"Southern people are people," Vivian Howard sighs.
That might seem obvious, but standing amid a pop culture landscape increasingly populated by broad, often-crass stereotypes of her culture, the 36-year-old chef and TV star feels compelled to say it out loud. She lives the message, too, both on camera for her Peabody Award-winning show, A Chef's Life (currently in its second season on PBS), and behind the stove at her 9-year-old Kinston, North Carolina, restaurant, Chef & the Farmer. In both roles, Howard's mission is clear: Celebrate and preserve the food traditions of her native Eastern Carolina and don't waste a bit of anything.
"I come from a place where we've always kind of apologized for where we're from. I always felt Eastern North Carolina was the anus of the state—or at least that's how people looked at it," Howard recalls. "I've made it my mission to exalt the traditional preparations of the region and make people realize it's actually a cool place."
Howard, herself, didn't always appreciate her geographic roots. As a young adult, she turned tail and ran to New York City, taking pains to erase any trace of where she was from. ("I altered my accent—people mistook me for being from Australia. I sounded ridiculous, but there was a shame factor and a fear of being perceived as stupid.") And she certainly didn't appreciate the food.
Some of that rejection may have been reflective of her parents' generation, she admits.
"For a long time they wanted to move away from this food, because they were ashamed of it and turned to a can of cream-of-mushroom soup. That period of time, I call it the 'lost generation.' Our generation is much more interested in what came before, see it as a connection to who and where they came from. I have a church pew full of cookbooks and canned goods, and my mom says, 'Who the hell are you?'"
Howard found out an awful lot more about just who she was after taking a job as a server at the now-shuttered, globally influenced Voyage restaurant in New York's Greenwich Village. "I don't know why they hired me; I didn't have any restaurant experience!" she jokes. There she found a mentor in Scott Barton, an executive chef who was as invested in food culture and history as he was in what the restaurant turned out.
"We sat in this class for a week talking about Southern food, and I thought, What is happening here? Suddenly, I became obsessed and fascinated with Southern food and the food I grew up eating. Scott and I would talk for hours about it and became friends."
Howard headed back home to explore her familial roots through food—a process complicated by the lack of documentation. "Women in the South are often understated and are the driving force behind their families," she says. "These things weren't written down, because they weren't believed to be valuable or complex enough to be written down. Take my mom's chicken and rice. She says, 'It's just chicken and rice,' but it's actually nuanced, and there's a very right and wrong way to do it. It's about paying attention to those details and valuing them."
At Chef & the Farmer and on her show, Howard shows off what's best about her region through dishes that honor the traditions and terroir of Eastern Carolina, even if they're occasionally less than glamorous.
Howard's eyes catch fire as she talks of a squash preparation that makes the most of humble crookneck squash, which are almost overly abundant at harvest time. "People take this yellow crookneck squash and sweet onions from the garden and cook them down in a little bit of bacon fat—and cook them down and cook them down. You start out with something this big [she holds her hands out], and you end up with something this big [draws them in] that's incredibly ugly. It looks like you vomited on the plate, but it's so developed in flavor, because both those things have caramelized and become quite complex."
She serves that at the restaurant but with a few cheffy touches. "We take that and balance it and make what I call a smother out of it, purée it with lemon juice and make a relish with squash and put it on top. We're making people aware of those particular applications but then elevating them." And she honors the seasonality of them, too.
"Two-thirds of our menu has a message to it," Howard says. "I love roots, and all roots are not the same (see Howard's recipe for roasted root vegetables with rosemary honey). If we're going to eat seasonally and really enjoy the food of late wintertime, we need to understand what a rutabaga can bring to the plate versus a turnip versus a sunchoke. I think about how to elevate those things and make their individual properties shine. It keeps palates fresh and food interesting."
And it's not just about using the obvious parts either. Howard rhapsodizes about a regional produce specialty called a "run up"—the part of a turnip that emerges in late February or early March, when everything around it has died. "It's so close to broccoli rabe that you can't tell the difference."
"Who knew?" we ask.
Howard laughs back, "My mama."
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