Vivian Howard, whose Emmy-winning PBS show A Chef’s Life enters its third season this fall, is in the midst of her first Television Critics Association Press Tour, doling out freshly made parfaits to — and taking questions from — sugar-buzzed reporters at an afternoon reception. Afterward, Howard relaxes in the PBS green room to talk frankly about success and struggle and what she believes is the real meaning of “farm-to-table” dining. And — less frankly — about The Avett Brothers, who perform the show’s theme song and drop by to say hi this season.
A Chef’s Life Season 3 finds the fresh-faced North Carolina native juggling home time with her husband/business partner Ben Knight and their twin preschoolers, helming the family’s two Kinston, N.C. restaurants, Chef & The Farmer and the new oyster-and-burger bar Boiler Room, penning a new cookbook and making admittedly self-conscious appearances at food festivals, competitions and beyond.
She doesn’t mind telling you that keeping it all on track can make even a grateful girl tired. But doing right by her birthplace (while showing viewers what it’s really like to run an eatery) is what it’s all about.
Channel Guide Magazine: You started out doing A Chef’s Life as a kind of love song to the place that you grew up and the region and the traditions and the people — and now you have a Peabody award and a Beard award and a Daytime Emmy award. When you were standing and looking at your burned kitchen in Season 1, could you have imagined that would happen?
Vivian Howard: Actually I watched that scene where I’m standing there outside the burned restaurant and clearly I didn’t think that anybody was going to see that or I would have put on some powder!
But all of this has happened in very small little snippets. From the outside, it looks incredibly successful, but it’s been a real struggle. Not just the restaurant, but making the show and making it relevant and raising funds for it and making people aware of it. It just didn’t pop up on the radar — we scratched and clawed for it to be there. So could I have imagined that this would have happened? No. But I certainly was working towards something!
CGM: Seeing what has evolved from the show in terms of awareness for the region, awareness for the farmers and the economic impact that you are having on the region as well — is that part particularly gratifying?
VH: That’s the best part of it for me — to see the effect it’s had on our community and the effect it’s had on the way people who live in our community look at our community.
We come from a place that people have always apologized for being from there. If you grow up in Kinston and you move away and you had to come back, the answer is “Well, I’m just here to take care of my mom because she’s sick” or “I’m going to leave as soon as I save enough money.” It was always that and so what our show has done — it’s not completely changed that — but it’s allowed the people who live there to see the value in our traditions, in our region. People come to them and say “Oh my God, you live where that show is shot!” and it gives them a sense of pride. I believe that you need to feel good about where you are — and who you are — if you’re going to do anything good. Hopefully this will all commence in a better community for us to live in.
But the other part is that so many people say to me “Thank you for saving my town!” or ‘Thank you for saving Eastern North Carolina!” — and that’s a tremendous burden. It’s like, “Well, what if I want to stop? What if this all fizzles out?” It’s like, this can’t all be about me. Other people have got to participate and push as well, because I’m just one person.
CGM: Can you talk a bit about balancing your business plan and your ideas for the restaurants with the economic reality of the region and also its traditions and what is important to its people?
VH: Well, when we opened — and we’ve been open close to 10 years, which is what a lot of people don’t realize — we didn’t haven’t rent, because we bought this building and it was only $40,000. Me and two other people worked in the kitchen, and my husband and three other people worked in the front of the house. Our overhead was very low, and it’s good that it was because the economic realities of the community did not support the type of restaurant that we had. It took us a year to build up enough notoriety within the larger region to have people travel to eat with us and spend their special occasions with us. So balancing the business and the reality of where we’re at has always been a big problem. We’ve been open for 10 years and we just in the past 6 months became profitable.
