It’s not everyday you get to chat with a chef, let alone a rock star like Chef Vivian Howard. I was fortunate to speak with her a bit about her restaurant in Kinston and her life as a chef.
Here is what I learned. She is every bit as nice as you would have imagined. She never thought anyone would watch the show. Since it was a snowy day when I had a chance to talk to her, I asked if she made anything special on snowy days.
She said she had a bowl outside collecting snow. She had promised her kids to make snow cream when they woke from their naps.
I could not imagine a more perfect way to spend a snow day!
How does it feel to be nominated for the James Beard Award?
Vivian said it was awesome! She was very excited about it and was even more worried about not being on the list. She said that James Beard is something that everybody who is in this business wants to strive for so it is really awesome to be on the list.
Sometimes people wonder – which came first the TV show or the restaurant?
The restaurant has been open for 9 years – 6 years before even thinking about the show.
Did you think that that show would be such a huge success?
No. Vivian made the show with a childhood friend who is a documentary film maker. They didn’t think anyone would ever watch it. It was really just a shot in the dark. They had just hoped that it would air on UNC-TV and that was the goal.
What is the best thing about being in Kinston? And what are the challenges?
Vivian says the best thing about being in Kinston is being close to her family and getting to know her parents as an adult. She is also able to make a big difference in a small town. She didn’t realize it was going to be such a big deal when they opened but Kinston is located 30 minutes from Greenville, New Bern and Goldsboro all towns that are larger but that didn’t have a whole lot of upscale dining options. Before the show they were able to survive as the special occasion place for folks in Eastern North Carolina. The challenge with any restaurant like this is finding staff who want to be in the restaurant business for their career rather than people who are just looking for a job.
If people come to Kinston to eat there what else can they do during their visit?
They are located on the Neuse River which is great for kayaking. There is a bike and kayak shop right down the street from the restaurant where you can rent bikes and kayaks. They also have Mother Earth Brewing which is the only 4 star Leed certified brewery in the country. They also have a very robust BBQ culture so if someone comes for the weekend they could drive around Eastern North Carolina to Bees, Morris, Skylight Inn, and Kings. You could do this in the afternoon and then enjoy a nice dinner at the Chef and the Farmer. In the Spring and the Summer they have a really awesome farmers market. They also have a water park called the Lions Adventure and it was built by the Lions Industry for the Blind and it is an accessible park for visually impaired individuals. Everything is in braille and there are 3 water slides and a lazy river.
Some of her friends just opened up a bed and breakfast called the Brothers Farm Experience where they do farm tours. Folks who live in the city just giggle and squeal when they get there. Right down the street from the restaurant is a boutique hotel that is opening called the O’Neil which will be opening in late April. It is owned by the same gentleman who owns Mother Earth Brewery.
Would you say that some of the recent growth in Kinston is because of the show and restaruant?
Yes. They have a tremendous amount of tourism that comes to Kinston to eat in the restaurant based on seeing the show. These people spend money at other places in Kinston as well.
For people that are fans of the show what would surprise them about the show?
It is not staged. It is not produced in the way that they think. It is really what she is doing at any given moment. The show is also made in North Carolina and most TV shows are made by people in New York or LA. This makes it unique.
Vivian often jokes about being in the steakhouse world in Kinston. You are constantly changing you menu to whatever is seasonal thing is. Do you feel like it is a challenge given that the steakhouse crowd may be resistant to the constant change?
Yes. It is a challenge but not as much anymore. People come to the restaurant for an experience and to try what they want them to try. Weeks go by and they don’t even have steak on the menu, which they would have never been able to do that three years ago. They have been working hard for 9 years to have people trust them. Now people don’t come in hopes that they are going to line up behind the salad bar and eat a baked potato so that is good.
You have a farm to table concept restaurant. Which is one of the things that is such an appeal for the show. How much is your food sourced locally and what challenges does this present?
We do our best. This time of year is really hard so they have to order things that they would not generally order from food service companies. They will do this because they have gone through all of the roots in the farmers cellars so they do have to supplement. They still focus on what they can locally first. This time of year is really hard because the weather hurts anything that is still on the ground. They focus more on grains and dry peas, dry beans so they can stay true to their concept all year long.