Vivian Howard’s latest series is called Somewhere South. It has aired its first four episodes. It is exciting to recognize in her series many foodie people with ties to the Triangle, many that I have already met. I can’t wait to see others that I know pop up as well in future episodes.
Colleen Minton also makes an appearance in at least one of the episodes. She spearheaded and led the popular multi-day Chapel Hill food event TerraVita for ten years. The TerraVita Food and Drink Festival was a celebration of local food and offered a platform for local chefs. I met Colleen during her last year of TerraVita and wish I had gotten to know her much earlier. They announced in 2019 that this would be the last year of the event siting that it was originally started as a way to give a platform to the food scene in the region and now Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill has been recognized as a food destination. A quick glance at all the James Beard award nominees for 2019 and 2020 is a testament to that.
Miss Lillie Hardy is included in the show at times. She is the country cook who was known to be Vivian’s sidekick with regular appearances in Vivian’s last series, “A Chef’s Life”. We got the opportunity to make traditional Southern biscuits alongside Miss Lily and Vivian one day this past year. We will tell you all about that a bit later in this article.
There are many local chefs from Raleigh and Durham making their appearances in “Somewhere South” as well, chefs such as Micheal Lee from M Sushi, M Koko, M Tempura, and M Pocha all in Durham. Chef Micheal Lee has plans to open a second M Sushi in Cary, NC. He also plans to open a test kitchen in the same city. He invites Vivian into his family home where they sit on the floor and make traditional Korean Kimchi.
Another local culinary expert making his appearance is Chef Oscar Diaz from Jose and Sons and Cortez. He meets Vivian at the NC State Farmers Market to purchase items for the day’s planned menu. He spends some time with her at his downtown Raleigh, NC restaurant making Enchiladas Potosinas, which if you are not familiar is like a Mexican hand pie.
The show Somewhere South also reminds me that there are many people I have not yet met, but would love to meet in the future. Like Mashama Bailey, who is the Executive Chef and Partner in The Grey in Savannah Georgia. I have watched a documentary about her life discussing how she became a chef and her story of opening this acclaimed restaurant in an old Greyhound bus station.
In this new show, Vivian tackles some complicated issues of culture and race in her attempt to unearth some answers to simple questions about food and its origins. Kudos to her and her team for taking us beyond how to make something, while still showing us how to make something.
My Story of Vivian
I first heard the name Vivian Howard several years back when I was working for a local business magazine. I learned of her story, the one of how she reluctantly moved back to Kinston, NC from NY City on the behest of her parents John and Charlotte. You see Vivian and her husband wanted to open their own restaurant, Vivian’s parents agreed to be the investors but it came with one stipulation. The only way they would fund a restaurant for her is that it had to be on their terms, in their hometown. That is how the Chef and The Farmer came to be in the little farm town of Kinston, NC in 2006.
Vivian Howard’s family are a third-generation farm family. Like most southern farm families they grew tobacco until her dad made the shift to hog farming. Vivian may have been passed down the entrepreneur gene from her dad. John Howard is a smart businessman who not only owns is known as a “Pork Powerhouse” in the agricultural community but he also owns an interest in 14 John Deere dealerships.
By 2012 when the television show aired, the buzz around the Kinston restaurant was everywhere. Friends kept telling me how amazing Vivian’s food was at the Chef and The Farmer. The distance was an issue for me even though Raleigh is only an hour and a half away, The thought of driving back to Raleigh from the country in the evening after a big meal in my belly with a few glasses of wine was an obstacle. Instead of that late-night drive, we opted to try her and her husband Ben Knight’s Kinston oyster bar, called The Boiler Room for a Saturday lunch. We were not disappointed, the steamed oysters were delicious and served with homemade saltine crackers, similar to the baked, salty, crackers you get at the free cheese station at the Angus Barn in Raleigh. My husband had a nice burger with french fries that were dipped in beef fat, which are right up my alley. I did help him finish them. We have been back many times since then, I do not vary up my selection much except I have added in the oysters served on a pork rind with a jalapeno cream sauce called General Lee Roosters and he gets the even more decadent Poutine Fries.
But what about the Chef and The Farmer?
The opportunity came about to purchase a ticket to spend the day with Vivian and her staff starting with a Saturday morning brunch made by Justise Robbins that consisted of some of Vivian’s favorite recipes from her 2016 NY Times Best Selling cookbook “Deep Run Roots”.
Ben’s Buckwheat Pancakes with house preserves, spiced pecan and pumpkin seed crumble
Shrimp & Grits with gumbo sauce
House Made Fresh Sausage
Stewed Tomato Shirred Eggs with ham chips
Mimosas and Bloody Mary’s
The brunch was amazing. Everything I typically love on a brunch with a bit of a twist. The pancakes which I usually could care less about, ended up being my favorite and the sausage which I was looking forward to, was my least. Don’t get me wrong it was all amazing it’s just that I was surprised. My second favorite was the shrimp and grits in gumbo sauce, the shrimp popped with freshness and the gumbo sauce was spicy and warm sitting on that creamy comfort layer of the grits. The room buzzed with excitement as the people who came to share this experience waited in anticipation of what would unfold.
