Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Vivian Howard talks farmers and local food, Covid hardships and the importance of pivoting

Vivian Howard will be the keynote speaker for Feast Down East’s virtual food conference this weekend. (Port City Daily/Photo by Baxter Miller)

SOUTHEASTERN NC — One good thing that came from a year of health and business hardships: Many people were back in their kitchens cooking for their families. While local farmers faced loss of revenue from restaurant sales, it meant an upswing in subscriptions for community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, as more folks got behind the slow-food movement during mandated stay-at-home orders. 

“I know several farmers whose CSAs have just quadrupled,” celebrity chef Vivian Howard told Port City Daily on Wednesday. “Some are doing better than they ever have.”

Feast Down East – a nonprofit organization that focuses on strengthening the network of eastern North Carolina farmers with communities of consumers — sold 1,420 boxes in 2020.

Howard will be the keynote speaker for Feast Down East’s annual food conference taking place virtually this weekend. The conference brings together farmers, restaurateurs, foodies, fisherman, advocates and others to discuss the state of local agriculture and the industry overall. 

“I’ve related to the farmers that I work with and how they have pivoted during Covid,” Howard said. 

Howard works with Feast Down East to procure local crops from Red Beard and Black Organics farms for her Wilmington restaurant Benny’s Big Time.

“The pandemic allowed me to take a few steps back and look at what we were doing,” Howard said, “what was working, what was not working, what this experience of Covid had exposed and what I wanted to do moving forward. Because, you know, when the train is running, it’s really hard to get it to slow down so you can examine it.”

Howard will be discussing these changes with Feast Down East board member Dr. Marcie Ferris at the conference. The two have known each other for a while, according to the chef. 

“She’s a great conversationalist,” Howard said. 

The interview will run down Howard’s return to Deep Run, North Carolina, to open a restaurant after moving from New York almost a decade ago. The Chef and the Farmer became the subject of PBS show “A Chef’s Life” in 2013 that ran for five seasons, with 10 or more episodes in each season. It highlighted the transition of opening a fine-dining eatery in small-town Kinston, North Carolina. Yet, the show evolved into a showcase of Howard’s dedication to sourcing food from local farmers and telling the cultural stories deeply embedded in every bite.

“We’re going to be talking about my journey becoming super involved in the local food movement and using my restaurant as a means to get other people involved in it,” Howard explained. 

She also confirmed they will address how Covid-19 changed the restaurant industry. For Benny’s Big Time, Howard said upon reopening last summer, their takeout program gained steam. It’s something she claimed wasn’t really on people’s radar before the shutdown.

“And when we’re on the other side of this,” Howard added, “hopefully, we won’t lose that placeholder, and we will benefit and do more revenue if our dining room can be full and we continue to do takeout.”

The Pandemic Pivot

Howard is used to pivoting concepts and ideas. She did so in 2018 when her brick-and-mortar Handy + Hot – serving biscuits and hand pies – was slated to open in Kinston. Hurricane Florence prevented it from happening.

“So we just flipped the concept and decided to do things online only, and use the kitchens we already had in Kinston and the resources already in place,” she said.

For two years, Howard has been shipping specialty items from Handy + Hot. She pulls from her arsenal of recipes and experiments to create holiday releases – Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas.

Just on Valentine’s Day, she introduced “Bae-berry Biscuit Bottoms,” which are her favorite parts of the Southern handheld: crispy and chewy biscuit bottoms, tops and edges. The half-dozen come frozen for folks to bake at home and then drizzle with a goat-cheese raspberry glaze. 

“We had a beer and parmesan bread we did for Father’s Day a year ago,” Howard explained, “and we did a sweet-potato-onion bread from Chef and the Farmer that we’ve served for years.”

On March 14, Howard’s online shop will be offering handmade goods all the time, not just during holidays. At first it will feature around 10 items, each stocked several hundred deep. 

Howard confirmed she is toying with putting Benny’s Big Time famed hot honey in the rotation. She also has seen success with some of her recipe “heroes” she recently wrote about in the fall release of her second cookbook, “This Will Make It Taste Good.”

