only when a farmer goes fishing for the weekend. That kind of thing.”
Howard shares more than 200 regional recipes and stories in her narrative cookbook, “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South.”
She calls it the story of her life, and what a unique story it has been.
Howard grew up in a small community near Kinston, N.C. (pop. 21,667). Her parents were farmers who grew tobacco, cotton, soybeans and corn. She moved to New York City to attend the Institute of Culinary Education and met her husband, Ben Knight, in the city. The two started a soup delivery business out of their apartment in Harlem, an effort that included chilling soup in the bathtub. Despite offers from investors to open a brick and mortar location in New York, the couple agreed to accept Howard’s parents’ offer to buy a restaurant in Kinston. Howard and Knight moved to North Carolina in 2005 and opened Chef & the Farmer in 2006, an acclaimed fine dining restaurant in a downtown building that had once been a mule stable. More than 60 percent of the ingredients used in the restaurant come from within a 90-mile radius.
Howard’s work-life balance was featured for five seasons through the Peabody Award-winning PBS series, “A Chef’s Life.” Each episode follows her out of the kitchen and into cornfields, strawberry patches and hog farms as she hunts down the ingredients that inspire her seasonal menus.
Howard brought some of her stories and recipes to Hilton Head Island recently for two pop-up dinners with local chef Clayton Rollison at Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar.
Between greeting guests, signing copies of her book and running back to the kitchen, she took a few moments to speak with LOCAL Life about family, food and fame.
[Local Life] Was this cookbook something you always wanted to do? [Vivian Howard] I got into cooking because I wanted to be a food writer. I wanted to be a storyteller journalist of some kind. In doing that, I just kept cooking and writing on the side. Through doing the show, I got the opportunity to write this book and really made the most of it.
What do you feel makes it unique? [VH] There is a lot of good food out there nowadays, and you can Google any recipe you want. I wanted to write something that you couldn’t find on Google. When you think about people who write books, that’s generally what they do. They’re authors. Most chefs don’t write their own cookbooks. There is no reason you should believe that just because somebody can cook, they can write a cookbook. I had never written a book or anything that was published on a large scale before, and this is half story, half recipes, which is also fairly unusual. It’s also 600 pages. I would say all of those things.
Eastern North Carolina Traditions
Here is a recipe from Vivian Howard’s narrative
cookbook, “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South.”
Grandma Hill’s Hoecakes
Ingredients (Makes 12 to 16 sand-dollar-size cornbreads)
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 yellow onion, diced
3/4 cup water, divided
1/4 cup vegetable oil, divided
Directions  If you plan to serve these within 20 minutes of cooking, preheat your oven to 200 degrees. In a medium bowl, sift together the cornmeal, salt, and sugar. Put the buttermilk and the onion in a blender and puree till it’s a homogenous liquid. Pour that plus 1/2 cup of the water into the cornmeal mixture and whisk to combine.  You’re looking for something akin to slightly loose pancake batter-a batter that, when you drop it into the skillet, spreads on its own, bubbles up around the edges, and spatters a little. If you need to add more water to accomplish this, add the remaining water in increments.  Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Spoon 2 tablespoons of batter onto the edge of the pan to form 1 corn cake. If the batter sizzles a little, the pan’s ready. Continue to drop the batter around the perimeter of the pan, finishing off with one in the middle. Make sure you get as many of them in there as you can without letting them touch. Lower your heat slightly and cook on one side for about 3 minutes. When they’re brown on the cast-iron side and little bubbles are shooting up through the center of the batter, flip and cook an additional 3 minutes. Transfer the browned hoecakes to a baking sheet and hold them in the oven till you’re ready to eat. Add another tablespoon of oil and continue with the next batch.  If you, like my grandma, want to make these ahead and serve them a few hours later, warm them in a 375 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Do not use a microwave. The results will disappoint.
Which story is your favorite? [VH] Pepsi and peanuts, and how they relate to the tobacco farming culture of eastern North Carolina. Pepsi was born in New Bern, which is about 30 minutes from Kinston. People during the summer would top and sucker tobacco, taking the flower off the plant to get more energy to the leaves. Fresh tobacco is really sticky, so people’s hands would be really gooey and awful. They would have a break at 10 a.m., and the farmer would come in with a cold Pepsi bottle and a sleeve of peanuts. People would dump the peanuts into the glass bottle so they could have their snack without having to deal with their dirty hands. It became a popular snack in eastern North Carolina.
