At a time when fried chicken, biscuits and gravy and other Southern-themed dishes are proliferating in restaurants across America, Vivian Howard has chosen to tell a different story about the cuisine of the Deep South.
In her Peabody Award-winning show on PBS, A Chef’s Life, Vivian not only documents her life raising a family and running a restaurant in eastern North Carolina, but also explores lesser-known cooking and farming traditions of the South, many of which are disappearing.
Vivian didn’t plan on becoming the Southern food ambassador she’s grown to be. Born to tobacco and hog farming parents, she was raised in Deep Run, North Carolina. Post-college, she moved to New York City to pursue a career in advertising and media, but soon found herself drawn the restaurant industry. She spent years cooking with some of the country’s best chefs—Wylie Dufresne and Jean-Georges Vongerichten among them—and soon was contemplating starting her own business. That was when her parents offered to help her and her husband, Ben Knight, open their own restaurant. It came with a catch, however: They’d have to move back to North Carolina.
Vivian and Ben took the plunge, and today they own Chef & the Farmer, a progressive eatery in Kinston, North Carolina that highlights the region’s culinary traditions in contemporary ways and has become a destination for food enthusiasts all over the country. We’re proud to offer her new line of signature sauces and seasoning rubs, inspired by the recipes featured at her restaurant.
We caught up with her to learn more about the backstory of A Chef’s Life, how she developed her new sauces, and the biggest Southern stereotypes she hopes to dispel.
How did A Chef’s Life come about?
Vivian Howard: My food is really based around modern takes on traditional dishes. I was going around learning about these food traditions in Eastern North Carolina, and so many of them are dying. The people who do these things—make collard kraut, fruit preserves—they’re all old, and their children are not doing the same thing. So I became really fascinated with the idea of making a film about these dying food traditions. I have a friend who grew up a mile from me who’s a documentary filmmaker. I asked her if she knew anyone who would want to help me, and she said that she’d be interested in doing it. We started experimenting around one food tradition, putting up corn. My family would get hundreds and hundreds of ears of corn in early summer, blanch it all, cut it off the cob, put it in little freezer bags, and put it in the freezer so we could bring it out all year. We filmed my family doing this, and then we filmed this farmer that I work with and his corn crop, and we filmed me doing something modern with corn in the restaurant. That became our framework for making the show. National PBS said, “We think we like this, but we’re not really sure, so you need to make 13 more. Then we’ll consider distributing it.” Cynthia, the show’s director, and I went about making 13 of these. We didn’t have any money, and no guarantee that anyone would ever see them, so we did a Kickstarter campaign and raised the money that way. Everyone who worked on the whole first season of the show did not get paid. They just did it because they believed the story was important and they knew that it was going to have legs.
Tell us how you wound up making your own sauces and rubs.
VH: We have a really large fruit harvest here during the summer: blueberries, peaches, blackberries, strawberries. We get a lot of these things all at once and in large amounts, and so we’ve been preserving them in lots of different ways for years at the restaurant. What we would do is make a fruit preserve—fruit suspended in a syrup, essentially—and in the fall and winter, we’d make those preservers into sauces for meats, salad dressings or whatever. We’ve been doing this kind of thing for a long time and I always wanted to develop sauces that other people could use around it.
I remember the episode of A Chef’s Life when you developed the blueberry vinegar barbecue sauce, and you were very particular about how it should taste.
VH: Honestly, it’s been very hard, because I’m very hands on, and I like to make the things that I serve and that I feed people. When you’re working with a bottler, you can’t really do that. This go-round, I sent recipes, and then they sent me a product back, and we went back and forth around ten times. It took a lot longer than I think any of us had hoped. But I just wanted it to be right. When you’re working with fruit sauces, you know, they can be too sweet. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want people to think it was just a jam or a jelly. I wanted them to work for people.
What kind of reception did you get from Eastern North Carolinians who are used to a certain type of barbecue, and a certain set of flavors?
VH: Our barbecue sauce here in Eastern North Carolina is cider vinegar, spices, and maybe a little bit of tomato product, and it’s very bracing. It’s meant to go on really fatty pork. For the home cook, it’s really hard to use successfully because it is so bracing. So when we made this blueberry sauce, just by the addition of the blueberries and their natural sugar, it balanced it more, but it still has that kind of vinegary edge. People were very responsive to it. It was familiar but also slightly different, and it didn’t compete with their memories of barbecue sauce.
What’s one Southern food stereotype you’d like to put an end to?
VH: The most pervasive and the most dangerous is that Southern food is unhealthy. The food that I grew up eating is more often than not based on vegetables and grains, specifically dried corn and rice. We had big pieces of meat once or twice a week, and otherwise our meat was used as a condiment, kind of, to season greens or sprinkled into the batter for cornbread or something. It was not meat-focused. The misconception is that we’re all sitting down here eating fried chicken and biscuits all day.
Tell us about the next season of A Chef’s Life.
VH: The new season will start in September. It opens with us going to The Avett Brothers. They do the opening song for the show, so that was very cool, like two worlds colliding. We do a private dinner that is a fundraiser for an incubator farm. Incubator farms are farms that teach people how to be farmers. If you don’t own your own land, if you’ve never farmed, if you don’t know how to market your goods, you can rent a little plot of land, and it’s kind of a support system and a teaching mechanism for people who want to be farmers. Because we have a very dangerous shortage of farmers in this country. The average age of a farmer in the United States is like 72, and they’re all retiring and passing away, and we don’t have anyone to farm behind them.
I also go to Portland for a food festival. We go back to New York for an episode. You see me finish my book, you see me deliver my manuscript, and hopefully you’ll see the book being printed on the last episode. One of the ingredients I’m most excited about for season 4 is rabbit. We have a really wonderful woman who raises rabbits for us at the restaurant, and we go to her farm and learn all about rabbits, and what an efficient meat source they are.
We’ve been doing this four seasons now, and I felt like we had told a lot of stories we had to tell, but I think that this season is actually the best so far.
You’ve done an incredible job making sure people know the unsung work that farmers do without glorifying life on the farm.
VH: Farmers are often portrayed one of two ways in the media: One is either super cool and hipster with a very laid-back looking lifestyle, and then the other is someone with a piece of straw in their mouth and overalls on and [who is] ignorant. My parents were farmers. I grew up around a lot of farmers. I just wanted to show them for the resourceful, intelligent, hardworking people that they are.
Like you mentioned, you’re working on your first cookbook, Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South. What’s the update on that?
VH: It will be published October 4. The book is set up like the show, in a lot of ways, in that all the chapters are ingredients, and each chapter starts with a story about how that ingredient has helped shape my life. The ingredients are actually ordered in the book based on the progression of my life. So it’s not alphabetical or seasonal; it’s more personal. Then after the story, there’s between five and 12 recipes in every chapter, and the first recipe in each chapter is the traditional use of that ingredient in our culture, and then from there, the recipes grow across the chapter in creativity and complexity. The last recipe in the chapter would be something that we might do in our restaurant with that ingredient.