Star chef is raising the profile of N.C. town
KINSTON, N.C. — Without a table reservation, I snagged the last available barstool at Chef & the Farmer on a Friday night in June. My neighbors to the left were an affluent-looking middle-aged couple sipping glasses of white wine while waiting for their table. To my right, two 30-something bearded, tattooed men dug into the restaurant’s sought-after pork-belly skewers. I immediately ordered my own, tonight sauteed with candied bell pepper and cilantro, along with another starter — bruschetta topped with just-picked Cherokee purple tomatoes, smoked corn aioli, and pickled red onion.
The couple, it turned out, were visiting eastern North Carolina from Virginia for a family event and had worked in a detour to this farm-to-table restaurant made famous in the down-home actual-reality series “A Chef’s Life.” (Season 2 premieres nationally on Oct. 5 and in the Boston area on Oct. 26 at 2:30 p.m. on WGBX 44.)
“We met Vivian at a PBS fund-raiser last year,“ the man said, swiping his phone to show me a photograph of chef Vivian Howard posing between the couple, her wide smile and bouncy chestnut hair on display. “She was really nice, and we love the show. We were disappointed to hear she wasn’t working tonight.”
The younger pair, Greensboro friends on their way to the coast, had stopped by Kinston to visit Mother Earth Brewing, the other game-changer in this reawakening downtown. They’d been referred to Chef & the Farmer, unaware of its celebrity status. I saluted them with my Mother Earth Sisters of the Moon IPA and realized that my bar mates personified the recent influx of visitors here — beer enthusiasts, foodies, and FOVs (Fans of Vivian).
The Kinston revival is remarkable given that less than a decade ago, a replica Confederate gunboat was the top tourist attraction in the economically distressed city of 21,600, between Raleigh and the Atlantic Ocean. That wasn’t always the case. A century ago, Kinston served as a major tobacco and cotton trading hub, with the main drag of Queen Street dubbed “the Magic Mile” for its banks, businesses, and restaurants. But as those industries declined, so did Kinston.
Downtown started slowly looking up again in 2006, when Howard, who was raised in the nearby rural community of Deep Run, and her now-husband Ben Knight opened Chef & the Farmer in a repurposed mule stable. Financial backing from family lured the chef, a rising culinary talent in New York City, back home. Since then, she has three times reached semifinals for Best Chef Southeast in the James Beard Awards and this year scored a two-cookbook deal. Meanwhile, “A Chef‘s Life,” which premiered last fall, won a prestigious Peabody Award and has attracted a passionate fan base. The show follows Howard and Knight (whose colorful abstract paintings dot the restaurant walls), as they encounter the pleasures and pitfalls of running a restaurant. Make that two. Last year they added the Boiler Room, a burger and oyster joint, to their roster. The film crew also accompanies the chef on visits to farmers and home cooks as she digs deep into ingredients and Southern food culture. With her rich drawl, throaty laugh, and refreshing directness, Howard is clearly the star.
As for Mother Earth Brewing, homegrown entrepreneur Stephen Hill credits Chef & the Farmer with inspiring him in 2009 to create his LEEDS-Gold-certified operation in abandoned buildings a block away. Most recently he’s added an attractive taproom, beer garden, and merchandise shop. (Head brewer Matthew Hart previously worked at Boston Beer Works.)
Hill’s reach extends much further. Last year he opened Ginger 108, an Asian grill; and the Red Room, a bar and live-music venue. Meanwhile, he continues growing his most ambitious undertaking — developing an arts district downtown by turning crumbling houses into brightly painted buildings for residential and studio space. Hill also is renovating a 1920s former bank on Queen Street, part of which will become The O’Neil, Kinston’s first boutique hotel, scheduled to open in October.
The downtown doings belie Howard’s remark during a Season 1 episode (filmed in 2012). When prepping her staff for a Southern Foodways Alliance luncheon, she said. “Essentially they’re here to spend their afternoon in Kinston, and let’s face it, this is going to be the highlight.” I wondered what she’d say today.
I got my chance to ask an hour into my meal, when I looked up from my perfectly fried and flavorful rice-crusted catfish, with blue crab, sweet corn, summer squash and jalapeño, and spied Howard and Knight ordering drinks with friends.
“I’d never say that now,” Howard answered, not a bit defensively. “The biggest change is that even the people here now think the town is cool. But that’s not to say we’re there yet.”
I asked when she’d gone from chef to celebrity.
“About four months ago, things really started to change,” she said. “Now sometimes I don’t come in at night because it’s so crazy. People want my autograph and to take their photo with me. I’m truly grateful, but my role here has totally changed.”
I nodded my head in empathy while at the same time thinking, “Yay! I got to talk to Vivian!”
The next morning, I started my downtown tour at the small but substantial Lenoir County Farmers’ Market, which on the show Howard credits her husband with helping to revive. Beyond that, the streets were nearly empty, though I did spot a few people, and not for the first time, posing for photos in front of the Chef & the Farmer sign.
I strolled two blocks to Overland Gallery, a year-old business featuring a nice collection of North Carolina art and craft, with working artist studios. Owners Cynthia Dunn, a potter, and her husband, Michael, an architect, live on an upper floor of the former car dealership. His firm designed both Chef & the Farmer and Mother Earth.
“We started the gallery because there was an interest in growing the arts district,” Cynthia said. “The most exciting thing is that people are coming back downtown, though we still get more out-of-town customers.”
For lunch, I visited the bustling Boiler Room and settled at the bar with a thick and perfectly seasoned butterbean burger topped with caramelized onion mayo, smoked gouda, and tobacco onions, fully living up to its raves.
Afterward I popped by the weekly wine and beer tasting at the Wine Shop @ Chef & the Farmer, where I encountered Nancy McKinney of Virginia Beach, a super-fervent FOV who had made her dinner reservations for that night four months earlier.
“I first saw the show over the winter. I watched them all, then I watched them again, and then I watched them all again,” she said, beaming. “We’re staying at Warren‘s farm -- he’s Vivian‘s favorite farmer and he opened a bed and breakfast. He’s giving us a tour!”
I tried to gently warn her that Howard might not be at the restaurant.
“That’s OK, we just want to eat there,” she said, but I could tell I’d delivered a blow. Then her eyes widened.
“It’s Vivian! There she is!”
Through the window we could see Howard headed our way.
“But I don’t want to bother her,” McKinney said.
I turned my head for a moment and when I looked up, McKinney was standing next to a smiling Howard while her husband snapped photos with his phone.
I called McKinney a few days later for a report.
“Warren [Brothers] was so awesome. We felt like we were home. We saw corn and a greenhouse with tomatoes.”
And the meal?
She paused until prompted.
“Well, to be completely honest, it was not perfect.”
I told her that my reaction after two meals there had been the opposite.
“We loved some things, but not everything. I think it’s because Vivian and Ben weren’t there. But can you believe I got to meet her?”