Vivian Howard from “A Chef’s Life” Discusses Peabody Award Win
Written by @MattShedd
“A Chef’s Life” follows Vivian Howard and her family as she runs a farm-to-fork fine dining restaurant in the North Carolina low country. Each episode offers warm and detailed glimpses into traditional southern cuisine, the farmers who grow the food, and way of life from which these recipes emerge. The show has a extremely loyal following with fans that immediately began expressing their enthusiasm and support on social media. We thought that it would be good to talk to Vivian about the recent Peabody Award announcement.
Matt Shedd: How did the idea of turning your work into a television show come together?
Vivian Howard: The whole thing was prompted by a morning I spent watching 4- 60+ year-old men make kraut from collards in their back shed, something they had done once a year their whole lives. Out of this experience, I became fascinated with documenting the food and farming traditions of my region and approached Cynthia HIll, a friend as well as a documentary filmmaker about helping me with the project. Having grown up in the same area, she was drawn to the idea, so we set about telling the story of our region’s food ways through the lens of my life and community.
It was not an initial intention to have my restaurant work be a part of the story. Rather, Cynthia and Derek Britt (a producer on the show) recognized the need for that dynamic.
MS: What really strikes me about your show is that it demonstrates that reality television can be very good. Rather than reaffirming the caricatures that we often see of southerners in television, your show offers us a more intimate and nuanced glimpse of the people you interact with. I see it as a kind of positive response to a lot of the reality TV shows out there. How much was this part of the plan from the beginning?
VH: It was an absolute goal of ours from the beginning to represent the people of the American South as well as the restaurant business in a more subtle fashion. Both are popular subjects in reality television and both are often terribly misrepresented. Unfortunately there are real-world implications that stem from the portrayals on reality television, so our hope was to tell an earnest story about both worlds.
MS: How does an episode come together? For example, is it something that you and director Cynthia Hill spend a lot of time brainstorming and talking about, or is it more of an natural process of filming your day-to-day life and seeing what comes out of it?
VH: Basically we pick a season’s worth of ingredients, 13 of them. And we shoot the story of each ingredient in six major ways: farm/purveyor, traditional application/community, modern application/restaurant, family, “confessional,” and cooking demo. We try to make sure the ingredients make sense seasonally and all the other logistics just kind of fall into place organically.
MS: The news of “A Chef’s Life” winning a Peabody Award seems to have generated a lot of enthusiasm from your fans. What do you think it is about the show that connects so strongly with people?
VH: I think people connect to “A Chef’s Life’s” sense of family, place, struggle, imperfection and vulnerability. You touched on the trouble with so much of reality television, and I think our series proves especially refreshing for folks, given its juxtaposition among its “peers.”
MS: What does winning a Peabody Award mean to you, and how do you think it will impact the show going forward?
VH: First of all, winning a Peabody blew all of our minds! Much of the core group who made Season 1 did so without being paid and without any guarantee anyone would ever see their work. So the fact that we’ve received what we all consider to be the most prestigious award in television, is just way way out there for us.
We spent the better part of the last two years trying to bring on board brands to underwrite the series. We’ve quite literally been working to convince folks of “A Chef’s Life’s” value, and we hope that this recognition will help tip the scales for us.
MS: A lot of these traditions and foodways that your show celebrates are dying out. Obviously your show is a positive step in trying to preserve them, but overall, how do you have hope for the future of traditional southern cuisine?
VH: Our show is just one of many spokes in a wheel going round in pursuit of preserving food traditions. From renewed interest in canning and pickling, to the fact that farming is once again seen as a “cool” thing to do, there are a number of signs that show our culture’s urge to connect to the hands-on way we once set the table.
Will my family go back to having annual hog-killings and preserving all of our meat for the winter? Probably not. But it’s my hope that an understanding and respect for these skills will not be entirely lost.
MS: How has your life changed since becoming the star of TV show with such a loyal following?
VH: Primarily my role at the restaurant has changed. I have a lot of new responsibilities…you could also call them opportunities. The days of coming in at 9am, cooking till 5pm, working service and going home day in and out seem to be on the wane. We have a tremendous number of folks traveling a great distance to eat in the restaurant, and they all want to talk to me. So when I’m able to be at Chef and the Farmer during service, I find myself walking around the dining room and talking instead of cooking. Don’t get me wrong, I like talking. It’s just different.
MS: Can you give us any hints about what we can expect from the upcoming season?
VH: Season 2 takes the same approach and tells the story of ingredients like turnips, ramps, chicken, blueberries and butter beans, but it’s true to the trajectory of my life, so we travel a lot more. I cook a career defining meal at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. My children turn 3, and my mom shows me how to cook turnip greens to death. We end the season with myself and a few of our long-time staff from Chef and the Farmer cooking at the James Beard House. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.