As the noon sun beat down on Fayetteville Street and more than a dozen people stood in line to meet acclaimed Kinston chef Vivian Howard, a baby started crying. As fairness and compassion dictate, the baby and mother were invited to the front, finding relief in the shade of a tent. The baby stopped crying in a moment and, by the time the shutter snapped on a waiting smart phone, managed a brilliant smile.
“Well, that was fast,” Howard said.
For three hours Wednesday, Howard met fans at the Raleigh Downtown Farmers Market, signing cookbooks and greeting cards and talking the finer points of cobblers and okra. Her appearance was part of a Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina initiative called FNV that’s aimed at getting fruits and vegetables into the hands of millennials.
“It’s a segment where we can make a big impact, where it will most dramatically impact the lives of people,” Howard said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “If you think about it, millennials are the people getting ready to have children and put in place the eating habits of a new generation of people.”
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The day before her appearance in Raleigh, she spoke with The News & Observer about one of the wildest years of her life. She reflected on her best-selling cookbook, the upcoming fifth season of “A Chef’s Life” and the part she plays in the rise of Southern cooking and Eastern North Carolina.
Her year shows no signs of slowing down, as she and husband Ben Knight plan to open Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria later this year in downtown Wilmington.
Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Cookbook of the year
Over 500 pages in “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South,” Howard’s debut cookbook, the chef tells stories of a childhood in Lenoir County, of needing to get away from Eastern North Carolina, then coming back and starting her first restaurant in her hometown of Kinston.
It says just about everything she wanted to say about who she is, the South at a certain place in time and the food that marks that journey. That’s the problem with a two-book deal, she says.
“I put everything I had into this book,” Howard said. “It’s the first thing I’ve ever done where I was prepared for criticism, and if I got it, it would only be a reflection of me. I couldn’t have done more for this book than I did. I put literally everything I had into it.”
The book, published last October, saw its profile rise steadily over a few months and eventually ended up on the New York Times best-sellers list.
And instead of criticism, it only earned her more fan attention – many brought their copies to be autographed Wednesday – and collected some of the biggest industry awards a cookbook can get. It was named cookbook of the year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance and was nominated for a James Beard Award.
“I worked really hard to be taken seriously and worked hard to make Chef and the Farmer a viable restaurant in the least likely place on the planet,” she said. “Then we started the show, and for a lot of people, I think I was just another chef on TV with a cooking show.
“With the book and the success of the book, the fact that people read the book and thought it was good, both consumers and critics, it made me more than just another chef on TV. The book was that moment where I was able to set myself apart.”
A Chef’s Life
The fifth season of the award-winning “A Chef’s Life” follows a similar format as previous seasons, with each episode devoted to a specific ingredient. The premiere will focus on the tomato – her second tomato episode – and will mark the 10-year anniversary of Chef and the Farmer in Kinston.
Much of the season follows Howard on her book tour, where she spent nine weeks on the road stopping in bookstores and cooking from a food truck. For those dreaming of life on the road supporting a personal work of blood, sweat and tears, Howard said it isn’t glamorous.
“It’s hell,” she said. “Well, now it’s a fond memory.”
True to the life depicted in the show, Howard did not take the easiest road, in this case an hour or so at a table signing books and posing for photos. With the food truck in tow, Howard and her team cooked dishes from the book to serve people at the signings. Sometimes that meant a line of upwards of 200 people.
“I was thinking, of course, this is all my fault, I’ve got to make it really complicated,” Howard said. “It was a lesson in stamina, of putting your head down and getting it done.”
When the show returns in September, expect episodes on rattlesnake beans, peppers, persimmons in Atlanta, broccoli in Nashville and bourbon in Kentucky.
This past spring, Howard and Knight got glammed up and went to the Daytime Emmy Awards, where she was up for Outstanding Culinary Host and was a presenter. She said an awards show means a very long procession down a red carpet, but not much socializing with celebrities.
There was a moment, though, that some game show fans might find comforting, where Howard saw “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak hanging out at the bar with “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek.
“Barefoot Contessa” host Ina Garten took the award for culinary host, but Howard said the experience was still fun.
“It was exciting,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to win, but then in the back of your mind, I think anyone who’s nominated thinks, well maybe.
“But I took it upon myself to get a really awesome dress,” she said. “It’s not too often you get to dress up and do that and see people you’ve seen on TV your whole life.”
All eyes on the South
Southern cooking is in a different place today than it was when Howard started her show, and certainly before she started her restaurant. The profile is bigger, no longer apologetic, no longer easily dismissed as fried things or carbs covered in gravy.
“It’s such an exciting time for Southern cooking and has been for the last 10 years,” Howard said. “A spotlight has really shone down on our cuisine for the first time, certainly since I can remember. ... We’re having an honest conversation about the roots of Southern food and trying to make sure that we pay homage to all the home cooks, the African-American cooks that are responsible for shaping our cuisine. It’s not all white men in chef’s jackets.”
Because of the nature of Howard’s PBS show – of filming in the fields of Eastern North Carolina and then producing the kind of food that results in a profile in The New York Times – Howard has been thrust into the role of being an ambassador for an often-overlooked part of the state.
She says she didn’t seek it or plan it that way, but is happy to play the part.
“I did not set out to be an ambassador of Eastern North Carolina, but it’s something I’m proud to do,” Howard said. “Eastern North Carolina, its people and its culture and terrain is unique and really something to be celebrated, but is often apologized for. If I can be part of sharing what’s special about this place with a larger audience and instill a sense of pride, that feels great and that feels important and it feels like I’m doing something beyond running a restaurant.”
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson
‘A Chef’s Life returns
▪ Tickets are on sale for a local premiere party Sunday, Sept. 10 at 3:30 p.m. at Carolina Theatre in Durham. The first episode of the new season will be shown, followed by a Q&A with Howard and director/producer Cynthia Hill of Durham-based Markay Media.
▪ VIP tickets for $125 are on sale now, which include food, reserved seating and meeting “A Chef’s Life” team. It includes brunch at Piedmont restaurant in Durham. Chef John May worked for Howard at Chef and the Farmer and was featured on the show. He will prepare a menu that focuses on the featured ingredient from the Season 5 premiere. Go to achefslife.ticketleap.com.
▪ Other tickets go on sale Friday at 10 a.m. for $50 at the Carolina Theatre or carolinatheatre.org.
▪ PBS will release the first episode of Season 5 on Oct. 3. UNC-TV will premiere it here on Oct. 5.