We’ve been making it and we’ve been paying ourselves a salary and paying everyone else, but we’ve never made any money. Even after we started to get so busy from all the people coming in from watching the show, we still were not able to translate that into profit because we just didn’t have the infrastructure set up to do so. We hired a restaurant consultant who came in and spent a few weeks with us and helped us put some protocols in place. We thought that it would be this one thing that we were doing wrong — just the ace in the hole — but what we learned was we were doing everything pretty much right, but there were just little ways to shave all around and that’s what we’ve had to do.
If we were in a city like L.A. or Raleigh or New York where most of the dinners at dinner have a glass of wine or have a cocktail, then we would have been making money long ago. Only about 20 percent of our dinners have alcohol, largely because most people are driving an-hour-and-a-half to two hours to eat, plus there’s also the whole religion thing and we just don’t live in an area where people drink a lot. We’ve known that from the beginning that that’s something that we have to fight against — but my husband and I enjoy wines. It’s a complicated thing.
CGM: Farm-to-table dining is universally trendy, but can you talk about your devotion to presenting it as something that’s both historic for a region and also economically and traditionally important to families and the region as a whole?
VH: When we opened, we made the commitment to buy as much as we could from local farmers. Not because it was trendy — because it wasn’t then — but because we wanted to improve the community. Eastern North Carolina used to be a region of small family farms and it’s not anymore. We wanted to be a part of transforming what used to be tobacco farms into small niche produce, protein and cheese producers and so that’s what we set out to do. For me, the farm-to-table movement is all about community, and to see that it’s evolved into this thing that doesn’t mean that at all — I don’t even know what it means
I saw a billboard the other day for Lays potato chips and it said “We buy local” and it’s like really? It’s about knowing the people who grow your food and sharing and a restaurant being able to kind of turn on a dime when that ingredient is gone. A lot of farm to table restaurants do buy things locally, but then when their local farmer doesn’t have it anymore, they buy it from somewhere else. That’s not what we do. We work with 15 local farmers and when that ingredient is gone, we change the dish to something that they have. If that’s not what you’re doing then I don’t see how it helps your community.
As soon as it becomes March, chefs put spring ingredients on their menu — and that’s not what happens. Here in North Carolina we don’t have anything until late April — we get asparagus in late April. So February, March and early April are the worst months for cooking because we’ve gone through everything that we have preserved and put up and pickled and I’m using a lot of grains and sprouts and stuff like that. That whole idea that as soon as the calendar says spring, we’re expected to serve spring ingredients is incredibly frustrating for me.
CGM: Tell me about the ingredients — and the people — we’re going to see this season.
VH: We start out with summer squash, which is one of my favorite ingredients because it’s one of these things that say summer. You get it before you get corn, you get it before tomatoes and it really plays well with others. It’s elegant but it’s very underrated. People do not get excited when they see squash, you know what I mean? We do figs. We have this variety of fig in Eastern North Carolina called the brown turkey fig and we learn about its history and we make preserves with it. You see a lot of Miss Lillie in Season 3. She teaches me to cook rutabagas, and I make a cake for her mother’s 89th birthday and we go to her birthday party. I make a chocolate beet cake. The last ingredient of Season 3 are new potatoes.
CGM: Any tweaks or changes?
VH: One thing that happens in this season that hasn’t really happened before is that you see me do some of these ’celebrity chef’ things — but it’s not in a way that we’re exalting the celebrity chef. You really see what it is for, what it is.
I go and cook on the Today show and my crew goes with me and they film from behind the scenes —and they also simultaneously film my family at home, watching. You can see my kids bouncing off the chairs and the couch and they don’t care. That ends up being a very emotional segment, because you could see that the celebrity doesn’t matter and really what matters is family and it’s just really nice — the way they put it together is really nice. I cry every time I see it.
Oh, and The Avett Brothers, who sing the song at the beginning of the show, come and eat at the restaurant! I know Joe the cellist — he lives in Raleigh — but I had never seen The Avett Brothers. Scott Avett is incredibly sparkly and handsome and I kind of acted all fan-girl when they came to the restaurant. It’s embarrassing … so I apologize for that.
Images courtesy of PBS.