When people talk about the N.C. restaurant Chef & the Farmer, they usually talk about the location – way out in tiny Kinston, a 90-minute ride from Raleigh and more than four hours from Charlotte.
They’ll talk about how chef Vivian Howard and her husband, artist Ben Knight, have earned rave reviews while pursuing a mission of locally grown food in an area that’s still shaking loose from tobacco farming.
Maybe they’ll talk about the fire – it destroyed the kitchen last February and put the restaurant’s future in doubt before it reopened in May.
What they may not talk about is the way Howard uses flavors to create a balance on her plates. But after I finally reached the Chef & the Farmer for dinner a couple of weeks ago, that’s all I could think about.
Yes, Howard is doing powerfully good, contemporary Southern food. She uses traditional dishes that are tweaked just slightly, like creamy grits served in a small skillet and topped with pimento cheese.
What that description doesn’t tell you is that on top of those grits is a salsa of spicy cherry tomatoes preserved with Mexican-inspired flavors so they are sweet, fruity and hot all at the same time.
Or that the skewers of crisped pork belly come on an intensely fruity sauce of pickled blackberries that cut through and highlight the bacon and fat. Or that the pecan-stuffed chicken is set off by mulled muscadines.
In fancy cookbooks and on food shows, chefs talk about balance and acidity. And it’s sort of like when wine writers go on about mouthfeel – you get what they’re saying, but you wish it didn’t sound so stuffy.
On all of the seven or eight dishes I got to try that night, Howard’s food was a lesson in what balance and acidity really mean.
It wasn’t that the food was sour or puckery. It was that everything had a counterpoint, a hint of tartness or bit of sourness, something that didn’t overwhelm, but brought out and intensified the other flavors.
A tart fried green tomato was on creamy fresh goat cheese. A piece of fish with a crunchy rice coating on cooked cabbage was topped with paper-thin slices of apple and pickled red onion.
I was so taken by it that I called Howard.
“Every dish we conceive, we make sure there is an element,” she agreed.
“If I eat pork with something that is just sweet or just fatty, I don’t enjoy it. But if you put something tart with it, I want it more and more and more. With Southern cooking, we do a lot with sweet stuff. But we try to balance that.”
No one taught her that balance, she says. She came to it on her own, over six years of running the restaurant.
She likes to make preserves to stretch what she gets from local farms.
“We make lots of these preserves and pickles in the summer and use them with stuff all winter. About two years ago, I was like, ‘these are just sweet.’ So I started doing what I call a cross between a pickle and a preserve.
“It’s the way I personally like to eat,” she says. “People squeeze lemon on fish. We try to do that, but without being obvious.”
Even if you don’t drive a couple of hundred miles to go to the Chef & the Farmer, you’ll get a chance to see more of Vivian Howard next year.
They’re in the middle of taping a show that’s been picked up by PBS, on local food and how she translates it for the restaurant.
In the meantime, she admitted she got a kick out of it when I called and said I wanted to ask about acidity.
“The people who work with me, I’m always like, ‘this isn’t enough acidity,’ ‘I can’t taste the acidity,’ ‘this needs more acidity.’ They just thought it was a ridiculous thing. So when you called, I was like, ‘See!’ ”