Forging New Traditions with Chef Vivian Howard

by Hampton Williams Hofer | photography by Baxter Miller and Ryan Stancil

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Vivian Howard remembers sitting in the kitchen as a child in her hometown of Deep Run, North Carolina. She would watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while crumbling saltine crackers over her mother’s dressing, the kind made with Stouffers bread crumbs and raw onions.

Flash forward a few decades: Howard says she still loves watching the Macy’s parade each year, but now the food looks a little different for the award-winning chef—at the very least, no ingredient comes pre-seasoned or out of a box. At Howard’s Thanksgiving feast, the turkey takes second stage to a simple meal made up of local, seasonal crowd-pleasers. For this working chef, the point is to gather and enjoy each others company—not to get bogged down in preparing the same old sides. Howard’s food, which celebrates the traditions of Eastern North Carolina, is what eventually brought her home. This is thanks, in part, to her experience as a young waitress in New York at a restaurant called Voyage, with a concept of Southern food via Africa: “I had never seen my food celebrated anywhere,” Howard says, “it opened my eyes to the idea that the food I grew up eating was unique, distinct and full of history and stories.”

When Howard first left her parents’ tobacco farm for boarding school, followed by college at N.C. State and then dream-chasing in New York City, she never expected to return to Deep Run. But in 2005, when her parents offered to help her and her husband, painter and business partner Ben Knight, open a restaurant in Kinston, Howard packed up to move back South. They are now raising their nine-year-old twins, Flo and Theo, in a modern farmhouse across the street from Howard’s parents. They’re also not far from their first “baby,” restaurant Chef & the Farmer, which offers modern interpretations of traditional Southern dishes, based on local ingredients.

When Howard moved back, Kinston’s downtown was an unlikely fit for a fine-dining establishment situated in an old mule stable, but Howard and Knight were undeterred. Fourteen years after its opening, it’s clear that Chef & the Farmer served as a catalyst for the area, turning Kinston into a popular foodie destination. The blocks around it are now filled with businesses, including Mother Earth Brewing, Social House Vodka Distillery and Howard’s oyster bar, the Boiler Room. “I’d even call it bustling,” Howard says. “Things have certainly changed, but it still feels very much like Kinston.” Diners travel from all over to enjoy seasonal menu items at Chef & the Farmer, like wood-fired pumpkin soup or char-grilled Cornish game hen with squash casserole.

Nearly all of the restaurants’ ingredients come from within a 90-mile radius, but Howard says she isn’t interested in a certain percentage. “Our goal is to build the economic viability of our community,” she says, “and one of the best ways we do that is by supporting and buying from local farmers so that they can continue farming.” She remembers visiting the local TC Farm as a child in nearby La Grange—it’s now where she buys all of her collards, tomatoes and strawberries for the restaurant.

Right now, Howard says her favorite thing on the rotating menu at Chef & the Farmer is the brown butter Tabasco roasted oysters—a recipe she adapted for her Thanksgiving feast (you can make it ahead for an easier day). But she says the best oysters might be across the street at her casual restaurant Boiler Room, the idea for which morphed from childhood memories of being toted to Eastern North Carolina oyster bars and pouting that menus had nothing she wanted to eat. Boiler Room has plenty of oysters, plus a menu full of creative burgers, a blueberry BBQ chicken sandwich and warm banana pudding. It is, without question, the favorite restaurant of Howard’s children. They also love Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington, Howard’s foray into Italian cuisine, where her team makes creative wood-fired pizzas, pastas and all the hearty, happy Italian favorites. 

Many visitors have learned of Howard’s restaurants from her PBS series, A Chef’s Life, a series that’s part cooking show and part documentary, with a focus on the culinary traditions of Eastern North Carolina. It is the only television series ever to win a Peabody, an Emmy and a James Beard Award. This March marks the launch of a new television endeavor for Howard, Somewhere South, also airing on PBS. Comprised of six hour-long episodes, the show follows Howard as she explores cross-cultural dishes in diverse communities, sitting down to eat dumplings or rice and beans with farm laborers, ecologists and fellow chefs.  

“I love making people laugh and entertaining,” says Howard, who insists she is not a reality star, though she’s often touted as the only “real” person on reality TV. “I think what people respond to with me is that I make mistakes on camera and highlight my shortcomings—that’s not something people see often in media.” Howard, who employs some 160 people across her three restaurants and online bakery, spends as much time as she can in all of her kitchens, lately as a mentor more than anything. These days, she’s up at five in the morning to squeeze in a couple of hours of writing before she wakes her children and takes them to school, then goes to her office in downtown Kinston, where her days fluctuate between meetings, photo shoots and recipe-testing. Her new book, This’ll Make It Taste Good, is set to release next fall; it’s a quirky cookbook about the way she cooks at home, meant to evoke laughter in the places where Deep Run Roots brought sentiment.

Howard, who thrives on a full plate, has two more restaurants in the works to open in Charleston: Handy & Hot, an American coffee shop with biscuits and hand pies, and Lenoir, a proper restaurant named for Howard’s home county. Her online bakery, also named Handy & Hot, is built largely around holidays, selling small-batch, limited-release items, baked in Kinston—like the pie she served up for Thanksgiving: Pecan Chocolate Chess with a cookie crust. On Mother’s Day, 500 cakes sold out in a little over two hours. Another treat offered over the summer was a s’mores kit, complete with cinnamon marshmallows and Raleigh-based Videri chocolates. All holidays are great food occasions, but Howard says, unsurprisingly, Thanksgiving is still her favorite. “Your expectations are always met,” says Howard, “There are no gifts—it’s always all about the food.” Howard, who likes to be outside, utilizes her outdoor fireplace and cooking equipment for Thanksgiving, when the weather is nice and brisk in Eastern N.C.  She admits she gets fatigued by the same old staples showing up on Thanksgiving tables year after year, so she likes to change things up. Two years ago, she even cooked a Chinese feast for Thanksgiving. “I gravitate toward doing something a little different, but I always do a turkey,” she says. Not that it has to be the centerpiece: “What I really like about the turkey,” says Howard, “is the turkey sandwiches the next day.”