Have you been to Hilton Head before? [VH] One other time when I was in high school. I came with a friend for the summer and have this memory of the lighthouse in Harbour Town. I have two young children (twins) now that are 7 years old. We have so enjoyed being able to step out of our condo and ride bikes everywhere. We love having a playground with a bunch of kids at our fingertips. We live in a very rural area. My kids really don’t get to experience this kind of stuff very much. It’s very exciting for them.
Do your kids realize you are a celebrity? [VH] Yeah, which is one of the reasons why I have reservations about being on TV. I don’t mind for my kids to be on television; I don’t think the PBS audience is particularly dangerous. But it’s not a decision my kids made. It’s a decision I made for them that has lasting consequences. I’ve had to examine that.
How does your husband feel about it? [VH] He too feels the PBS audience is different than if I were on Food Network or something like that. We both understand and appreciate what a heightened profile has done for our businesses, our community and our family.
Your restaurant has made Kinston a destination. You must take pride in that. [VH] I do, but there is a significant amount of responsibility that comes with it. Our town has become like a tourist destination. People are opening businesses and there is a lot of positive thought around what the future could be there. At this point, it all kind of rests on my shoulders — whether or not I continue to be on TV and continue to push this.
How did “A Chef’s Life” come about? [VH] I wanted to make a documentary about the dying food traditions of eastern North Carolina. I reached out to a friend of mine who grew up in the Deep Run area who is a filmmaker. Through the process of that, I ended up unintentionally being in the documentary, which evolved into a series. We made a little sizzle reel and sent it to Food Network. They said no. We sent it to UNC-TV, which is our PBS affiliate. They said no. We sent it to South Carolina ETV, and they said, “This is really interesting.” They took it to national PBS, who said, “We think we like this, but you need to make 13 of them at 27 minutes apiece, and then we will consider distributing it to all of our programmers.” PBS didn’t pay for anything and we didn’t have any money. For the first season, we had a budget of $1.3 million and made it for about $200,000. Most of the people that did it worked for free. We ran up a lot of debt and just really hoped it would work.
And it did. [VH] Yeah, it did.
Ingredients (Makes 6 cups)
1 quart diced watermelon flesh (seeds are fine)
2 family-style Lipton-style tea bags
1 quart water
1 tablespoon lemon juice, optional
Directions  In a blender, process the watermelon until completely pulverized. Strain it through a fine-mesh sieve or a larger colander fitted with cheesecloth. Discard the pulp and reserve 2 cups of the juice.  Place the tea bags in the pitcher you plan to serve it from. Boil the water and pour it over. Let the bags steep for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the bags and discard the bags. Stir in the reserved watermelon juice and lemon juice, if using. Chill the tea until you’re ready to serve. Serve over ice.
Your restaurant was at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement. What food trends do you anticipate in the future?
[VH] It’s a really interesting time. As a culture, we’re more interested in multi-cultural food than ever. For a long time, the only ethic food in the States was Chinese, Italian-American and Taco Bell. Now we’re seeing multicultural foods influence chefs like myself and Clayton. I think we’ll see an increasing blend of cultures and flavors, and that’s exciting for me.
We are very proud of South Carolina Lowcountry cuisine, and you are obviously proud of the food of North Carolina’s coastal plain. Do you have any other favorite regional cuisines? [VH] For a long time, I felt like to go to the best restaurants and have the most exciting dining experience, I needed to go to New York. Now, I really think New York is so cost prohibitive to do business in, it stifles a lot of the creativity that young chefs have. It limits their freedom to do neat stuff because the stakes are so high. I find that traveling to mid-sized cities like Charleston or Austin, or cities with large ethnic populations, you find more exciting, quality, affordable restaurants.
This is your first cookbook. Do you have plans for others? [VH] I signed a two-book deal, so yes. The second book is called, “Hungry and Never Full.” This is a narrative cookbook about my region and my personal journey cooking. The narrative portion of the second book is about ambition, mother guilt, body image, self esteem and the imposter syndrome. It’s all the things we as professionals, and in a lot of cases, we as women, deal with. The recipes are health oriented but not diet recipes.
Sounds wonderful. When can we look for it? [VH] As soon as I finish writing it (Howard said with a smile before she was whisked back into the kitchen).