It’s lovely to win awards, but they can put pressure on you. Take it from Vivian Howard.
Howard, the chef/owner of The Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, didn’t expect anyone to tune into “A Chef’s Life,” the PBS show about the restaurant she opened with her husband, painter Ben Knight. Then it won a Peabody Award.
“I thought we’d end up with really great home videos,” she says.
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“And now, it’s ‘Oh my gosh, this has to be good.’ ”
Howard was in Charlotte last week to cook for No Kid Hungry, a fundraiser for Share Our Strength. She and her assistant really just wanted to sneak off to SouthPark and do a little shopping in the big city. But she had to tape two TV appearances and get ready for the chef event, and hit as many Charlotte restaurants as she could.
I had to miss the dinner, so I went by her room at the Aloft hotel at the EpiCentre last Friday with a couple of boxes of Price’s fried chicken to give her a late lunch break.
Nibbling on crust and sipping gratefully on a very sweet tea, she considered the price of fame.
Howard doesn’t do things halfway. When she got pregnant, she had twins. When she got a book contract, it was for two books – the first is due out in October 2016. And when she left New York to return to Kinston, her hometown, to open a restaurant, it became a must-visit for food fans all over the South.
The second season of “A Chef’s Life” starts on UNC-TV on Oct. 5, and Howard and producer Cynthia Hill already are working on Season 3.
Each show focuses on Howard learning to make a traditional dish or use something that grows in the area. The most important to her is to capture Eastern North Carolina the way it is, and treat it with respect.
“It always bothered me that we’re pigeonholed as people who are, I don’t know, chewing their toenails or something,” she says. Going into people’s kitchens to watch and learn is a chance to keep food traditions alive.
Those episodes have hit a nerve with a lot of us. For me, it was a show in the first season, about how Howard’s mother made chicken and rice. When I watched it, it actually made me cry: That’s my mom’s chicken and rice – cooking the chicken whole and picking out the bones and skin later, stewing the rice until it falls apart.
Howard heard from a lot of people who were struck by that episode. One woman said her mother has Alzheimer’s, but something about the chicken and rice show broke through. Now her mother keeps asking to watch “that show where the lady makes chicken and rice.”
“That tears me up,” Howard admitted. “There’s something about what we’re doing with family and cooking.”
It’s also a lot harder than it looks. In the second season, Howard brought in Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner to make his famous corned ham. They decided to start with butchering a hog – a task they both underestimated. “Oh my gosh, it was so freaking hard,” she says, laughing. “It was huge.” Halfway through the day, they wanted to give up, but they couldn’t. The cameras were rolling.
The best part, though, has been pleasing her family. Her parents, after all, were the ones who convinced her to come back to Kinston. Having them see her do well makes it all worth it, she says.
“My dad is like, ‘I told you so.’ ”