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Vivian Howard sits, her legs crossed, her feet propped on pots and pans under a stainless-steel countertop. “I have a lot of anxiety nowadays. I, for so long, identified myself

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Vivian Howard sits, her legs crossed, her feet propped on pots and pans under a stainless-steel countertop. “I have a lot of anxiety nowadays. I, for so long, identified myself

A Chef’s Life, A Chef’s Town

a chef's life

Vivian Howard sits, her legs crossed, her feet propped on pots and pans under a stainless-steel countertop. “I have a lot of anxiety nowadays. I, for so long, identified myself as a working chef,” she says, her arms whirling as she speaks.

“I don’t do that anymore. And I feel uncomfortable with it. I don’t want to be a phony. I don’t want my cooks to see me as a phony. I don’t want to be the person who just shows up with her entourage and her cameras. But all of that is part of what’s happening. And I literally have nightmares at night about it, trying to figure out what it is I am now.

“So I don’t know. What am I?”

Then she breaks. “I’m Vivian, and I’m a chef,” she says as she bursts out laughing, and slaps the countertop. “I’m a doofus, is what I am. Lord.”

“That’s good,” says Cynthia Hill, who’s holding the boom mike. “And sorta like ending it, ‘Am I still a chef? Can we still call it A Chef’s Life?’ ”

Vivian looks back into the camera. Take two: “So I really am trying to figure out what I am,” she says.

“You want to do that again?” Cynthia asks. “You’re sort of soft-spoken.” She brings the audio level up.

Take three: “I want to be able to do it all. … But that just ain’t gonna happen, I don’t think.”

Cynthia asks Vivian to be a little more reflective. Take four: “To what degree does what I do every day define who I am? I don’t know. What do I want to do?” Vivian says. “I don’t know, Cynthia, come on! This is not healthy, talking about yourself so much.”

Vivian would much rather talk about the time when Scott Avett, who sings the show’s theme song, came to her restaurant, Chef & the Farmer. She wants to talk about how cute he is, and how she’s kinda embarrassed for fangirling over him. So she does several takes about that. It relieves some tension. Afterward, though, Vivian and the crew are spent.

“That was good, Vivian,” Cynthia says. “I know that was painful.”

Then they stop for lunch.

Over tacos, guacamole, and salsa brought from nearby Olvera Street Taqueria, Vivian and Cynthia explain how an episode of A Chef’s Life comes together. First, a camera crew goes out and follows Vivian around Kinston. They visit a farm that she uses as a supplier. Later, an editor cuts the video into scenes. Then Cynthia, the director and producer, takes the scenes; groups them based on a specific ingredient, like sweet corn, turnips, oysters, or moonshine; and assembles them into a crude episode. She figures out what’s missing, and finally it’s up to Vivian to fill in the gaps with “confessionals,” where she looks straight ahead into the camera and narrates. They tried scripts at first, but Vivian sounded too stiff. So Cynthia will prompt Vivian with a topic or idea, and she’ll speak.

During a break, someone asks who she’s talking to. “I’m talking to America,” Vivian says, and she and everybody else belly laugh.

But seriously. “I never really think about that. I do talk, and then I look at Cynthia for approval.”

a chef's life

Vivian and her crew get a firsthand look at field peas growing on a farm near Benson. photograph by VAN BERKEL

Today, they have to get through confessionals for the final five episodes of A Chef’s Life’s third season. The kitchen in a condo, which used to be the back corner of a tire warehouse in downtown Kinston, has been turned into a set. Pots and pans are arranged on shelves, where they will appear, out of focus, behind Vivian — noticeable, but not too noticeable. The air conditioner is off. So is the refrigerator. They make too much noise. Sheets taped over the tall plate-glass windows soften the light. There are only a few crew members here, all from North Carolina. The two camera guys drove down this morning from Durham. A makeup woman came over from Deep Gap. Cynthia is simultaneously directing, producing, and wielding a boom mike with such precision that she can use it to knock down flyaway hairs on Vivian’s head. They purposely travel light. “One, because we don’t have any money,” Cynthia says. “And two, because we don’t have any money.”

Vivian, now in a different shirt for a different episode, sits down inside a cocoon of reflectors, lights, and blankets around the countertop, which muffle the echoes from the tall ceilings.

“I think that we can talk about the beef tongue a little bit,” Cynthia says.

