Interview with Chef Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer – Kinston, NC
Antoinette Bruno: In one sentence, describe Kinston.
Vivian Howard: Kinston is a small, out of the way, Southern town where kids grow up and generally leave.
AB: Why did you decide to leave Kinston in the first place?
VH: I actually grew up in the country, about 30 minutes outside town and wanted to leave for as long as I can remember. I wanted to live somewhere I could order Chinese food for delivery and walk somewhere other than the car. I had big dreams and didn't feel Eastern North Carolina could hold them.
AB: What’s your fondest Kinston memory?
VH: It's not really fond in terms of Kinston, but it is quite funny when I think about it now. Growing up on a farm, on the wrong side of the river, there was this impression that folks from Kinston were somehow superior to us country folk. We would get dressed up to go "to town," and when my mom enrolled me in Kinston's cotillion, we went out and bought me all new clothes to socialize with the town's people.
AB: How long were you away from Kinston?
VH: I left for boarding school when I was 14 and returned at 27.
AB: What were you doing during your time away?
VH: I went to high school and college, studied in Buenos Aires, and finally moved to New York. In New York, I worked in advertising, until I hated it so much I took a nap on a vacant floor in the building every day after lunch, walked dogs, and eventually started working in restaurants. I started as a server and eventually found my way into the kitchen.
AB: Did you always plan to return to Kinston?
VH: NO! I am actually on video, the Christmas before we moved here, saying I would never live in Eastern Carolina again ... never say never.
AB: Why did you come back?
VH: My now husband and I were really burned out from the city, but at the same time were starting to see real promise for our careers—his as an artist and mine as a chef. My family sensed we were probably going to put down real roots in New York and didn't want that to happen. They offered to partially back us if we opened a restaurant in Eastern Carolina. It was kind of an offer we couldn't refuse.
AB: What are some of the perks and drawbacks to working and living here?
VH: It took me a while to understand the perks aside from getting to know my parents as an adult. But now I see there are many. The fact that we’re in such an unlikely place surprises people and being pleasantly surprised off the bat generally leads to a good experience. Also, our region is ideal for small farms that do great things. Being where we are we've been able to nurture relationships with farmers and guide them to grow the things we want, to make our cuisine unique.
There are lots of drawbacks too, staffing mainly. We don't have a restaurant culture or community here, so finding folks to believe in what we do and understand the dedication it takes to work here, either in the kitchen or on the floor, is tremendously challenging.
For a long time, educating clientele was a major problem as well. Our customers thought eating in a ‘fancy’ restaurant meant a steak, a baked potato, and a salad bar. What we had to offer was definitely not that, so folks were often put off, even angry when they saw the menu.
AB: How do you balance your personal cooking philosophy with the hometown crowd?
VH: The hometown crowd actually shaped my cooking philosophy, at least my current one. We do things that are at once familiar for folks from our region and exotic for folks who are not. Our food is distinctly regional, versus basic Southern, and I think the hometown folks are less afraid because of that.
AB: What’s your favorite hometown dish?
VH: I'm currently on the quest to revive the Tom Thumb. Tom Thumb is a relic from the era when folks came together and had hog killings in the early winter. They salted hams, made sausage and pickled pork. Out of the need to waste nothing, people would stuff their sausage mix into the pig's appendix and hang it in the smokehouse till Christmas or New Year’s. So Tom Thumb is a semi-cured, celebration sausage. You poach it and use the poaching liquid to cook greens or peas. Once the sausage is cool, you slice it and pan fry the slices. It's delicious and no one even knows how to make it anymore. We developed our recipe from one country butcher and my dad's memory.
AB: Did you and your restaurant receive a warm reception?
VH: Ummm … not initially. I just think it was so far-fetched, what we were doing, that most folks wanted to be on the safe side, not our side. Our food was too expensive and too weird. I don't think people believed we were really going to stay and do everything we could to make it work. They were wrong.
AB: Are you planning on staying?
VH: Yes. Of course. We have just built a house, have two restaurants, two children and a million projects on board. We are here for the long haul.
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