About 550 miles from the hustle and bustle of Long Island, the historic city of Kinston, North Carolina, sits in the low country of the eastern part of the state. Kinston was once a boomtown where traditional Southern industries like cotton and tobacco supported the local economy.
Times changed, factories closed and Kinston fell upon some hard times. Thanks to a collaborative effort among can-do locals, Kinston is now enjoying an economic revival. Once-shuttered mills and factories now boast galleries, breweries and restaurants that ooze long-established Southern hospitality. At the top of any visitor’s list is Chef & the Farmer, a real deal, honest-to-goodness farm-to-table restaurant opened in 2006 by chef Vivian Howard and her artist husband Ben Knight. Howard, who hails from nearby Deep Run, and Knight, a Chicagoan, along with their two children, their restaurant and their community are the stars of the PBS show A Chef’s Life now in its third season.
On a recent visit to the rural South, our photo editor Doug Young spent some time with Howard and Knight and was captivated by their unpretentious charm and the allure of the simpler life in Kinston.
Doug Young: While in the midst of the Kinston Krawl, I saw a neighborhood on the edge of gentrification, much like Brooklyn before the rush. Did you pick up that vibe before deciding to open Chef & the Farmer?
Ben Knight: Not even close. That said, we were in tune with places and neighborhoods with potential. Vivian lived on the L.E.S. before it was what it is today. I lived on McKibben Street in East Wiliamsburg/Bushwick before there was anything other than a few loft apartments. We both lived at 151st and Broadway, where the Harlem neo‐Renaissance had yet to come. We saw some of the same potential in the bones of Kinston. Not to mention to have an opportunity to be one of the first to start a spark in a once proud community, and to help bring it back was an honor and a responsibility we took and take very seriously.
DY: Do you feel somewhat responsible for attracting new businesses and younger residents?
BK: We have felt the “If you build it, they will come” is a true narrative. But the building it part is much, much more than just opening your doors. It is the continual effort to improve, to learn and to share. These are the values we hold dear, and we teach our staff. We just hope it has been a positive influence for others.
DY: The art scene seems to have really flourished; murals are everywhere and former warehouses are galleries that support local artists. Ben, many of your wonderful paintings decorate the walls of the restaurant, which I feel sets the tone in the dining room. Was that decor something you both wanted from the beginning?
BK: Yes. We modeled the dining room after the warm contemporary atmosphere of Voyage, a restaurant where we worked in the West Village. Fortunately the paintings seem to fit, too!
DY: I was so impressed with how our server taught my niece, Kristi, who ordered the whole trout, how to debone and remove the skin at the table. There is a caring, Southern charm feeling shown for each guest throughout the dining experience.
BK: We have wonderful people working in the restaurant at the moment. We are extremely fortunate! We, as owners, try to demonstrate how important every little detail is to the guest experience and hope it rubs off on our staff. Over the years it seems as if more and more folks buy into what we believe in, and teach it, that it will become the norm rather than the exception.
DY: Ben, I was equally impressed with the wine list; have you found any regional wines or beers that pair nicely with Vivian’s seasonal menus? Can you tell us about your connection with Kinston’s Mother Earth Brewing Co.?
BK: Currently we have many beers from North Carolina producers. We also always have a variety of Mother Earth beers. I think the brewery growth in the state has contributed greatly to the overall quality of the product. Regarding wine, we have experimented with North Carolina wines and find they seem to be improving. However, we do not have quite the same expertise about the wines of the region as we do the beers. As the wine industry continues to grow, we are seeing a better product. I just think that it is more challenging to produce wines of worldly quality in the humid climate of North Carolina.
DY: Chef Vivian, the wood‐fired oven seems to be the heart of the restaurant, and not just for inventive pizza. There’s the charred squash shared plate and the charred okra in the heirloom tomato salad. Do you find yourself building menus around it? Any particular wood used?
Vivian Howard: We use hardwoods, mostly hickory and oak. Sometimes pecan wood. I like to use the wood oven to balance out the menu, station by station. It allows great flexibility to diversify our offerings and have multiple cooks be more efficient.
DY: Why can I not stop dreaming of fried okra with ranch ice cream?
VH: That is one of the most popular dishes we ever served! We have been serving it during okra season for about eight years. In the South, we joke that everything tastes better with ranch.
DY: Visiting Warren at Brothers Farm in LaGrange was a photographer’s dream and it seems to be a major source for your farm‐to‐fork ingredients. How did that relationship begin?
VH: We met Warren and his wife, Jane, just before we opened up the restaurant. We sat down and asked them point blank if they would grow our vegetables. Little did we know then that we were meeting two of our best lifelong friends. Brothers Farm means so much to what we do.
DY: The Boiler Room Oyster Bar, your second restaurant, seems to be doing equally well. After watching the episode about butter beans, I had to try the butter bean burger. Now I see what all the fuss is about. Is that recipe going to be in your new cookbook? Is it difficult to harvest those?
VH: The butter bean burger will definitely be in the book! The butter bean is not too difficult to harvest; we use a bean sheller that makes pretty quick work of the whole process and is a really neat contraption to see up close.
DY: A Chef’s Life recently won a Peabody Award, which is quite an honor. Do you find yourself loving storytelling as much as cooking? The premise of the show seems to appeal to both food and documentary fans.
VH: I started cooking as a way to begin writing about food. I believed the only way to be a successful food writer was to know about food and how to cook it. As it turns out, I really love cooking, and I seem to make food people enjoy. The show started as a way for me to get back into food writing and telling stories. I had almost forgotten how much I enjoy writing and telling stories, and A Chef’s Life has been an extremely rewarding project. We were honored to win a Peabody and be one of only four cooking shows ever to have that distinction.
DY: You have your first cookbook coming out this fall with Little, Brown, Deep Run Roots: Ingredients from My Corner of North Carolina. How has that experience been for you? I know food styling and lighting can play a pivotal role.
VH: It has been very challenging. I am writing the book on my own and it has shown me that it is a full‐time endeavor. I really admire and appreciate all that goes into being a great writer and, for me, this book has been a valuable learning experience.
DY: Lastly, do you have a philosophy about food?
VH: Make food that you love to eat and use the ingredients that are available to you at the time. Learn about the history of your food and have fun!
The interview has been edited and condensed.