One of the things I was surprised about The Chef & The Farmer was the small footprint of the downstairs dining area. You never picked up on that by watching a Chef’s Life on PBS. This makes sense why in addition to all the publicity around the restaurant the wait-list for reservations can be quite lengthy. There is an entire upstairs that we ended up in for the cocktail hour, but I was unclear if that is typically used for dining or simply reserved for large groups and events. I have always known there is outside seating on the patio area among the stacks of dried firewood, fragrant herbs and colorful flower planters and in the near future my plan is to dine out there. There are more options for lodging in the area now. In 2012 The owner of Mother Earth Brewing Company located in downtown Kinston, purchased the MidTown Motor Lodge and has now retrofitted it so people have a place to stay. I can make my way to a nearby bed and breakfast or the Mother Earth Motor Lodge to sleep off the richness of the evening and in the morning make my way back to Raleigh.
After brunch ended we walked down the road through Kinston’s center and made our way to Vivian’s test kitchen which resides in the old Big D’s Tire Shop. The tire shop was going to be a residence for Ben’s mother which did not pan out so it became the offices for Vivian’s many projects and doubles as her test kitchen. We had the opportunity to get a firsthand up-close look at where she spends her time. Evidence that she is a proud momma surrounded us with her children’s hand-drawn artwork hanging by magnets on the side of her commercial refrigerator. We saw evidence that she is an award-winning chef too as we could see all her trophies on the shelves. Vivian has won the Peabody Award in Broadcasting Excellence, the Daytime Emmy Award for the best director of the Culinary and Travel Program, the AAA Four Diamond Award, A Wine and Spectator Award and The James Beard Award five times consecutively! We also evidence that she is an entrepreneur with lots on her plate by the stacks of books and disheveled papers that strewn about on her desk.
We know her cookbook well, we have made so many wonderful recipes from it. Vivan’s Spiced Nuts, the Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie are two of my favorites. Back in 2016 we purchased an advance copy and waited in line outside of Page 158 Books in Wake Forest NC on a cool November day to get our copy signed by Vivian. I now have two signed copies.
That was before Love of Food was even a thought. I wonder if somehow Vivan was an inspiration for us to begin cataloging recipes and writing stories of local foods. Outside was her food truck with an even longer line. We had experienced her food truck’s delights at the Tiny House Festival in Sugar Hill, NC earlier that year and knew it was worth waiting for. Flash Fried collards served in a paper cone spicy and salty they went well with the sweet and savory freshly squeezed Lavender Lemonade. This was by far some of the best food truck food I had ever had.
Back in Vivian’s test kitchen at Big Ds. We were all seated as her and Miss Lillie gathered upfront in behind the steel counters, but that soon gave away to Vivian inviting us all to gather around. She wanted us to get our hands in the dough and chat with her by the stove as she flipped country ham for the biscuits we would make with Miss Lillie. They were funny together almost like how a comedian and his straight man might interact on an old television show. Vivian tried to coax Miss Lillie to talk while she was mixing the biscuits and Miss Lillie paid no mind to her suggestions. When the audience asked questions of her, Miss Lillie would tell us straight out how something is in her own real way like “I don’t need to measure I’ll know when it’s enough”. She called people out and held them to account. You were there to do something, not to just watch! No spilling, no dirty hands, and no fooling around. She was as kind and sweet as she was gruff and real. She posed for pictures with us after we ate those amazing biscuits.
Vivian was real too, talking to us all as if we were all gathered in a friend’s kitchen. She made us all feel like we were all on a level playing field when it came to cooking. I suppose it is that humility that we are drawn to above and beyond her amazing ability to take the simplest recipes from her mother’s kitchen and rework them, actually modernize them but keep the integrity of the ingredients in her dishes. Her demeanor is part of her appeal and contributes to her success.
Vivian reminds me a lot of a chef friend of mine, Preeti Waas. Who owns Cheeni in Downtown Raleigh, a breakfast and lunch spot for Tiffen, Coffee, and Chai. Who also runs a bakery business and sets up at the local farmer’s market on the weekends. I often feel this way in her kitchen as well, when she tries a new recipe with me, or whips up a traditional Indian Congee. She can make even a simple scrambled egg taste amazing. Her and Vivian are gifts to the culinary industry. Not only are they accomplished women, and food-whisperers, but they take the time to make others feel welcomed around them.
The day ended with a private cocktail party with lots of great hors d’ oeuvres and live music back at Chef & The Farmer. There we got more time to chat with Vivian as she signed some of her Deep Run Roots cookbooks. In my conversations with her that day I told her about her inspiration to me and that after I saw on social media that she had a pickling party I gave it a shot and that sparked the entire idea for a Facebook group dedicated to the Love of Food. She loved what we were doing and encouraged us to keep it up. As a matter of fact she signed our second copy of her book by writing “For The Love of Food, Cook Your Hearts Out!” My original plan was to raffle the signed book for marketing purposes, but somehow I can not seem to bring myself to part with it. This second copy still sits with my other favorite cookbooks next to the one Vivian signed a few years ago.
When the series A Chef’s Life ended her fans were mourning more than the loss of a show that they had come to enjoy. Many thought they would lose the gift of Vivian’s warm and real presence that they came to love. I can assure those fans that Somewhere South does not disappoint. Watch it on PBS.