Vivian Howard has spent more than a decade helping to prepare meals for customers at her Chef and the Farmer restaurant in Kinston. But cooking is just a small portion of what Vivian has on her plate every day. She is “wife” to Ben Knight, “mother” to five-year-old twins Florence and Theodore, “boss” to workers at both family restaurants, Chef and the Farmer and the Boiler Room Oyster Bar, “talent” to the crew shooting her award-winning television show A Chef’s Life, and “author” of the Deep Run Roots cookbook, which made the New York Times Bestseller list when published in 2016. Now Vivian and Ben are ready to open their first restaurant in Wilmington. Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria is in the city’s South Front community. There’s a story behind the name, at 2:45 of the podcast.
“We like Wilmington,” Vivian says. “We want to continue to invest in Eastern North Carolina. We feel like Wilmington, the population is growing, it’s a nice place to be, and it’s in Eastern North Carolina.
Vivian Howard grew up in Deep Run, outside of Kinston in Lenoir County. She describes herself as an outgoing child, one who loved to make people laugh. The youngest of four girls, Vivian left home for boarding school at the age of 14, and when it came time to start looking at a career, cooking was not on the list.
“I never thought of cooking that would be something okay to do professionally,” Vivian says. “In my family, we could be a farmer, a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer, a nurse maybe. Cooking was not something I considered, but I became interested in television journalism when I was in college.”
In pursuit of that journalism ideal, Vivian secured an internship with CBS Sunday Morning in New York City, and came to love the Big Apple. She got a job with an advertising agency, but when the September 11 attacks happened about a year-and-a-half into her time there, Vivian left that job to re-evaluate what she wanted to do for a career. She had several temporary jobs, before landing a promising position at a restaurant opening in the city’s West Village.
“The concept of it was ‘southern food via Africa’,” she says. “The chef (Scott Barton) was just a walking encyclopedia of food history, and a great storyteller. So, I began to see how maybe I could combine my love for food and my love for storytelling, as a career possibly as a food writer. I started cooking at that restaurant during the day, before my shift on the floor at night, as a means to get a behind the scenes look of what it meant to work in a kitchen.”
Vivian did share her memories of being in New York City on that fateful day of September 11, 2001. That comes at about 12:15 of the podcast.
Vivian met Ben Knight while in New York, and in 2005, the married couple moved back to her home town of Deep Run with plans to open a restaurant in a building her family bought in Kinston. The two had started a small “side hustle” business of making and selling soups from their New York City apartment. But this would be their first full-fledged eatery. But Vivian found the community she left at age 14 had changed. Textiles and tobacco were not as strong as they once were, and the economy suffered as a result.
“When we moved back, it was like there had been a tremendous brain-drain, a mass exodus, everyone who could leave had left, and it was very sad,” Vivian remembers. They embraced the “farm to fork” movement, deciding to make supporting local farmers and the local community a priority to be part of a solution. When Chef and the Farmer opened in 2006, it led the way in using produce and ingredients provided by a network of farmers and operations in Eastern North Carolina.
“Local support is something that used to be at the core of how we lived in this country,” Vivian says. “People owned small businesses. If someone came into your business, you went into their business. When hardware stores, fish markets and bakeries are replaced by Walmarts, you don’t have that same connection to Sam Walton.”
Vivian and Ben have since opened the Boiler Room Oyster Bar in Kinston, which operates on the same concept as Chef and the Farmer. But it was a foray into television that would make Vivian Howard a familiar face outside of North Carolina. It started with a concept of doing a documentary on what Vivian perceived to be the lost food traditions of Eastern North Carolina. Vivian wanted to write and produce it. She contacted a filmmaker friend, Cynthia Hill, to discuss the project. She talks about the beginnings of A Chef’s Life at 24:45 of the podcast.
“I just turned and talked to the camera, because I essentially was talking to Cynthia, the filmmaker, and the style of the show just evolved around that,” Vivian says about A Chef’s Life. “It felt very safe because I knew her, and I just pretended that was talking to a friend. I also didn’t think anybody was ever going to see it.”
Millions have watched the program, now in its fifth season running on PBS stations across the country. Vivian and Ben invested their own money into the start-up, and their online fundraising efforts brought in about $50,000 for the project. South Carolina Public Television agreed to show a preview to PBS, which eventually decided to distribute the show nationally.
“It was really exciting because I didn’t think anybody was going to see it, and we had leveraged a lot by making it,” Vivian says. “When you’re filming, in your restaurant, a tv show, and there’s no home for it, it doesn’t really make sense that you’d be making a tv show, your diners look at you like you’re insane. Your staff, whose job is made more difficult because you’re in their workspace filming, is disgruntled. We had assumed tremendous exposure based on filming with my family and filming in our business, and to hear that it was going to have a platform was tremendous.”
The show was an instant success, winning a Peabody Award after the first season. The award not only validated the project, it gave Vivian and her team the ability to go to sponsors and raise money to continue churning out new episodes and seasons of A Chef’s Life. The recipe of centering each episode on an ingredient, introducing characters and stories that relate to the ingredient, did not happen by accident. As Vivian explains at 31:45 of the podcast, she and Cynthia wanted to use A Chef’s Life as a platform to break down stereotypes many people have of southern living.
"People outside the south watch television that shows us all as like Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo or Duck Dynasty,” Vivian says. “There's nothing wrong with those shows, but that's not the full story. We were very calculated about that message, showing rural southerners as people with a skill set and wisdom that urban folks do not necessarily have.”
Vivian’s program took viewers along on what she calls “the biggest project of my life”, her first cookbook titled Deep Run Roots. Published in 2016, the 587-page collection of recipes and stories became a New York Times Bestseller and won several awards, including “Cookbook of the Year” from the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Vivian talks about the lengthy, exhaustive process of writing the book at 40:30 of the podcast, and what she learned in the aftermath as viewers watched her travel from event to event signing books and greeting her fans.
“I’ve always considered myself a story teller, and I had no desire to write a book of recipes,” Vivian says about her book. “I feel you can google any recipe you want. So, the recipes in my book, I wanted them to be related to a bigger narrative, and I wanted the stories to relate to the recipes. So that was very intentional.”
Vivian already has idea for her follow-up to Deep Run Roots, which you will hear her talk about in the podcast. It’s currently in the proposal stage. Season 5 of A Chef’s Life is airing now across the country, and Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria is set to open any day in Wilmington.
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