By Linda Iaderosa
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.
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.
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.
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.