When Carolina Calls, You Go Home and Cook

by Sean Kenniff
Antoinette Bruno
November 2013

Salad bars, sweet tea, drive-thrus, and Dairy Queens dominated the Eastern North Carolina food landscape before Chef Vivian Howard came to town in 2005. Howard was no new kid on the block when she came sweeping in from that self-important city up north: New York, where she worked at wd~50 and was part of Spice Market’s opening team. Howard is originally from Deep Run, and opened her landscape-altering restaurant Chef & the Farmer15 miles north of her hometown. “Kinston is a small, out of the way, Southern town where kids grow up and generally leave,” says Howard.

Chef Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer—Kinston, NC

Chef Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer—Kinston, NC

Carolina Gold Crusted Flounder, Sweet Corn, Sun Gold Sauce

Carolina Gold Crusted Flounder, Sweet Corn, Sun Gold Sauce

Chef Bill Greene of Artisanal - Banner Elk, NC

Chef Bill Greene of Artisanal - Banner Elk, NC

Bergamot Encrusted Veal, Curry Squash Puree, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, and Chestnuts

Bergamot Encrusted Veal, Curry Squash Puree, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, and Chestnuts

Much like Howard, who was caught on video the Christmas before she ended up returning to Kinston declaring, “I will never live in Eastern Carolina again,” Chef Bill Greene got the hell out of Banner Elk (on the opposite side of the state) as soon he could, after high school. But sometimes life forces you to make tough choices that you could never anticipate. Regardless of what the fates allowed, these Carolina chefs are representative of a larger trend: chefs moving from urban centers back home to change their lives and careers and impact the rural communities they left behind.   

“My husband and I were really burned out from the city,” says Howard, “but we 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.”

Howard has become a major force in changing Kinston’s dead-end reputation. “This new, positive attention is a long-time coming. In the seven years [Chef & the Farmer] has been open, Kinston has become a well-known destination for food and drink in North Carolina. Being a leader in that effort makes my heart swell!” Howard has helped farmers transition from tobacco to whatever her menu and the Carolina seasons demand. “The ‘farmers market’ was full of lemons, oranges, and pineapples. We’ve changed that.”    

Howard has also convinced other businesses to come join her in her effort to revitalize Kinston through food. The founders of Mother Earth Brewing set up shop in Kinston, and between their brewing facility and taproom, the company takes up a big chunk of the downtown.

“We’ve [also] just opened a new version of an old-school steamed oyster bar called the Boiler Room,” says Howard. “I’m still catching my breath from that experience, so no more restaurants for a while.”

Greene, whose pleasant drawl differs slightly from Howard’s, began his journey away from home by enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, he worked in Scottsdale and New York City at Le Cirque and Peacock Alley during Laurent Gras’s tenure. When his mother fell ill, Greene returned home, forever altering the career he intended for himself and the course of fine-dining in North Carolina. He looked after his mother for the last year of her life, and took-on a position at one of the region’s elite country clubs. During the off-season Greene sought work in Charlotte, and eventually he and his wife, Anita, scraped together the financing, and opened a restaurant in a strip mall in Banner Elk.

“Banner Elk is a sleepy, little mountain town. People are friendly. Coming back, I remembered my small town touch,” says Greene, “… and there are a lot of tourists.” Situated in the Smoky Mountains, near the border with Tennessee, the year round population of Banner Elk is about 1,200. During the May to October season the population swells to 35,000. One of Greene’s seasonal guests—Fortune-500 tycoon Wayne Huizenga—liked his touch in the kitchen so much that he agreed to back him, along with the Diamond Creek Golf Club, in the opening of Greene’s dream restaurant, Artisanal                  

Greene’s guests have been known to swoop in on helicopters to get a seat in his dining room. But it’s not the spectacle of the clientele or the grand-cathedral meets horse-barn aesthetic of the dining room that excites Greene, it’s what’s on the plates. In the summer he and Anita field calls and visits from farmers boasting beautiful harvests of tomatoes, ramps, morels, and sunchokes. “People know us around here,” says Greene. “We love Banner Elk. We’re here for the long term; for the family, comfort, and community.”

Greene and Howard have both found that even though they’re using Carolina ingredients and cooking in a style that should resonate on some level with their fellow Carolinians, they still struggle with the balance between cutting-edge fine-dining and the approachable food their customers crave. Even small changes to traditional dishes can throw people for a loop. Howard’s own mother implored for a salad bar. But Howard ignored her and put her heart on the line. The once provocative “Pimp My Grits” section of the menu is now a local favorite. Kinstonians have even become accustomed to (heaven forbid) paying for sweet tea!

Both chefs also struggle to find qualified, interested folks to work in their restaurants. Says Howard, “We’re located in an extremely impoverished region of the country. There is no restaurant culture here, and finding people who buy in and understand the level of excellence we’re trying to achieve is very hard. We’ve recently begun a program where we offer recent culinary grads free room and board and a fair wage for a minimum of six months.”

“Staffing continues to be difficult,” says Howard “but it’s easier than it’s ever been. [I used to] hire just about anyone who walked through the door because we’ve historically been desperate. Now, I can be a little more selective. We used to drastically undervalue our food for fear people wouldn’t eat with us. At this point though, running full throttle, with a full time butcher, a three-person pastry team, a five person line and two prep cooks, we have to charge appropriately.”  

Greene has found that local culinary schools can be a valuable resource. He’s eager to give credit to the team that’s he’s built for the success and esteem of his restaurant in the region.

A chef’s work entails long hours and hard work no matter where he or she cooks. The constant struggle to adapt to the tastes of your reclaimed home, while the inhabitants simultaneously adapt to you, seems to be the toughest personal battle. A little finesse and stick-to-itiveness go along way. So do friends, family, and some pimped out grits. “I don’t think people believed we were really going to stay and do everything we could to make it work. They were wrong,” says Howard. “I started translating my region’s food, telling the stories of my family through dishes. That’s when I felt like I was in the right place, doing the right thing, feeling like I was home.”