“If you had told me nine years ago that I would be drinking beer brewed in Kinston, serving beef tongue tacos at a gallery in downtown,” Vivian says, right into the camera, “I would have laughed in your face.”

It doesn’t land with the right punch, so Vivian does a more playful take: “That’s some good tongue. That’s some luscious, fatty tongue.”

“I wonder if that’s going to make us PG,” says Cynthia.

Next take: “These Kinstonians are loving my tongue.” Laughter follows.

“And the art,” says Cynthia.

“And the art,” Vivian tacks on to the end of the next take.

“Good with me,” Cynthia says, putting down the boom mike.

The TV show was Vivian’s idea. She’d been a volunteer at WRAL in Raleigh during college and had interned at CBS Sunday Morning in New York. She originally wanted to be a broadcast journalist, but shifted to advertising and then to food writing, and figured she would need to learn about food by working in kitchens. Over time, cooking, not journalism, became her career.

Chef & the Farmer opened nine years ago, in 2006. Anyone who’s watched the beginning of A Chef’s Life knows the story. Vivian and her husband, Ben Knight, were working at restaurants in New York City. Her parents offered to help her open a restaurant, but the catch was that the restaurant would have to be in eastern North Carolina, a place where Vivian grew up, but swore never to return.

It’s a little more complex than that. It was really Vivian’s sister and brother-in-law who wanted to have a little niche grocery store with a sandwich shop in it. That idea morphed into the concept for a high-end restaurant in Kinston. Local leaders, thirsty for any kind of new business downtown, helped make a building at the corner of Herritage and Gordon streets more affordable. Vivian’s parents, who had been prominent tobacco farmers in the area, pitched in. They all renovated a century-old boxy brick building, once a mule stable and more recently a print shop, into Chef & the Farmer.

The restaurant got off to a slow start. The food wasn’t Southern, and people in Kinston didn’t connect with it. Vivian called some dishes, like smoked goat cheese ravioli with tomato petals, bad versions of the food she was cooking in New York. A year in, she had her breakthrough moment with a breakthrough dish: barbecued chicken with a blueberry eastern-style sauce. Over the next few years, Chef & the Farmer started to turn into a word-of-mouth destination for people around Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill who were looking for an alternative to restaurants there. A 2009 Raleigh News & Observer review brought more interest. Still, Vivian was restless, and turned back to writing as an outlet. She became obsessed with old traditions.

Most of them already know the whole backstory. They want to see if real life matches up with what they watch on TV.

Some elderly neighbors invited her over to make collard kraut. She wrote a blog post about it. “Nobody read it,” she says.

But the idea stuck with her. Ben suggested Vivian call Cynthia Hill, a documentary filmmaker in Durham. Cynthia was between projects, and agreed to come down to Kinston to experiment under one condition: Vivian wouldn’t be merely the narrator for the show. She would be its main character.

Vivian explains what happened next over a glass of white wine at Buy Local, an art gallery and wine tasting room a block away from her restaurant. For the pilot episode, cameras followed Vivian and Ben around the restaurant. To a parade. To a farm, where she talked about sweet corn, and how to cook it. The first show ended with the fire that destroyed the restaurant’s kitchen in 2012. The cliffhanger: How would Ben and Vivian rebuild?

Cynthia sent Vivian a rough cut of the episode, but Vivian couldn’t bring herself to look at it for weeks. “If you want to do this,” Cynthia told her, “you have to be able to watch it.”

At first, nobody else seemed to want to watch the show, either. UNC-TV and other networks originally passed, before South Carolina’s ETV agreed to help distribute it to PBS stations nationwide. The show’s first episode aired in September 2013. And with that, Chef & the Farmer went from a regional destination to a national one. People started to look up Vivian Howard en masse on Google. Who is she? Where is Kinston? How can I get there? Where do I stay? What else can I eat while I’m there?

“I think we were really surprised at how much of an impact it had,” Vivian says, “because we didn’t really think anyone was going to watch it.”

