Vivian Howard knows that most people who take the highway through her part of eastern North Carolina are glad to wind up somewhere else. The sight of shuttered businesses, rusting trailers and cars on blocks isn't appetizing.
It's not the backdrop you might expect for a national cooking show, but it is the setting for A Chef's Life, a new 13-episode series featuring Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, of Kinston's acclaimed Chef & the Farmer restaurant. The program, which follows ingredients from farm to table, debuts this week on PBS nationally. It airs statewide at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays on UNC-TV.
The Avett Brothers deliver a natural anthem for the 30-minute, visually compelling episodes, declaring, "I wish you'd see yourself as beautiful as I see you." The telegenic Howard conveys an endearing view of her hometown as she introduces farmers who use sustainable practices to tend sandy acreage once groomed by their granddaddies. Mamas still rule in immaculate kitchens. Flag-waving children cheer as a truck-sized ear of corn is hauled down three blocks for an annual parade, and families enjoy spending the entire day together to prep fresh crops to savor in winter.
"I hate when people portray folks from my region as hillbillies or bumbling idiots, because they're not," Howard says. "There are a lot of great stories in eastern North Carolina, things that make us unique and proud. We're worth a second look."
After school, Howard escaped eastern North Carolina to kick-start her culinary career in New York City. There, in a cramped restaurant kitchen, she met Knight. When they decided seven years ago to open their own place—a fine-dining establishment that focused on seasonal, locally grown foods—they did what Howard once thought was unthinkable: return to her economically depressed hometown.
"I spent my whole adolescent life wanting to get out of here, but I'm so happy to be part of this community," she says. "I chose to live my life here and want everyone to see what a special place it is."
While many thought the high prices at Chef & the Farmer doomed it to failure, it has instead been a key element in the revitalization of Kinston's once-deserted downtown. A true example of destination dining, it regularly attracts gourmands from the Triangle and beyond.
Because it sources ingredients within 30 miles of its kitchen, Chef & the Farmer also has been a boon to the farming community, which has expanded to meet increasing demand from restaurateurs for heirloom and humanely raised foods. Howard's creative use of such ingredients led to her being named a semifinalist in 2012 and 2013 for Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation.
The idea for A Chef's Life came before the accolades, however. Howard and Knight started working with Durham filmmakers Cynthia Hill and Rex Miller soon after the restaurant opened, raising money with the Southern Documentary Fund as their fiscal sponsor. Hill, who is the show's director and producer, is also a native of eastern North Carolina, which she has featured in past films.
The first episode's topic is corn, but the main event is the devastating kitchen fire that shut down the restaurant and the project for several months. In the second episode, which centers on strawberries, the business finally reopens, and drama derives from different sources: Vivian and Ben are raising months-old twins while working long hours, living with her family and building their own home. The show remains focused, however, on the couple's relationship with their community.
The first two episodes were sent to reviewers to whet appetites for a full season that will cover a range of foods, including grits, pork cracklins, oysters, sweet potatoes, muscadine grapes picked with the growing twins and moonshine used to craft a signature cocktail for the housewarming party. Howard shares the secrets of her legendary tomato sandwich with smoked corn aioli and takes a field trip to Columbia, S.C., to spotlight the Anson Mills' renowned Carolina Heirloom Rice.
Final tweaks were still underway at press time on the website that will support the series. "We mean for the website to be a major tool both for the show and for economic development in eastern North Carolina," she says, explaining that it recommends places to buy and eat featured ingredients. Recipes will be posted, as well as bonus segments with topic experts like April McGregor of Hillsborough's Farmer's Daughter Brand and John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Thanks to a successful crowd-funding endeavor, production is underway on a second season of A Chef's Life. So far they've covered blueberries, shrimp and butter beans, including the popular vegetarian butter bean burger featured at The Boiler Room, their new casual eatery across the street from Chef & the Farmer.
"It's hard for me to watch" the program, says Howard, who is highly critical of her natural-seeming presence, "but I'm excited to see what happens when the show is out in the world. I hope people see how we represent our food and our community as honest and constantly evolving."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Eastbound and bountiful."