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An Interview with Vivian Howard of "A Chef's Life"

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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: Vivian Howard, star and producer of A Chef's Life on PBS and chef at Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, NC, talks to us about Southern food traditions -- and what it's really like to slaughter your own hog.

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Vivian Howard

The most refreshing thing about PBS's A Chef's Life is how different it feels from every other food TV show we've ever watched. Its protagonist and narrator is Vivian Howard, chef at Chef and The Farmer in Kinston, NC, who's easier to like than any other person on reality television. Each episode seeks out an ingredient and tells the story of the people who grow and produce it and shorten that much-publicized jaunt between farm and table.

It's an honest account of life for a chef and a farmer, for a family that's involved in their community, and of Howard, earnest and plucky and curious and clearly at home in the kitchen. We see her sourcing her vegetables from old farmers who don't care much for camera crews and studying the art of biscuit making from a woman who has been baking them for decades. After leaving North Carolina for New York City, where she worked in a whole slew of fancy kitchens, Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, returned to Eastern North Carolina to open something of their own, and reconnect with the community where she grew up.

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With A Chef's Life, now in its second season, Howard and Knight present an honest account of life in Eastern North Carolina and the people who grow and cook and eat its bounty. As a onetime North Carolina resident, I've developed a bit of a girl crush on Howard, and chatted with her on the phone recently about the show's history and what she's most excited about this season.

Vivian Howard

How did the idea of the show come about?
The whole idea started four years ago. These neighbors of mine invited me to make collard kraut with them -- and I thought, I’d never heard of collard kraut, that’s so cool. And they were these four gentlemen who had been making kraut from collards their whole life. Traditionally, women can’t participate in making kraut -- they’ve been making kraut from the seed from 100 years, and I was so fascinated by the experience.

My background is in journalism, and I’ve always been fascinated with telling stories, so I got this idea to preserve the dying food traditions around me. I called [my friend and documentarian] Cynthia Hill to see if she would help me do this, and we all came together one day in July and decided we would start with the act of putting up corn -- it’s something people have been doing for ages here, and my family has always done it.

But we still thought we were making a little documentary -- we wouldn’t have had the confidence to make a series had it not been for a producer out of New York, who told us to call it a pilot and make a series out of it. We sent it to the Food Network, and they didn’t like it. We took it to PBS and they said, “This is really cool. Make 12 more of them.”

Why do you think people are so fascinated with Southern food?
It’s really our country’s one true regional cuisine. There’s also a ton of storytelling around it, and I think that people are fascinated with stories, so I think that we’ll see more of our country’s food traditions being exalted.

More: Whip up a batch of Shirley Corriher's genius biscuits tonight.

Biscuits

When I left Eastern North Carolina, I didn’t even know that Southern food was a thing -- I thought everyone ate the things that I did. And I was actually ashamed of where I grew up, and how I grew up. But since moving back, I’ve come to appreciate the foods I’ve been eating and the stories behind them -- and now I spend my life celebrating it. It changes the way you see your family and the people in your community. All I ever wanted to do was get away from here, but now I value the knowledge of people in our community who hold these nuggets of wisdom that are dying in other places.

That was the initial goal, to document these dying food traditions. I thought that would be enough -- but I realized that people wanted more than that.

What kind of food did you eat growing up?
Very simple, vegetable-based food: corn, butter beans, lots of preserved pickles, lots of pork -- until I came along, my family had hog killings every fall. In fall and winter, it’s really about making use of those 2 pigs they foddered. Lots of cornbread, lots of sweet potatoes baked in their jackets. My mom’s comfort food was chicken and rice, which we made on the show -- probably the episode we’ve gotten the most feedback on is the one where I make chicken and rice with my mom.

Do you feel like you have a duty to dispel the romanticism that surrounds farming?
Either it’s villainized, or romanticized. There’s the idea about these small organic biodiverse farms, that it’s easy and a wonderful way of life. It’s also easy to think that these monolithic farms are made up of bad people, and that’s an easy way of life. What we want to show is that there’s a lot of grey in between, and that neither one is very easy.

I feel a big responsibility to rural America. I think there’s a big divide between urban and rural people -- part of what we want to show is that people aren’t that different

Biscuits and Gravy

How has the way you cook changed since you moved back to North Carolina?
I used to make these really elaborate, involved meals at home, and now it’s just more simple -- and much more akin to what my mom would have made at home. Chicken and rice, roasted sweet potatoes, simmered corn -- largely because it’s healthy and easy.

That perception of Southern food has always been an outside perception. We didn’t eat fried chicken every day or have tall biscuits every morning. Those are celebration foods -- we’d have fried chicken on Mondays and sausage biscuits Christmas morning. Around here, people have always been cooking that way. But I'm certainly happy to see the rest of the country’s perception changing. For the most part this has always been an agrarian society that eats lots of vegetables and a little bit of meat -- like a pot of collards with a little bit of ham.

I think it’s part of a greater shift in our country, realizing that we don’t always have to have a giant piece of meat in the middle of the plate, that that’s not the best choice.

What are you most excited about this season?
We shot a holiday special last December that tracks our whole Christmas experience at home and in the restaurant. It’s a real portrayal of what that’s like -- I wanted us to recreate this hog-killing tradition that my family always participated in. So we did that, and that’s been a longtime dream of mine. That will air December 16th. 

We had to fight hard to have that be a part of it -- it’s not pretty, it’s not something that makes people comfortable, but I think that if we’re going to consume protein we need to at least acknowledge where comes from. We need to have respect for the way people once lived; they had skills that we don’t have, which they had to put to work to make sure their family had food to eat.

Was it your first time doing that?
I have 3 older sisters, and I would hear of it from them. Everyone stayed home from school, it took 2 days, everyone had a job -- I always felt that I was some way jipped [not having participated in it].

People push [animal slaughter] under the mat -- but it does happen. We don’t do the whole thing in slow motion, and we had to edit some of it out, but really what I wanted to show was that it was there and this is what happened.

More: Turn your pork cracklings into cornbread, à la Sean Brock.

Cornbread

Will you do it again?
If I do I will have more help. The day that we decided to do it, there were some people we wanted to be there -- the experts -- and they couldn’t be there, so it was really hard. So the next time I’d want to do it better.

The holiday episode of A Chef’s Life airs tonight, December 16th, at 10 PM EST on PBS. We think you should tune in!

Tags: vivian howard, a chefs life, chef and the farmer