Here’s what that impact looks like: While Vivian sits in the gallery drinking wine, three sisters are traipsing around town. First they took an Amtrak train to Wilson, then they took a Greyhound bus to Kinston. The sisters — Kathleen Bradford and Denny Galarza from Pennsylvania, and Jeanie Cavanagh from Denver, Colorado — planned to stay for four days. With no car. Kinston has no taxi service. They’ve eaten for two nights at the Boiler Room Oyster Bar, and tonight they’re finishing up dessert at Chef & the Farmer, which is packed with a diverse crowd, young and old. The restaurant’s marketing director caught wind that the sisters were in town, and, in the pouring rain, carted them out to Warren Brothers’s farm in La Grange, which is featured prominently on the TV show. She took them to a local barbecue place, where they learned why people in these parts drink Pepsi and not Coke. At one point, when they passed by the condo, Vivian herself came outside and surprised them.

Chef & the Farmer has been a spark, creating an industry nobody ever envisioned for downtown Kinston: tourism.

“We’ve seen a lot,” says Kathleen. They’d had no idea what to expect. They brought books and a deck of cards to pass the time. They haven’t touched them.

Jeanie says this isn’t a vacation. It’s a bucket-list destination. “I have such respect for Vivian,” she says. “I don’t know her, but it’s obvious from the show that she’s so clear about what she wants to achieve.”

chef & the farmer

It takes planning to eat at Chef & the Farmer now. Reservations book up weeks in advance. As the sisters finish dessert, empty tables fill up again. Plates of Cornish game hens, tomato pies, pork belly skewers, and wood-roasted halibut fly out of the kitchen. Waiters hustle. Before the TV show, people would walk in, and you could see a certain look on their faces. One that said, I drove a long way to be here. This had better be as good as everyone says it is. Now, expectations are even higher. It has to be good, because they put it on television, right? Chef & the Farmer is more than a restaurant now. It’s a voyage. People don’t wander in and discover the menu anymore. Most of them already know the whole backstory. They want to see if real life matches up with what they watch on TV.

Vivian sits in the art gallery, contemplating this. “It’s, like, larger than life,” she says of Chef & the Farmer. “It’s like they somehow expect that it’s going to change their lives.”

“That’s good,” says Ben Harper, Buy Local’s owner.

“Except that it’s just a restaurant,” Vivian says. “If I were to do what I used to do, which is stand at the end of that pass, we would never get a plate of food out. I did it for a while. There were layers of people waiting to come up to talk to me.”

That’s part of the reason why Vivian no longer hangs out in her restaurant every night. The show reflects that. If A Chef’s Life doesn’t show Vivian going from table to table, that expectation is no longer there, and people won’t feel as disappointed if they don’t meet her. There are autographed menus in the back for visitors who want a totem to take home. But a selfie, the current currency of closeness to celebrity, is increasingly hard to come by, because Vivian no longer needs to have as active a role in the day-to-day running of her restaurant. She, like most of us, wants to be at home in the evening with her 4-year-old twins, Florence and Theodore.

Out on the sidewalk in front of Buy Local,
a woman and her kids walk up to the gallery’s windows and peer inside. They’ve been searching for Vivian, who puts down her wine and walks out.

“Lila wanted to meet you,” says Lila’s stepmom, Missy Aldridge.

“You want to take a picture?” Vivian asks, before crowding between Lila, 11, and her brother Trey, 10.

Missy explains that Lila keeps changing her mind about what she wants to do when she grows up. She’s shifting between wanting to be a chef, a baker, or an artist.

“You can be all three of those,” Vivian tells her.

Missy raises her smartphone. “We watch you on the show all the time,” she tells Vivian. “When we watched y’all, I said ‘I really do know her.’ ”

Missy’s visiting from Clayton. “None of this was here!” she says, a bit wide-eyed. “I never thought this one restaurant would have started all this.”

After Chef & the Farmer, next came Mother Earth Brewing, which opened downtown in October 2009. The taproom opened five months later. Then, starting in late 2011, a slew of new restaurants opened: Queen Street Deli & Bakery, Irie Eat’s Café. Ginger 108. The Red Room. Sweetiepies Cupcakery. The Boiler Room Oyster Bar (opened by Ben and Vivian. And, most recently, Olvera Street Taqueria. All of those restaurants feed off of Chef & the Farmer, which is only open for dinner. Last year, the O’Neil Hotel opened in a long-dormant five-story bank building, and now offers seven rooms for people who want to be within walking distance of it all. The place is often full, even on weekdays.

“I think we were really surprised at how much of an impact it had,” Vivian says, “because we didn’t really think anyone was going to watch it.”

