A Gathering Place…..
Welcome to the Visiting Artists section of WildesArt. This is a gathering place of artists, songwriters, musicians, prose writers, poets, and chefs who are creating for the love of creating and touching lives. I am a curious sort of person, so I always wonder what makes such talented folks who they are. What experiences and beliefs have led them to what they are doing at this point in time?
Visiting Artist – Chef Vivian Howard
by Barbara Hengstenberg
I have been watching the PBS television series, A Chef’s Life, since moving to North Carolina last year. Watching Chef Vivian manage and run her restaurants, Chef and the Farmer and The Boiler Room, located in Kinston, North Carolina, with husband, Ben Knight…all the while raising twins and recently writing a cookbook…is quite impressive. Vivian has goals and does not shy away from working hard in order to achieve success. And this is a true success story. While Vivian continues to try to balance all that she has on her plate, and adding on top of it all an upcoming book tour, she does so with optimism and acumen. That, to me, spells success.
I was honored when Vivian accepted my invitation to do an interview for WildesArt. As our followers know, we are always in search of creative folks who are working to make a positive difference in the world. I consider Vivian an artist. She creates from good – using wholesome, local ingredients. She develops recipes out of love, and then turns around and delivers good back to her community in more ways than one. A Chef’s Life, Chef and the Farmer, The Boiler Room, and her soon-to-be-released cookbook, are changing her small town of Kinston. Life is being breathed back into Kinston as patrons flock to her restaurants, inspiring other businesses to consider this small town a viable spot in which to operate their businesses. Vivian and Ben are positive forces in their community, and I am honored to have Chef Vivian join us here at WildesArt.
I hope you’ll be as inspired by this woman as much as I have been.
“It’s about honest struggle.”
WildesArt: WildesArt celebrates living life in balance. Although your life seems rather hectic with many pans on the fire (pardon the pun!), you have balance in your life. Where do you find balance?
Vivian: I struggle with balance every day. I work too much, but my time with my kids is valuable. I talk with my mom about this challenge, and she often tells me, “This is a busy stage in everyone’s life. Yours is just busier.” The best way for me to find balance is to get enough sleep, which for me is 7 to 8 hours. Enough sleep means I’ll have a productive day, and being productive gives me some feeling of balance.
I also try to remain positive, which is something I get from my father, who has always been a farmer. Even through droughts, Dad remained optimistic.
WA: What went into your decision to add filming for a TV show in the midst of running Chef and the Farmer, while raising twins?
VH: I came into cooking as a journalist. My interest was in journalism and being a food writer. I had the idea to film before I was pregnant. I approached my childhood friend, Cynthia Hill [videographer of A Chef’s Life], with my idea, thinking we could sell it to UNC-TV only. But at the time, Cynthia said there wasn’t much interest. After the birth of the twins, a New York producer said the Food Network might be interested. We have to grab these opportunities as they come along.
WA: A very special ingredient to your restaurant and your show is the variety of local farmers who provide both food and know-how. How do you choose the farms and farmers with whom you work?
VH: My original plan was to use local farmers when we first opened Chef and the Farmer, but there weren’t very many at the time. I work with new farmers as their products reveal themselves. Farmers come into the restaurant with samples of their product, and if it’s of high quality, we will use it. I’ve worked with Warren [Warren Brothers of Brothers’ Farm in La Grange, NC] since Day One.
WA: It’s been mentioned by some chefs that a restaurant should be more about its community than about the chef and the staff. Can you talk about this?
“… community is also the people who work in the restaurant. We have a responsibility to that community.”
VH: Our restaurant speaks to that in a powerful way. Local farmers have benefited because we wanted our community to be better. However, community is also the people who work in the restaurant. We have a responsibility to that community.
WA: Do you believe your parents had the foresight of what Chef and the Farmer would develop into and where the restaurant would eventually take you? Do you think in the early 2000s they could envision how it would affect Kinston?
VH: Really, they hoped I would just stay afloat. No one thought we’d affect the community as we have.
WA: How often do your parents dine at Chef and the Farmer?
VH: They used to come in every night to be sure we had at least two seats filled! Now they come in about three nights a week.
WA: On to The Cookbook!!! Your editor stated that your cookbook stories transport him. What goes into developing a cookbook that will leave a lasting impression on its reader? It sounds like a massive undertaking. Can you talk a bit about your work in getting this published?
“I also hope it will tell the story of Eastern North Carolina and the rural South as I see it. I want to break down and debunk people’s stereotypes of the South.”
VH: From the beginning, I was interested in being a journalist and food writer. With the cookbook, I set out to write equally with regard to the ingredients and the stories behind the ingredients, rather than just writing recipes. My PR people are currently planning the book tour. The cookbook has taken two years to write, and now the book tour will be the next stage.
I hope the cookbook will encourage people to cook. I want to make cooking more accessible, and I hope my recipes will inspire home cooks at all skill levels. I also hope it will tell the story of Eastern North Carolina and the rural South as I see it. I want to break down and debunk people’s stereotypes of the South.
VH: I’ve been able to realize several dreams so far. As you achieve one thing, you become able to do more. Right now, my goal is to launch the cookbook, tackle the book tour, as well as be a focused and attentive parent.
WA: Since you’ve cut back on your time in the restaurant, how do you, as the chef, as the artist who is developing creative dishes, hand over your dishes for others to expedite?
VH: We’ve had strong leadership at the restaurant for some time. And we just hired a chef de cuisine. I try to make a difference when I can. I try to mentor and guide through my culinary point of view. I have to be comfortable with walking in and making corrections or changes. However, I miss being in the restaurant and may go back at some point. I continue to deal with trying to be engaged and relaxed about it.
WA: This is the question you posed it at the end of Season 3. It is something that artists struggle with daily, and I’m wondering if you can provide any insight into figuring it out: To what degree does what you are doing every day define who you are?
“In all that I do, I look for motivation and satisfaction.”
VH: A lot. We are what we do. For the better part of last year, I’ve been a television personality, an author, and a mentor. While some may not admit it, chefs want to grow. I don’t think any chef wants to work the pass for 30 years, but we all want to see our restaurants remain open for 30 years. In all that I do, I look for motivation and satisfaction.
WA: What brings you the most joy?
VH: That 7 to 8 hours of sleep that I was talking about! (laughing) My children. A night at home, cooking dinner for my family, and having my children eat what I make.
As we wrapped up the interview, I thanked Chef Vivian for her insightful responses to this interview, as well as to her perceptive and honest television presentation of her life as a chef. As she stated, this series resonates with people because it’s about “honest struggle.”
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking your local PBS station to watch A Chef’s Life, which is now broadcast nationally.
You can also watch episodes of A Chef’s Life online.
Stay up-to-date with Chef Vivian and Chef and the Farmer by visiting www.chefandthefarmer.com .
Visit the Boiler Room at www.boilerroomoysterbar.com .
Keep an eye out for Chef Vivian’s upcoming cookbook, Deep Run Roots, which is set to be published by Little Brown in 2016!