Aiming to celebrate and revive the food traditions of Eastern North Carolina, chef Vivian Howard and director Cynthia Hill started a little show called “A Chef’s Life” in 2013.
Network execs called the concept “unprogrammable,” and when the show found a home on PBS, Hill and Howard had three sponsors they recruited themselves.
But when the fifth season’s premiere episode screened Sunday to a sold-out crowd at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, there were enough sponsors’ names to fill a movie screen, ranging from pricey French cookware company Le Creuset to passion-inspiring Duke’s Mayonnaise. In the age of streaming and DVRs, the show might not be a Nielsen darling, but Howard said 4.5 million people watch each episode. It has won a Peabody Award, and this year, Howard was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Culinary Host.
“No one thought we’d do five seasons, myself included,” Howard said. “It’s certainly cause to celebrate.”
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And there were plenty of fans in Durham to celebrate Howard and the show’s memorable supporting players – Kinston residents, farmers and restaurant staff, among others. Former Food & Wine Editor Dana Cowin conducted a Q&A with Howard and Hill following the episode screening.
Here are some highlights from Sunday’s premiere party, including news on Howard’s second book.
Season 5 will begin airing locally Oct. 5 on UNC-TV.
As far as tomatoes are concerned, September has a lot in common with June, the months on either end of tomato season when the best thing that can be grown in the ground is out of reach. Yet, the show must go on. Season five of “A Chef’s Life” opens with the series’ second look at tomatoes, using the fruit to track 10 years of the Chef & the Farmer restaurant in Kinston.
In this case, June tomatoes aren’t going to win any ribbons at the fair, looking pale, unripened and uninspired.
“One thing that I loved about this episode was the tomatoes you used, those were some crappy tomatoes,” Cowin said.
The director and the chef said making the show isn’t movie magic or kitchen magic. It’s just the job, to take what you have and create something.
“We have shown what it really is like to work in a restaurant kitchen, where things are, I don’t care what kitchen it is, it’s not always perfect,” Howard said. “Even if you don’t have perfect tomatoes, you have to open for dinner service and you have to serve something. The work of a cook is to take an imperfect tomato and make it tasty. And that’s not what we always see on food TV.”
On the topic of food television – and there are an increasing number of networks devoted to food – Cowin called “A Chef’s Life” delightfully different. She asked what Hill and Howard thought of the bulk of food-centric shows.
“I don’t watch much of it,” Howard said. “I think some of the food television that’s exalted and celebrated is really around chef worship and makes what we do seem very precious and distant. I look at these people and I’m like ‘Wow.’
“For me the show is about bringing people closer to their food source ... and (other shows) seem to do the opposite.”
Hill, founder and director of Markay Media, said she uses the Food Network or Cooking Channel as a sleep aid, if she watches food shows at all, though she said she explored the shows when she was doing initial research for “A Chef’s Life.”
“The mistake I think a lot of those people make is, entertainment doesn’t have to be stupid,” Hill said.
Howard signed a two-book deal even before her debut award-winning “Deep Run Roots” cookbook was really formed. It’s now time for her to work on that second book.
Howard revealed the working title: “Pleasantly Plump.”
The book will be about body image, Howard said, ideally blending narrative and recipes in the way “Deep Run Roots” did with her heritage and food’s role in it.
“It will kind of chart my trajectory and my diets and binges and then moderation, which is where I am now,” she said.
“Deep Run Roots” is more than 500 pages long and weighs nearly 6 pounds. The hardware it’s racked up, including Cookbook of the Year from the Independent Association of Culinary Professionals and a James Beard Award nomination, likely weighs more.
Since Howard had a two-book deal, Cowin asked if she had thought about splitting the book into two volumes.
“I didn’t know how big it was until I delivered it, because I was just looking at the word count,” Howard said. “I didn’t think that 450,000 words sounded like that much.”
During the Q&A, one audience member offered some marital advice, saying he and his wife found peace in their household by each of them having their own signed copy of the book, so they didn’t have to share. He asked how sales were doing.
“I do wake up every morning and read the Amazon reviews,” Howard said. “My editor tells me the fact that there are new reviews is a good sign.”
The Warren & Lillie show
If “A Chef’s Life” spinoff is ever in the works, we suggest it focus on the friendship of Warren Brothers, a farmer, and Lillie Hardy, who often appear to school Howard on old-school food traditions from the South. Their combination of on-the-farm wisdom and no-nonsense charm is evident both on screen and off.
The pair appeared at the premiere, taking photos and signing autographs for fans, turning to page 401 in “Deep Run Roots” and putting their signature near the section devoted to their “okra wisdom.”
Hardy and Brothers appear often on the show and have become supporting characters and celebrities in their own right. Hardy, asked to name her favorite episode, goes back to Season 1: “The Buttermilk Belt,” where she teaches Howard to make biscuits.
“I had to hit her hand because she wasn’t doing it right,” Hardy said. “Now she’s got it.”
Cucumber and thyme
You may not have heard of a cucumber and thyme beer, and some would say for good reason. But for the new season, North Carolina’s biggest brewery Sierra Nevada asked Howard to come up with some ingredients for a beer brewed in her honor. Cucumber and thyme were her choices.
“That’s the worst idea you could have come up with,” Howard remembers Sierra Nevada brewer Brian Grossman telling her.
But Grossman was game and created Vine Ripe, a cucumber saison that can be found on tap in a handful of Durham restaurants and bars.
“It’s actually delicious,” Howard said. “But it’s because of Brian, not because of me.”
Andrew Kagan, a local homebrewer, snagged a keg label from the beer as a souvenir. He said he was skeptical of the flavor combination, but would try to find a sample around town.
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson