Kinston, N.C. — Matthew Cunningham is not a natural for TV, though to be fair, few farmers probably are. He has a ruddy face and keeps his camouflage baseball cap clamped to his bald head. His thick twang obscures the few words he utters: What inspired his farm stand? “Need to make a living,” he mumbles. What do you cook your beets in? “A big pot.”
A run-through might have been in order before the cameras started rolling for the third season of “A Chef’s Life.” But Vivian Howard, the chef in the PBS reality-TV show, doesn’t believe in rehearsal. Talking through how Cunningham makes his pickled beets — boiled with the stems on, then bathed in a two-to-one “sauce” of sugar and vinegar — would make her conversation with him seem fake. The whole point of “A Chef’s Life” is to showcase the people and traditions of Eastern North Carolina, not some version of them gussied up for TV.
It’s an ambitious goal. Reality TV, despite the name, mostly serves up scripted dialogue, manufactured drama and plenty of well-worn stereotypes. If, like Howard, you are a) Southern and b) have moved from New York to your home town in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, the show that most TV producers want is something more like megahits “Duck Dynasty” or “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” “People want me to cook muskrat on the side of the road,” Howard said, not bothering to hide her irritation. “That, I could get money for.”
But the 36-year-old chef doesn’t cook muskrat. Nor does she see why she should have to, just to be on TV.
And so where most reality programs hurtle from one disaster to the next, “A Chef’s Life” ambles along, trailing Howard as she buys buttermilk from one neighbor, then learns from another how to perfect a Southern biscuit. The series paints a sensitive portrait of her life and the lives of her neighbors in Kinston, N.C. And along the way, it has done something else: helped to revitalize their city by luring culinary tourists. Last May, the program won a prestigious Peabody award (though, Howard is quick to point out, the achievement hasn’t pushed any corporate sponsors her way). The second season of “A Chef’s Life” premieres on WETA on Oct. 11.
In some ways, Howard is not a natural for reality TV, either. She looks the part; she is a beauty, with wavy brown hair worthy of a Pre-Raphaelite painting and a throaty, infectious laugh. But she turns pink with embarrassment when fans approach with compliments or ask for her autograph — which happens virtually every night. Moreover, Howard, a mother of toddler twins, is refreshingly honest about her life and its struggles. She’s real. Which, of course, makes her an unlikely heroine for reality TV.
Howard’s starring role makes more sense when you realize that she is driven not by a need for attention but by a desire for validation. She grew up in Deep Run, N.C., in the heart of tobacco country. Her parents were farmers, and she remembers from an early age being embarrassed about it. “Even in this very small place, there was the country and there was the town,” Howard said. “I felt as if the kids who went to the city schools looked down on the kids that went to the country school. We were river rats and rednecks. I don’t think you lose that. It’s a part of you.”
She left as soon as she could, first for boarding school, then college and finally New York City, where she got a job in advertising. After 18 wretched months, Howard quit. She found work as a waitress, where she met her future husband, Ben Knight. She also found her way into the kitchen, eventually working the line at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market and the modernist restaurant WD-50.
Then in 2005, Howard’s parents offered her the opportunity to start her own restaurant — if she would come home. Kinston, a city of 20,000, wasn’t an obvious fit for a fine-dining establishment. Over the previous two decades, the region’s economic engines, tobacco and textiles, had largely disappeared. The city that Howard had felt unworthy of had steeply declined. Kinston’s main street, once full of hairdressers, department stores and restaurants — it was called the “magic mile” — was now populated with dilapidated or empty storefronts.
But the middle of nowhere did offer the young chef one thing: a chance to learn the restaurant business away from the scrutiny and pressures of a big city. In 2006, Knight and Howard opened Chef and the Farmer.
The restaurant looks as if it could have been airlifted from Brooklyn. The building used to be a printing plant; before that, it was a mule barn. Inside, it’s a palette of grays and mustards with exposed-brick walls, an open kitchen and a constant roar. The Chef, as everyone calls it, was a shock to many Kinston locals who thought of fine dining as a steakhouse.
In the early days, the food was surprising, too. Howard served dishes such as smoked goat cheese ravioli with tomato petals. The goat cheese was local; buying local ingredients was always part of the concept. But the dishes, while delicious, Howard says, “had nothing to do with me or where we are.”
Over time, that began to change. Her father, who she says wryly “likes to participate,” told a local farmer that Howard would buy 500 pounds of blueberries from him. Pressed to make use of them, she made blueberry vinegar, and with it a tart Carolina barbecue sauce to slather on chicken. The reaction to the dish, which she served with squash casserole and a slaw of unripe peaches, was tremendous. Howard was finding her voice.
Then there was the day in 2010 when Howard made collard kraut with her neighbors; three old men doing what they had always done “blew me away,” she said. “I thought I knew everything there was to know about Southern food at that point, and this experience told me differently.”
Howard became fixated on documenting Eastern North Carolina’s traditions. Her husband encouraged her to call Cynthia Hill, a documentary filmmaker and Howard’s childhood friend, to help. (Hill had no experience making food TV, so she watched Food Network for a few months to get some ideas.) In July 2011, the pair filmed a pilot of Howard canning corn with her family, then using what she’d learned in the restaurant. It was part cooking show, part documentary, totally different from anything on TV.
When they shopped the show around, though, no one was interested. At last, South Carolina’s public television station ETV agreed to share it with national PBS — if the team produced 12 more episodes. It did. When the restaurant burned down in early 2012, the series launched with a dramatic push.
Filming has hurried along Howard’s culinary growth. In each episode, she visits a farmer or a cook who shows her the traditional way to prepare something — for example, run-ups, a green similar in flavor to broccoli raab that “runs up” above ground when a turnip is left through the winter. She then uses the information to create her own style of restaurant food. In the case of the run-ups, she made a salad of the blanched and roasted greens, sweet potatoes and Parmesan.
“It’s fun because she is really learning something,” says Hill, the show’s director. “It’s not this perfunctory act we’re doing for the show.” Hill’s favorite episode is in Season 1 when Howard learns to make biscuits: “Here’s Vivian, this acclaimed chef, and she cannot make it. To save her life, she can’t make that dough.”
Eventually, Howard did master the biscuits. (She also uses the dough atop fruit crisps at the restaurant.) But what the series and the reality of this chef’s life have taught Howard is that her work can inspire people to be proud of their traditions. “Until recently, everyone who lives in Lenoir County apologized for it,” she said: “ ‘I live in Kinston, but I only moved back here because I need to take care of my mom.’ Or, ‘I’m here because I run my parents’ business.’ Or, ‘Doesn’t this place suck?’ Now that other people are interested in this place, they say, ‘I live in Kinston — you know? “A Chef’s Life.” ’ That’s the first step in really making a difference.”
As recently as five years ago, Kinston was, at best, a pit stop for folks on the way to the coast. Now it’s a destination for gastronauts from North Carolina’s Research Triangle, 90 minutes away, as well as Washington, New York and Atlanta. There’s the Chef, of course. And last year, Howard opened a second restaurant, Boiler Room, her take on an old-fashioned Southern oyster bar (one that includes burgers). But there’s also Mother Earth Brewing, which draws its own share of tourists; East-West fusion restaurant Ginger 108; a music venue; a natural-foods store and a chic clothing shop. This month, a new boutique hotel, the O’Neil, is slated to open in the historic Farmers Merchant Bank building. (The lobby vault’s 16-ton door leads to an intimate bar that seats just two.)
“Vivian has set a standard for how one chef’s economic investment can serve as a catalytic force to better that place,” says John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. He sees Howard as one in a line of strong female chefs in North Carolina, including Ashley Christensen in Raleigh and Andrea Reusing in Chapel Hill. “I’ve spent time in Kinston and seen the devotion that Vivian has to that place and that place has to Vivian. That combination of good will and smarts is a force to be reckoned with.”
Chris Maroules, the owner of Christopher’s Cafe, which has served dishes such as fried chicken and collard greens on Kinston’s main street for 45 years, agrees that Howard has had an impact, but he has some reservations. “The Chef and the Farmer dispelled the fear of coming downtown,” he said. “But they deal with the 1 percent. We deal with the masses. How many people in Kinston go out and spend $125 on dinner? This is not D.C.”
Howard admits he has a point. There are plenty of locals who, even if they have the money, find Chef and the Farmer too highfalutin. (Matthew Cunningham, the pickled-beets guru, will appear in two episodes and has yet to go to the restaurant.) But her businesses are helping to support locals who don’t dine in town. Farmers are raising old-time crops like crookneck squash and muscadine grapes to sell to her. Last fall, farmer Warren Brothers and his wife, Jane, opened a five-room B&B to cater to “A Chef’s Life” fans: “Vivian made Warren’s vegetable business, and now she’s made my hospitality business,” Jane Brothers said.
Which is why Howard tirelessly continues to beat the drum of Eastern North Carolina’s culinary traditions. She and Hill are considering a fourth season of “A Chef’s Life.” In 2016, she will publish the first of two cookbooks. She’s got time. “The more I learn, the more I love where I am,” she said. “My hope is that one day we again have a small, thriving town that might be a place that my children want to live.”
Black is a former Food section staff writer now based in Brooklyn. On Twitter: @jane_black.