Vivian Howard was trudging through work on her Pantene account at a corporate New York City advertising agency when the unthinkable happened. Almost 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center.
It was time to re-evaluate what she was doing in her life.
“Everyone was quitting their jobs if they weren’t fulfilled, because you might go to work and never come back,” Howard said. So she reexamined her life and changed direction. Howard took a U-turn to her childhood home in Deep Run, a rural farming community near the town of Kinston in eastern low-country North Carolina.
Today, Howard is chef and co-owner of Chef & The Farmer and Boiler Room, both in Kinston. Howard was named a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast five consecutive times from 2011 to 2015.
She’s author of Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South, a New York Times bestseller which won four International Association of Culinary Professionals awards, including Cookbook of the Year and The Julia Child First Book Award. That book is part storytelling, part recipes, all of it paying homage to the traditional cooking and community of her roots.
Howard also stars in A Chef’s Life, a documentary-style cooking show on PBS. It’s the only television series ever to win a Peabody, an Emmy, and a James Beard Award. And Howard has a twin boy and girl, Theo and Flo, with her husband, Ben Knight.
The couple met after Howard quit her advertising job and started waiting on tables to support herself. They were both servers at the just-opened restaurant, Voyage, serving Southern cuisine via the African-American diaspora, an innovative concept in 2002. As the only native Southerner on the team, Howard had a lot of comments and insight to share. “Right away, I was the chef’s pet,” she said of executive chef Scott Barton. “I became so intrigued about the stories behind the food.”
So Howard convinced the chef to let her work in the kitchen without pay in the daytime before her afternoon server shifts began, in the pursuit of becoming a food writer. But Howard became a professional cook, and then a chef, in her own right. She studied at the Institute of Culinary Education.
The structure and established expectations of cooking in a restaurant appealed to Howard. Chefs come into work, make a prep list, and work toward the same deadline every day — dinner service. The orders come in, the chefs make them, and they know when the evening’s going to end. “I really loved it, and I was good at it,” Howard said. “Even though there’s a strict hierarchy, I loved the camaraderie. We all succeeded and failed as a team, and I enjoyed that.”
Howard and Knight started their own soup business from their Harlem apartment, and soon it seemed like opening a restaurant was the next natural step. Instead of choosing a location in NYC, they moved to Deep Run when her parents offered financial help to open a restaurant there — you know, just a little change of atmosphere. Howard had spent five years in the big city before returning home.
“Coming back, I definitely felt like I was giving up on my dream to be wildly successful,” she said. “I didn’t think it was possible where I was from. I felt like I was settling in a way. Then a few years into it, I felt like I didn’t need to let my location determine the quality of my work.”
Howard challenged herself to be heard from rural North Carolina. Creative, aspirational, quality-driven work in the restaurant business is usually celebrated more in a metropolitan environment, she said.
“Here, food wasn’t the type of theater it is now,” Howard said. “Now I think that culture is pervasive, not just on the coasts. Now in the food business, you can do that quality, innovative work on a smaller scale [in places like Kinston]. I don’t have to be in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, or D.C.”
Operating for 11 years, Chef & The Farmer has lasted a long time for a restaurant, even doing well during the 2008 recession. Yet through it all, Howard grew concerned that the simple, Southern recipes of the older generation were threatened to be lost forever if she didn’t document them.
Enter Cynthia Hill, director of the documentary-style cooking show starring Howard and her restaurant. In the show, Howard delves into recipes, traditional and nouveau, learning from home cooks, local farmers, hunters, and winemakers. The Peabody Awards people called it a “nuanced, non-stereotypical portrait of the rural and small-town American South, something rarely seen on television.”
And then, the book. Besides the obvious reference to Howard’s native roots, the cookbook is also a return to her other original passion: storytelling.
“As a child, I was good at it,” Howard said. “I always wanted to be a storyteller.”
Whether she’s telling her stories through food or words, for Howard, it beats working on a Pantene ad campaign. Any day.
— Head Photo: PBS Hawai’i.