Vivian Howard opens her show with, “This is my life. Living in the town I grew up in, raising twins, and exploring the South, one ingredient at a time” While she’s not your average everyday person, she absolutely is your average everyday person. Her everyday just happens to be building a food empire, one Eastern North Carolina ingredient at a time. The fact that I know her, or that I’m sitting at her kitchen bar writing this in this moment is both unfathomable and a testament to who she is- an everyday, generous person.
I came to know Vivian as a fan, a follower, an awestruck food lover. My draw to her was immediate. As soon as I heard her gentle southern lilt on the first episode of her PBS show, A Chef’s Life, talk about corn and it’s many varieties and applications, I knew we could be friends. After I binge watched the first season of her show, I emailed her. I spoke of my adoration for her message- her push on Southern traditions, and I asked if I could come down to Kinston and be her shadow for two weeks. I promised to not get in her way, but to actually assist her. All I needed in return was housing. Surprisingly, and yet predictably, she said yes.
Now I can say the words, “This is my life. Spending summers with Vivian Howard in Deep Run. Hanging with her twins and exploring southern food, one meal at a time.” It’s a pretty spectacular run of luck.
2016 is my third summer in Deep Run, NC. I’m blessed that Vivian still houses me when I visit and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Living in Howardville gives me access to Miss Scarlett, her much adored mother, and her twins, Theo and Flo. The second night of my stay this time around Flo and I were playing on her backyard swingset when she asked, “Miss Anna, are you our family.” I laughed and answered her, “No, Flo, but I sure do hang around like I am.” Her five year-old sensibility couldn’t quite reconcile my sarcasm so she returned with, “Well, I think your my family.” I do too, Flo, I do too.
This year happens to mark the tenth anniversary for the restaurant, Chef and the Farmer, which Vivian and Ben, her husband and artist in his own right, built with the help of Vivian’s parents and the community of Kinston, NC. This restaurant has changed the town of Kinston, NC from sleepy to buzzed about. There are new stores along the main streets each year that I visit. This year marks a coffee shop. There are tourists all day long who stop and pose beside the iconic sign outside the restaurant. And there is Vivian, down the road just a few short blocks, at her office, VHQ (Vivian Headquarters) planning the phase of her empire. This year brings sponsors for the show like Electrolux and Duke’s mayonaise and a line of Sauces and Rubs with Williams-Sonoma.
What I pinch myself over is the view I’m been afforded through Vivian’s friendship. I’ve seen first hand her movement from deep in the kitchen at Chef and the Farmer to hovering over the menu and happenings with her Sous Chefs to an arms length involvement with the addition of a Chef de Cuisine. In the three years that I have watched from my over the shoulder perch I’ve seen a woman stressed about the daily running of the kitchen and the consideration of the third season of her award winning show being her last season to a mogul-in-the-making with hand picked teams of people that slowly collect and expand from the community around her. Though empire building is what she is doing, she does it with the Southern grace with which her mommo reared her. Homegrown is still the foundation of all the operations. Sincere and thoughtful are still her byproducts.
Shots of happenings from my time in Kinston, NC: