I’m a junkie for obsessive entrepreneurs, whatever they’re striving for or their means of getting there. Some of my entrepreneur friends always knew what they wanted from life (not me). Others’ paths remain exploratory and meandering even into their next enterprise in their 40s (me). The common thread among all of these people is passion.
Vivian Howard, a chef from North Carolina with her own TV show and product line that just launched at Williams-Sonoma, is a rare combination of both paths. She always knew that she wanted to be a journalist. It just took 23 years to get there. She’s now arrived—big time.
Growing up in rural North Carolina with parents in the tobacco and hog industries gave Howard a unique perspective on living off the land long before farm-to-table became a culinary trend. After graduating college with a degree in journalism, Vivian headed to New York City to pursue a career in advertising.
Rather than falling in love with her new career, Vivian realized that her favorite part of the day was lunch, when she was able to experience flavors from around the world. She fell so in love with lunch (I’m not kidding) that she eventually started writing up her own Zagat-like reviews that she submitted to the guidebook (she never heard back—their mistake in retrospect). Bon appétit. Vivian Howard the food critic was born.
Vivian left corporate advertising and took a server job at Greenwich Village’s restaurant Voyage, working under Chef Scott Barton. Vivian describes the menu as “Southern food via Africa” that was elevated by Chef Barton’s unique sense of “food history.” Her fascination with food inspired Vivian to come in before her shift to work in the kitchen with Barton and his team. From that point on, Vivian realized that she’d probably make a better cook than a food critic. From Voyage, over the next several years Vivian went on to work under leading chefs like Wylie Dufresne and Sam Mason at WD-50, and later was a member of the opening team at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market.
At the time there was nothing to romanticize about. “Life wasn’t easy,” Vivian tells me about working three jobs to make ends meet which included making soup to sell through her side business.
In 2005, an investor approached Vivian to help take her soups to a larger market. She talked with her family and they presented a counter: to offer their support for Vivian to start her own restaurant back in her hometown. Rural North Carolina was a place Vivian swore she’d never go back to, and she was now going right back to where she started.
In 2006, Vivian and her now husband, Ben Knight, opened Chef & the Farmer, a farm to fork restaurant in Kinston, N.C., that serves traditional, local, seasonal plates with a creative modern spin. Vivian’s personal revitalization story (and the 100-year-old former mule stable Ben and Vivian renovated) has also given Kinston an acclaimed culinary reputation despite its rural location. After ten years of consistently putting out award-winning food, Chef & the Farmer has been a James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef: Southeast from 2012-2016. Vivian and Ben also own and operate a second restaurant, Boiler Room Oyster Bar, that sits across the street from the Chef & the Farmer.
Being a successful restaurateur and chef is only the beginning of Vivian’s story. In 2012 Vivian approached her childhood friend-turned-filmmaker Cynthia Hill about directing a documentary film series on Eastern North Carolina’s food traditions. Three years later, the two women have produced three seasons of “A Chef’s Life,” a PBS series that celebrates family, work and food. In its first two seasons, “A Chef’s Life” won a Peabody Award, a Daytime Emmy (Vivian was the first woman to win one since Julia Child) and was nominated for four James Beard Awards, more than any other television series. Season four premieres in September.
You can’t watch an episode of “A Chef’s Life” without instantly connecting with Vivian. She’s a hardworking, salt of the earth woman who is open, charming, accessible, and captivating. She calls it like she sees it, goes big, and never takes herself too seriously. I can easily see why three million people (and growing) tune in to watch her.
Somehow between television episodes and running two restaurants, Vivian also found the time to write the first book of a two book deal. Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South explores the traditional ingredients of eastern North Carolina and goes on sale Oct. 4. Each of the more than 200 recipes Vivian shares is a “love letter” to her culinary backyard. Every chapter focuses on a local ingredient like blueberries, dried corn, pecans, or beans, and honors how each ingredient is traditionally prepared followed by Vivian’s modern interpretation.
Vivian’s biggest business launch—a line of finishing sauces and rubs in partnership with Williams-Sonoma—is the culmination of building a universally recognizable brand from scratch and are now available for purchase. Using fruit as her muse, Vivian has created three sauces where tradition meets a new perspective, including a Blueberry BBQ Sauce, a Chipotle Apple Slather, and a Tangy Peach Glaze. The verdict in our house was a hands down thumbs-up. Vivian’s three rubs being sold through Williams-Sonoma are staples at her restaurants and include Birds & Beasts Rub and Fins & Shells Rub.
When you already have two restaurants, one book (with another slated for the future), an award-winning television show, and your own brand at one of America’s most recognizable gourmet chains, it’s safe to say you’ve already built an enviable legacy. But if Vivian’s past is any indication of her future, there’s a lot more to come from her. Add a dash of passion to a simmering journalistic vision and you never know what you’ll get.