Chef Vivian Howard and her husband Ben Knight like to say they had their first child in 2006. That first child was the restaurant, Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina.
Then their family grew from a wife-husband operated restaurant with 18 employees to a family with two kids, two restaurants with approximately 80 employees, a PBS-hosted show and most recently, a book with a nine-week-long food truck tour. But juggling all of the responsibilities doesn't come without help.
"I have a lot of help. I have a chef de cuisine at both restaurants, really active grandparents, a nanny and a really supportive husband," Howard says. "I have a strong team on this food truck adventure. I'm just one piece of all of it."
Howard and Knight's restaurants in Kinston have two different personalities but the same purpose of filling a cuisine-type need that otherwise was empty with North Carolinian food traditions rooted in the South.
Chef and the Farmer's menu, as Howard says, is inspired by the region around her but includes her own contemporary vision integrated in age-old favorites like collards, sweet potatoes, turnips and sausage.
"Chef and the Farmer's menu is really rooted in the region's ingredients. We work with things that are traditionally grown there and ingredients that people who live there understand, and we put our own spin on things," Howard says.
But Howard and Knight were aware that a child's food palate may not be sophisticated enough for seared yellowfin tartare or a pan roasted chicken breast with sorghum grain and glazed figs. Howard remembers, as a child, grumpily pouting in oyster bars as her parents enjoyed raw and steamed oysters, but there was nothing on the menu fit for a picky eater.
Enter: The Boiler Room, just down the street from Chef and the Farmer. It serves to fill another need: a family-oriented neighborhood eatery with something for everyone, even kids.
Oysters are ordered by the half or whole peck and come raw or steamed. Howard has stuck to the rituals of oyster bars that she grew up with. "The Boiler Room is inspired by this steamed oyster bar tradition in the Carolinas where you order oysters by the peck or the half-peck, rare, medium or well. They come to you steamed and someone shucks them in front of you while they're still warm and you eat them with cocktail sauce, saltines and drawn butter," Howard says. "And I love that whole ritual." So after a decade of operating restaurants, Howard and Knight have grown as restaurateurs and managers and continue to strive for greatness.
"Over the years we've developed an identity a more a clear mission, better staff," Knight says. "At this point the process is not so much opening a great new restaurant it's trying to join the small number of great restaurants that's been around for a generation or two."
- Vivian Howard
Howard has since ventured into writing and publishing. Her new book, Deep Run Roots, is, as she states on her website, part story, part history and part recipes. Each chapter opens up with a story about a different food, integrated with personal anecdotes and important messages.
"I really love the oyster opening. I love the rice opening as well as the apple opening," Howard says. "Then the rice story is a really personal story with a universal message about daughters' relationships with their mothers. The apple chapter opener is about apple jacks and the woman who taught me how to make them."
But it wasn't all fun and games for Howard as she had to remove herself from her restaurants and place others in charge while writing and editing the manuscript. However, her labor of love resulted in a touching and personally-applicable book that's now being followed up with a 20-city, nine-week food truck tour up and down the eastern United States.
With truck manager Casey Atwater and a dedicated team, Howard has embarked on a trip that no cookbook-touring chef has done. Instead of cooking out of unfamiliar kitchens and producing $60-$100 meals, Howard has taken matters into her own hands.
"The thought was one, she would have the kitchen with her that she would know, what capability it had," Atwater says. "Two, it's a novel idea. Nobody's ever done it. Food trucks seem to remain really popular throughout everywhere we've been. It's a tangible thing that people can look at and it's got beautiful graphics on the side of it that help tell the story she's trying to tell."
At each stop of the tour, Howard and her team are teaming up with bookstores and grocery stores and doling out the dishes most representative of their neck of the woods. Atwater says that she's presenting food that matters; it's comes from a good place while being humble, yet elegant.
Then Howard and her team return home from the tour in late November. So far, it's been wildly successful.
"She [Howard] has high expectation with what we're all doing but they're realistic and honestly once we all have everything done and we've worked hard and accomplished what we've set out to do each day, she's a lot of fun," Atwater says. "She's great to work with. She's a driver-type personality but I think that's required with the work she does and she does that gracefully."