On Monday, October 22, Vivian Howard said farewell to A Chef’s Life with a final, hour-long “Harvest Special” episode—the culmination of five seasons of the series that, when it debuted on SCETV in 2013, immediately established itself as unlike just about any other food show on television.
Shot documentary-style by filmmaker Cynthia Hill, ACL episodes pulled double-duty, chronicling both Howard’s day-to-day challenges of running a restaurant, The Chef and the Farmer, in Kinston, North Carolina, and one ingredient or dish indigenous to the eastern part of the Tar Heel State—fish stew, applejacks, and Tom Thumb among them. “One of the major differences between A Chef’s Life and so much other television is that we chose to show and highlight the imperfections of my life,” Howard says. “I think that was really refreshing.”
That unvarnished look at Howard, her husband and business partner, Ben Knight, and their twins, Florence and Theodore, in her hometown of Deep Run instantly endeared the chef and the show’s cast of local characters to viewers. Droves of visitors eager to eat Howard’s food began to descend on little Kinston, leading to the revitalization of the town. Howard’s 2016 cookbook, Deep Run Roots, became a best seller. And the show’s success—including a Daytime Emmy Award, a James Beard Award, and a Peabody Award—allowed Howard to evolve from a talented chef expediting in a restaurant kitchen to beloved media personality to the head of a multi-restaurant empire who no longer has to sweat over diner tickets every night. She has also channeled that good will into good causes, such as a T-shirt fundraiser she spearheaded to benefit Hurricane Florence relief.
Now, Howard is ready for a fresh challenge: Likely in summer 2019, her new series—title to be determined—will debut in primetime on PBS. “Every episode of this show will be about a dish that every culture shares,” says Howard. “Every culture has a dumpling. Every culture has a way of cooking greens. Every culture has a beans and rice dish. Every culture has a hand pie. So what we do is touch on my culture’s version of a dumpling, for instance, and then I go out in the greater South and meet with friends of mine who are of different cultures but live in the South, and learn to cook their version of that particular dish. It’s around the premise that there’s really only about twenty-five dishes in the whole world, and we all cook some version of them.”
As for ACL, she hopes it will be remembered “as an education show that was really entertaining,” she says. One “that reminded people of where they came from, and made them proud of it. For people who are not of Southern origin, I hope it gave them a glimpse of what Southern people are really like—that we’re not mystical fairies, and we’re also not bumbling idiots—that we’re multifaceted human beings with a type of wisdom that may be different than someone who lives in a city somewhere else.”
Here, in honor of that legacy, Howard reminisces over her favorite ACL episodes. You can watch these five—along with the rest of the series—on PBS.com.
“The Buttermilk Belt”
Season one, episode twelve
“That’s where I first cooked with Lillie [Hardy], and I had walked into that [biscuit-making] lesson feeling very confident in my abilities to cook anything from the Southern canon. She quickly schooled me—I was eventually asked to take my hand out of the biscuit bowl. That whole scene really set up the beginning of a relationship that has evolved over the course of the show, and introduced me to one of my favorite people. She really set up this infrastructure for me where I understand that not all delicious food and important technique comes out of a professional kitchen. There’s a lot of wisdom in home kitchens.”
“It followed my professional journey cooking for the SFA [Southern Foodways Alliance] Symposium lunch, which is a huge undertaking—four hundred people, four courses. I thought of myself as the least-known chef to ever cook that particular lunch, so I had a whole lot to prove. The topic for the lunch was “Women Who Work,” so I chose to honor the women in my life, each with a course. That episode did a great job of showing the time and effort and planning that goes into a large-scale event like that. I also was really open and vulnerable about my insecurities around the event, and I was happy to be able to be so honest on television about that, because I think a lot of people feel the same way about whatever their profession is—they feel as if they may be faking it. The idea of being exposed is often paralyzing.”
Season two, episode six
“I love the apple episode for two reasons. [North Carolina apple guru Creighton] Lee Calhoun is my teacher in that episode; I learned about many varieties of Southern apples. He reminded me of a grandfather figure. I really enjoyed him. Also I learned from Claire Merrell Barwick how to make applejacks, which have been an obsession of mine since I was a kid eating applejacks every Saturday from the B&S Café [in Deep Run], which was hers. I had no idea this person lived just about in my backyard, and I could have had this piece of knowledge all along. The episode ends with probably the best moment of television ever made, I think, which is when we are planting an apple tree in the backyard—Ben, the children, and myself—and Flo is really whining, and Theo takes the plastic shovel and hits her over the head with it. It’s just really candid, and obviously not produced, and it’s something we can show at their weddings.”
Season four, episode three
“I loved the field pea episode, both for its educational value, in that I think so many people don’t understand how a dried pea becomes a dried pea. But also Aunt Virginia—she’s not my aunt, but I don’t what else to call her; I guess Miss Virginia, but that makes her sound like a beauty queen—beating the heck out of those peas in that sack. It was just a celebratory, unexpected moment. I don’t think any of us really expected that she was going to go to town on it like that. Later, we were in her kitchen cooking peas, and she was just so befuddled or surprised that we would want to watch her cook peas, because it was really two ingredients she was putting in the pot. The delight that comes from someone who has been doing something they consider so mundane their whole lives, the delight around exalting that, and the way it makes those people feel, has been a big gift for me.”
“A Food Truck and a Pear Tree”
Season five, episode four
“I get the first copy of my book in the mail. It really demonstrated the lengths that the production team—the director in particular, Cynthia—is willing to go to get honest, authentic moments. We’re strategic about these moments that are really important, that can’t be duplicated and can’t be acted out. We were not filming that day, but we had confirmation that my book was going to arrive that day, so they drove here just to see me open that box. And the payoff was really worth it. I feel so fortunate for so many of these episodes that my family will have—they’re little time capsules. Very well produced time capsules.”
Want to meet Vivian Howard? The chef will be part of Garden & Gun’s Made in the South Weekend in Charleston, South Carolina, in November. Get details here.