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054 – Vivian Howard, A Chef’s Life, Deep Run Roots, Chef and the Farmer

054 – Vivian Howard, A Chef’s Life, Deep Run Roots, Chef and the Farmer

vivian-howardReal Life Chef Work. “I’m Vivian. And I’m a chef.” This is how Chef Vivian Howard starts off every episode of her Peabody award-winning PBS show, A Chef’s Life. Being a chef is not glamorous. She wants you to know that. In each episode of the show she presents the real-life triumphs and tragedies behind what it takes to run a successful restaurant. That restaurant being Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina which she owns with her husband artist Ben Knight.

Owning a restaurant is hard work. A fire breaks out mere months after opening. A customer leave a scathing review. A beloved sous chef leaves after being part of the kitchen family for years. Ingredients run out. People call in sick. You’re cooking for 500 people and the organizers bring you a fryer the size of a saucepan. This is the “glamorous” life of a chef. Not everybody becomes a celebrity. As she says during the interview, “There are more of us than there are of them.” Although lately, after four years of an award-winning television program and 11 years of running a restaurant, she is quickly becoming one of them. What happens then?

For one thing, a cookbook. Her first book Deep Run Roots is only going to increase her spotlight in my opinion. It’s a terrific, ingredient-driven, phonebook-sized tome celebrating the many regional ingredients from her home of Deep Run in Eastern North Carolina. Ingredients like field peas and grease-alls a rediscovered heirloom bean. Or tom thumb a type of sausage made from stuffing a pig appendix. Or turnip run-ups a plant similar to broccoli rabe that “runs up” in the spring after the turnip has been harvested. Foods Eastern North Carolinians eat often out of resourcefulness but not always well known outside the region. Vivian celebrates these foodways with old authentic recipes but also tweaks them with other ingredients to create something entirely new and different.

How does she convince locals that “new and different” is just as tasty as the steak and baked potato they crave? That’s one of the challenges presented on the show, a theme which relates to the restaurant’s origins. Vivian got her start cooking in New York, but when her parents told her they’d help open a restaurant but only if she came back home she couldn’t resist. This prevalent theme of “country versus city” makes for compelling viewing and relates so well to the current trend of cityfolk rediscovering old “lost” Southern foodways.

No need to create drama in this show of reality, it’s built in. When she presented rabbit as a future food solution in a recent episode people took sides. Some agreed, others not so much. You can’t argue the fact it’s much easier to raise one rabbit producing multiple litters per year resulting in 315 pounds. of edible meat. Compare that with the cost of raising one cow producing only 175 pounds. So why did the rabbit episode cause so much uproar? Watch and decide for yourself.

Her show and book present the South not as one homogenous region where only fried chicken and barbecue exist but a diverse collection of smaller areas with their own culinary traditions. I learn something with every episode, every chapter. I read the one about rutabagas twice. Finally! Something to do with the behemoths I get in my CSA share!

Vivian is traveling throughout the South promoting Deep Run Roots with a food truck! An overhauled, sometimes ornery Sara Lee truck is bringing Vivian’s book and food right to you. Here are tour dates. Get your book signed, then sample some of her delicious food, including mother Scarlett’s famous chicken and rice featured on the show. A culinary rock concert complete with posters and tee shirts. Her many fans line up for it all. The day I visited Chapel Hill felt like a foodie version of the Beatles. Vivimaniacs everywhere! Including this one.

It’s so much better than those hoity-toity dinners where the ticket is hundreds of dollars and seats are limited to 50 people. Much more down to earth and inclusive and something I hope other chefs will consider. I applaud her courage and tenacity to hit the road and congratulate her road crew, an entire village of  “food roadies” making sure this culinary concert hits every venue. And I can’t wait for next season to see what road stories she shows us.

Her dedication to her region runs deep. Not only has she single-handedly revitalized Kinston with her restaurants (The Boiler Room opened in 2013), but when Hurricane Matthew put thousands in Eastern North Carolina under water for two weeks, including many hog and chicken farmers, she developed a Fish Stew Rescue while on tour! Although national news wasn’t covering this tragedy befalling an already depressed economic region, dozens of restaurants participated by serving up this Eastern North Carolina specialty, including Mas and The Whiskey Jar here in Charlottesville. Of course, there is a recipe in Deep Run Roots as well.

I find it all so inspiring. Just like she is. Vivian Howard is walking the walk, celebrating her region and handing out seasoning meat to confused Brooklynites like she did on her latest episode. I howled at their confusion. Get on board people! That’s gold in your hand. Get excited. Because Eastern North Carolina is the next trending foodway.

Chef Howard will be appearing for two events during Fire, Flour, Fork in Richmond next week. Sadly, they’re both sold out. But you can get her book right now. Then listen to this episode. I was nervous, giddy, and honored to talk with her in equal measure. And when word got around Charlottesville? Dozens of food folks came forward offering her gifts of gratitude. Thank you SO MUCH to the many folks who brought gifts for Vivian. I honestly can’t thank you enough. You should’ve seen her eyes go big as saucers when I walked in positively LADEN with them. It made me emotional. And so proud to be a part of my own regional food community. Maybe it will convince her to bring Sara Lee to our neck of the woods? I hope so.

SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:

  • Keevil & Keevil Grocery and Kitchen – Harrison and Jennfer Keevil donated a boat-load of gifts! Including items from: Our Local Commons, Albemarle Baking Company, Blanc Creatives, East Bali Cashews, Manakintowne Hot Sauce, Pollak Vineyards, Thibault-Jaisson champagne, Gearharts Fine Chocolates, Little Things shortbread, MV’s Best Virginia Peanuts, La Vache Microcreamery, Leslie Boden Jewelry, and even Jennifer’s own pepper jelly. Thanks guys!
  • The Spice Diva – Phyllis Hunter came through with Castle Hill Cider Vinegar, Brava Spanish Seasoning, Wil’s Bacon Rub, Harissa Paste, Chutney Ferret Industries, Peg’s Salt, Melissa’s Junction Rub, and Simon’s Sunday Morning Spice. Thank so much Phyllis!

This episode is sponsored by MarieBette Café and Bakery.

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