The recipe heroes are homemade condiments that zhuzh up any meal and make it taste special. Howard’s favorites are the Little Green Dress (chimichurri-salsa verde with olives) and Red Weapons (pickled tomatoes and jalapeños).

Howard’s second cookbook was released in fall 2020 and is on sale now. (Port City Daily/Cover photo by Baxter Miller)

“The Little Green Dress is a briny, bright, herbaceous relish, if you will,” she explained. “It’s great with fish and chicken, and tossed with roasted vegetables, so it serves many purposes.”

Howard said Red Weapons pumps up the acid in a dish: “They’re great stirred into anything, but also into mayonnaise and buttermilk for salad dressing.”

The heroes have been incremental in the way Howard has cooked for years: taking fresh vegetables from farmers, and preserving and preparing them to last for long periods of time through winter, when crop growth is limited.

“When I stepped away from cooking at the restaurant, I started taking these heroes home with me,” she said. “They allowed me to bring dinner together quickly.”

Even the cookbook got the “pandemic pivot,” so to speak. Howard originally was writing it last spring to focus on simple recipes that didn’t include more than four ingredients. The last chapter consisted of handmade condiments, relishes and chutneys that amp up any meal.

“I had a chapter that was called ‘This Will Make It Taste Good,’” Howard noted. “Then I thought, You know, I hate that. These are, like, just down here at the bottom when they’re really the most exciting thing about this book. So I flipped the whole book on its head.”

Howard said the cookbook was more fun to write in this format too. It became revelatory of her personality and how she operates in the kitchen.

“All of the names represent or stand for what that thing does,” she explained. “Little Green Dress is like a Little Black Dress — it goes well with everything. Red Weapons are the thing that made my dishes stand out. When I put this beside other chefs, they’d always ask, ‘What is that?’”

“This Will Make It Taste Good” features 10 heroes. Yet, Howard said she had 20 ready to go.

“So there’s more opportunity,” she revealed of possible followup books. “And I think we as a culture are really waking up to the idea of cooking with condiments. Covid forced us to get more creative and investigative about the things we can cook with.”

Stories in every bite

In between the lines of every recipe that Howard has created lies a story inspired by its every bite. She has become an award-winning storyteller, picked up a Peabody for “A Chef’s Life,” James Beard Award for outstanding food personality host, not to mention four International Association of Culinary Professionals book awards for 2017’s “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South.”

The PBS limited series “Somewhere South,” she said, is some of her most proud work to date. It followed Howard traversing across the region to tell stories of diversity hidden in corners of the South often overlooked. It revealed how influential food can be, and even bridge attitudes and understanding on hard-to-talk-about topics – racism and stereotypes included.

“It was really such an honor to be a part of sharing other stories that are in our backyard that are incredibly inspiring,” Howard said. 

As for its return, the funding for “Somewhere South” isn’t clear. However, Howard assured she will remain busy. “I am pursuing other opportunities in the media space, but we’ll see what happens,” she said.

Over the summer of 2020, she opened Handy + Hot as a breakfast and lunch brick-and-mortar in Charleston, S.C. Another restaurant, Lenoir, will join the Low Country dining scene in April. Howard said she will be splitting her time between her home and Charleston to keep up with regional operations. 

In fact, Lenoir diners will be able to interact with the chef some.

“I’m gonna work the floor as a sommelier three nights a week,” Howard said. “I know that will drive interest, increase business and get people in the door.”

As for more restaurants to come, she remains mum on whether Wilmington will be graced with another. “I’m more concerned with having the ones that I have be really, really good,” she said.

And that happens in part by her dedication to continue cheerleading for farmers and sourcing local food. 

“When Feast Down East started, they were game-changers for farmers in this region,” Howard said. “The work of a farmer is already really involved, [but] add to that, you’ve got to be the marketing person, you’ve got to be the salesperson, you’ve got to be the delivery person, and it was a lot of pressure on an already challenging job. Feast Down East allows farmers to really do what they do best.”

Vivian Howard will speak as part of Feast Down East’s virtual food conference, taking place Mar. 5-6. Tickets are $50.

Correction: The original piece stated “A Chef’s Life” ran for 10 seasons, but has been corrected to five, with 10 or more episodes each season. Port City Daily regrets the error.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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