In the world of Southern cooking, it is almost impossible to be more revered than Vivian Howard. As the chef behind Kinston, NC’s renowned restaurants Chef & the Farmer and Boiler Room Oyster Bar, as well as Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington, she has transformed the way people outside the region think about food. In 2013, she became the first woman since Julia Child to win a Peabody Award for a cooking show, for her PBS series “A Chef’s Life.” Her 2016 cookbook, “Deep Run Roots,” was a New York Times Bestseller, and she has a James Beard Award. Not to mention, she’s married and rearing twins on top of it all.
Surely, she’s earned the right to relax?
“Never!” says Howard with a laugh. “There’s so much exciting stuff happening in the restaurant world, it’s important to never let your guard down.”
Howard will speak at UNCW on Wednesday, October 30 at 7 p.m. as part of the university’s Leadership Lecture Series. The lecture’s theme: “small town, big reach.” It’s a topic Howard couldn’t imagine speaking on while growing up in eastern North Carolina.
The daughter of tobacco farmers, Howard was hell-bent on fleeing her hometown of Deep Run, NC. At 14 she found her way to an all-girls boarding school in Winston Salem, then to NC State, where she majored in journalism. By 20 she was in New York City, working in some of the country’s most highly regarded kitchens. It was during this time, while waitressing at a Southern-style restaurant in the West Village, she met her husband, Ben Knight.
The couple began selling soup out of their Harlem apartment and had thoughts of opening a brick-and-mortar store. When her brother-in-law suggested they move to Kinston and open a restaurant in a building he’d bought instead, the offer was too good to pass.
Howard and Knight opened Chef & the Farmer in 2006, in what was previously a mule stable. It took some time, but Howard eventually embraced her return home. She also learned to listen to the community’s older residents. In turn, diners embraced her elevated takes on traditional Southern cuisine.
“We’ve really worked to exalt the mundane things that are part of our everyday lives in eastern rural America, and make people see them as the unique culturally touchstones that they actually are,” Howard says of her approach to restaurant and menu design.
The years that followed were ones of great success and personal heartbreak. Chef & the Farmer got enough good press for Howard to convince her friend and Eastern Carolina filmmaker Cynthia Hill to make a TV show about it. But just after the pilot was filmed, the restaurant caught fire and destroyed the kitchen. In a twist of good fortune, the fire and its aftermath were broadcast on air, and helped make “A Chef’s Life” a surprising hit.
The series concluded its five-season run last year, but was a welcome break from typical overheated cooking shows. Its focus on Southern ingredients and the people who produce them, a.k.a. local farmers, presented a nuanced view of small-town America rarely seen on television. It also made Howard a bonafide star.
Today, she and Knight live in Deep Run—“in a house across the road from the one [she] grew up in.” The success of Chef & the Farmer has had a profound impact on the area. In the past 10 years, Kinston’s formerly-faded downtown district has expanded to include a sprawling, solar-powered brewery, a hip music venue and a luxury boutique hotel.
With that growth, Howard and Knight have expanded their reach, too. In 2013, they opened the Boiler Room, a casual oyster and burger joint across the street from Chef & the Farmer. In 2017, lured by the beach, they opened Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington. With its charming, red brick exterior and inviting atmosphere, the restaurant has played an important role in further vitalizing the South Front District. Even with two decades of restaurant experience, Howard continues to learn from her foray into Wilmington.
“I’ve learned every community’s different,” she says, “and no matter what kind of pizza you have on the menu, people still want pepperoni.”
In previewing her talk at UNCW, Howard says, “It’s really about choosing to look at the things that people may see as liabilities in our small community as assets … I don’t think I would have had the experiences I have had I not left. Nor do I think I would have experienced this kind of success had I not come back.”
There’s more on the way. Next year, Howard will launch a new PBS show, in which she travels throughout the South, meeting with chefs and learning about their cooking traditions. Where each episode of “A Chef’s Life” focused on a different ingredient, “Somewhere South” will focus on dishes—dumplings, hand pies, porridge—that are common across cultures. In one episode, she makes collard sandwiches with native Lumbee home cooks in Pembroke, NC.
“For me, it’s an opportunity to uncover the nuanced South we actually live in,” says Howard. “Food television often ends up in the same places. We’re making an effort to focus on more rural communities, small towns, and places that have interesting food and cultural stories that you don’t often hear.”
And Howard continues to give back too. Recently, she began selling t-shirts to help Ocracoke restaurant owners impacted by Hurricane Dorian. As of press, she had already sold 1,500 shirts. (A similar fundraiser last year raised almost $65,000 to help those affected by Hurricane Florence.) To purchase a t-shirt, visit vivianhoward.com.