Several months ago the US Postal Service released a five-stamp series honoring trailblazing chefs; the beatified included James Beard, Julia Child, Joyce Chen, Edna Lewis, and Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. Alas, this comes too late in our history to provide what would have been a literally delicious irony—since stamps are now self-adhesive, we no longer need to lick them, and thus have lost the chance to taste the gustatory giants themselves (not to mention the critical appraisals that might have followed: “Edna Lewis leaves a sheen of mint on the tongue”).
What the new series does provide, however, is an opportunity to consider the phenomenon of celebrity chefs itself. As a signifier of national fame, the postal service is more the last lap than the initial nod; by the time your mug makes it to a stamp, you’ve already dyed yourself pretty deeply into the cultural fabric. So the fact that these five icons are now smiling out at us from the covers of our electric bills is a pretty clear indication that they’re already comfortably—and permanently—settled in our national pantheon.
Which raises the question: how do chefs, of all people, manage that? It’s an easy call when it comes to athletes, actors, musicians, and fashion designers; their work is accessible not only by multitudes, but pretty much in perpetuity. Miles Davis might play a club date in 1957 to 30 people, but you can still hear it today on Spotify. Similarly, your coffee mug may well have Andy Warhol’s Marilyn on it. Thanks to technology, the visual, literary, and performing arts aren’t bound by considerations of immediacy and impermanence.
Kinston, North Carolina.
Ever hear of it?
It sits somewhere between here and there in Eastern North Carolina, in one of the poorest congressional districts in the state.
Kinston was a tobacco town, not a culinary destination–that is, until Chef Vivian Howard showed up.
Enter Stage Right
Howard and her husband, Benjamin Knight’s love story reads like a familiar Southern classic. Howard, a Southern bred chef who describes herself as “seemingly cool and calm but panic stricken underneath” meets Knight, an “over reactor,” while working in a New York City restaurant. They fall in love and are married.
Chef Vivian Howard went home again (Kinston NC), defied the odds (opened a farm-to-table restaurant in a tiny rural community) and thrives (a new series “A Chef’s Life” on PBS).
Vivian Scarlett Howard eventually wanted to open her own restaurant and was offered the financial backing to do so by her successful, hog farming parents, John and Scarlett Leigh Howard.
There was one catch: She would have to build it in Kinston, NC where, by her own admission she would “NEVER return.”
Toque Magazine got its start in Lambertville, NJ, a town near Princeton. I had the good fortune to meet Larry Frazer through his wife, Sharyn Murray, at the Princeton Community Television and Digital Media Center. Sharyn saw me working with Ila Couch to get our “What’s for Dinner, America?” video series going and said I should talk to her husband. “He’s a chef who just left Princeton University to teach culinary arts at Eden,” she said. “It might make a good story for you.”
Larry Frazer and Sharyn Murray met on the Dinky, a very short NJ Transit rail link that runs from Princeton Junction to Princeton. They ended up getting married in one of its cars. (Photo © George Vogel)
Larry was high on his new calling, teaching autistic teens basic (and not so basic) culinary skills as Eden Institute’s newest director. We emailed each other and decided that a diary series of his new adventures would be cool to run in Toque.
And they were. The five articles he wrote about his funny, touching and awe-inspiring adventures with would-be teenage chefs were some of our best read features.
Larry’s last installment (Part 5) shares his excitement about the astonishing progress of his students and a note about Eden’s shiny new location. At the very end, he reveals that he has advanced cancer.
Last April, Larry died. He left a yawning hole in many, many people’s lives. To try and fill that hole we wanted to share some of our memories of this amazing, humble person. A man with incredible gifts who had the courage to sacrifice a secure job to follow his dream. Larry was a talented chef who lived to see the emerging talents in his students who had so many life challenges. It took nine months to pull it together but here we are. We’ll hear from “the two Robs:” Robert Harbison, executive chef at Princeton University, and Rob Kimmel, Eden’s new director for the culinary program. We also speak to Sharyn, his wife, who recalls their memorable wedding eight years ago.