NYC Chef Opens First Restaurant in Kinston NC

By on Monday, November 4th, 2013

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.”

Never Say Never

Soon after her father’s offer, Howard and Knight opened Chef & the Farmer, a seasonal, farm to table restaurant in 2006.

The press embraced the vast and creative menu of this James Beard Award semi-finalist, which featured specialties such as smoked corn relish on a fried green tomato, pork belly skewers and heirloom tomato sandwiches.

Howard recruited former tobacco farmers to grow the food that she was used to cooking such as Jerusalem artichokes and heirloom tomatoes. As a result of the restaurant’s huge popularity, she helped put local farmers, some former tobacco farmers, back into the business of growing food.

A fire nearly destroyed the kitchen at Howard and Knight’s restaurant, Chef & the Farmer. They are back in full swing.

Southern Revival

While business was bustling, Howard’s idea to document disappearing Southern food traditions such as canning and preserving, collard kraut and pickling was forming in her mind so she turned to childhood friend Cynthia Hill to document these Southern traditions on film. Hill, an independent documentary filmmaker who produced and directed documentary films such as Tobacco Money Feeds My Family, is no stranger to this business.

“You know, we talked about the idea,” says Howard, “and after discussing it, Cynthia got advice from a fellow producer in New York who suggested that we develop a more well rounded story.”

Soon, A Chef’s Life pilot was in development.

Hill began filming events around Kinston such as the Corn Parade, edited it, showed it to PBS and the rest is history. A Chef’s Life series premièred this September to rousing acclaim from loyal PBS viewers both in and out of North Carolina.

“The town is so excited about this series that they made September 12th ‘A Chefs Life Day,’ ” says Howard.

Howard gets much of her food and a great deal of inspiration from nearly all of the farmers within a 100 mile radius of the restaurant.

The PBS documentary chronicles the life of this elegant and talented Chef, who while making a big impact in her home town also faces the challenges of being married to her partner and mothering 2 ½ year old twins, Flo and Theo.

This season programs highlight stories beautifully shot in the fields and kitchens of North Carolina along with some drama when a kitchen fire completely destroys the restaurant and efforts to rebuild it seem impossible.

“It is my hope”, says Hill, “that our program will allow rural southern people to tell their own stories while showing the real assets we have in eastern North Carolina. I hope the show can stimulate the economy of eastern NC and mostly, showcase Vivian because she is one hard-working and talented woman.”

And what about John and Scarlett Leigh?

“Living close to my parents and having them come to our house several times a day to see their grandchildren, is the biggest, happiest surprise for them and me!” Howard grins.

 

The 13 week series, A Chefs Life airs at 9:30 pm in most markets including Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.
For more information on the restaurant visit A Chefs Life Series or Chef and the Farmer.

Written by Linda Iaderosa

Linda Iaderosa, a producer and writer, has this to say: "Living in San Jose, attending Stanford with my wonderful husband and writing for food--life couldn't be more delicious!"

2 Comments

  1. Darlene says:

    I really enjoyed reading about a couple I may have never heard about. I almost feel like they are friends after reading their story. Great job, Linda!

  2. Gwen Adams says:

    I am a pbs, fan i think they have the best cooking show,so i always look at Lilda, them you came on, she is good, i just thank God,for you,your,father,mother and of course Ben.you all are just a joy, i know this hard work,the both of you make it look joyful.

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