Businesses that have been mainstays in downtown Kinston for decades are happily adjusting to the cameras and the people they bring. In one episode, Vivian buys some chicks from Parrott’s General Store, which has been open for 71 years. You can buy live rabbits, too, but tourists can’t figure out a way to take animals home, so the store started selling gifts. Business has been so good that Parrott’s expanded five years ago. “I’m not used to cameras,” says owner Tommy Jones, smiling. “I didn’t run and hide. But I wanted to.”

Another time, Vivian interviewed J.C. Reynolds of Reynolds Seafood, which has flounder, speckled trout, and spot on ice in a display case. “It was OK,” J.C. says of the experience, but the response to the show was intense. He had Harper print up T-shirts for out-of-towners who wanted to buy something, but weren’t prepared to drive home with a whole sea mullet.

Some people are coming here to live, lured by a growing art and restaurant scene, $300-a-month apartments, and $600-a-month mortgages. Harper, a young, bearded, family man, used to be a T-shirt printer in Carrboro, where he paid high rent on his shop. But after eating at Chef & the Farmer in 2013, he was intrigued by what he saw in town. Last year, he moved his business and his family to Kinston. He bought a storefront on West North Street downtown. He bought a house for a song. And he’s happy. He’s betting on Kinston’s future, as a small town that’s big on food and culture. “There are progressive things happening here that gave me the confidence that this would be an interesting place to be,” he says.

Even with all this — the new restaurants, the pioneers, and the buzz — a walk from the O’Neil Hotel at night is a surprisingly solitary affair. Walk inward, toward the Chef & the Farmer down Gordon or North streets, and you pass restaurants that are open, or about to open. There’s a spa. There’s a butcher shop. There are people, dressed like out-of-towners — Hawaiian shirts, big necklaces, and shorts with belts — maybe heading to The Red Room for a drink. Windows in empty storefronts now display framed walls waiting for Sheetrock.

Walk in the other direction, down Queen Street, and you see old Kinston, the one still unaffected by the rising tide coming from Vivian and her TV show. There’s the abandoned Paramount theater, a karate studio, a thrift shop, a shoe store, and a used-book seller. This town, built on tobacco farms, wounded by Hurricane Floyd, and left fallow by the loss of lumber and cotton mills, has been steadily losing people since 1990. “It’s a town in transition,” says Adrian King, executive director of Pride of Kinston, a group trying to revitalize old buildings downtown and to get new businesses to move in. Chef & the Farmer has been a spark, creating an industry nobody ever envisioned for downtown Kinston: tourism. “It basically set that end of town on fire,” he says.

But despite the show’s success — its third season debuted on PBS in September — the struggle for funding is constant. PBS doesn’t pay production costs; they merely provide distribution. So it’s up to Vivian and Cynthia to go out and find underwriters who will get very limited exposure during each episode (PBS doesn’t allow product placement, so one sponsor, a cookware company, isn’t allowed to have its products featured on A Chef’s Life). Vivian is branching out, with cookbooks and a short series of sponsored online videos for Yahoo.com, where the advertising rules aren’t as strict. The constant hustle is proof that being this kind of a TV star doesn’t bring an automatic paycheck. What it does bring is fame. Which brings tourists. Which brings hope. In Kinston, Vivian Howard has created her own ecosystem, where hungry diners are the raw material for aspiring chefs, entrepreneurs, and artists. Chef & the Farmer remains at the top of the food chain. No matter where you go, you eventually end up there. That’s the power of Vivian’s story. A story well told.

“For a long time, it was the Ben and Vivian show in downtown Kinston,” Vivian says, her eyes focused into the camera lens. She’s back at the confessional, trying to provide some context for an episode late in the third season. “But in the last few years, a lot of other people are looking at our downtown as a place to open businesses. I mean, to think that we have this cool gallery. We have several restaurants. It’s very, very exciting.” Vivian nails the first take, but she still looks away from the camera and over to Cynthia for approval.

“That’s fine,” Cynthia says, and they move on to the next scene.

This story was published on Nov 03, 2015

Jeremy Markovich

Jeremy Markovich is a former Our State editor, and is currently the communications director for the Program for Leadership and Character at Wake Forest University. Find his newsletter, North Carolina Rabbit Hole, at ncrabbithole.com.