Vivian Howard has a vision for rural North Carolina. It’s one of small towns bursting with opportunity and a self-sustaining creative economy that builds on and leans into the agricultural traditions of the region.
She’s concocted that vision in the kitchen of her nationally acclaimed Kinston restaurant Chef and the Farmer and delivered it through her hit, James Beard Award-winning television show A Chef’s Life, that enters its fourth season this week. She’ll be dishing out the latest iteration of that vision next month through her highly anticipated inaugural cookbook, Deep Run Roots.
“This is a Southern cookbook, but not one that treats the South like a homogenous region where everybody eats the same kind of fried chicken, ribs, shrimp and grits, collard greens, or gumbo,” says Vivian. “Instead, I interpret Southern cooking the way we’ve long understood French, Italian, and Chinese food: as a complex cuisine with abundant variation shaped by terrain, climate, and people… Eastern North Carolina is my Tuscany, my Szechuan, my Provence.”
Adding to the anticipation, Vivian announced yesterday that folks will have both the opportunity to cook her recipes and taste them too. As she travels the South unveiling Deep Run Roots, she’ll be dishing out a sampling of her corner of the South… from a brand new food truck.
The food truck, covered with images of Eastern North Carolina staples like muscadine grapes, collards, turnips and, of course, the Chef, made its first public appearance yesterday at the Lenoir County Farmers’ Market. Several dozen Kinstonians gathered there for a “Surprise Event” to get a taste of Vivian’s latest project.
A $10 donation to the farmers market landed hungry visitors one of three Eastern North Carolina classics straight from the food truck window: Scarlett’s Chicken and Rice, Shrimp Stew with Poached Eggs, or Vivian’s signature Tom Thumb. At the beginning of October, Vivian will take those dishes, and the big truck, on the road for fans.
“The whole idea is to share Eastern North Carolina specialties with the rest of the South,” says Howard. “We’ve been working on it for months. It’s exciting.”
During the nine-week book tour, the truck will visit over 20 cities from Oxford to Nashville to Chicago. At each stop, Vivian will dish out one of the three entrees served yesterday, a dessert — warm banana pudding, pecan pie or a Pepsi and peanut ice cream float — and a set of hor d'oeuvres that include baked pimento cheese grits with corn bread chips, watermelon rind pickles wrapped in bacon, and the Deep Run Roll, a creative take on the banana-mayonnaise sandwich, or what Vivian calls the “peanut butter and jelly of my youth.” The treat will be comprised of bananas rolled in flattened white bread smeared with Duke’s Mayonnaise and sliced like sushi.
Before the truck opened for business yesterday, Ben Knight presented a $9,500 check to Pat Jenkins, Manager of the Lenoir County Farmers’ Market. The couple donated the proceeds of the Chef and the Farmer’s recent 10th Anniversary celebration, and it will be used to support the market’s most recent effort to build a licensed kitchen, a project Vivian and Ben are eager to support.
“We have a dream of having an inspected kitchen over there,” says Pat. “We want to teach people how to cook in a healthy manner.”
The local community college and hospital will be able to use the future kitchen for food demonstrations and workshops. Food purveyors will be able to rent it to prepare sellable cakes and packaged edible goods, and community members will be able to rent the building for events. The extension office that manages the market plans to use the building to teach people how to preserve food.
“[We want to] make sure we have an inspected place to teach people to preserve the bounty that we have here in the summertime,” says Pat. “This is near and dear to Vivian’s heart.”
This food-truck-book-tour is an unprecedented move that bodes well for one of the South’s most important chefs. As her vision for rural North Carolina takes shape in Kinston, Vivian’s redefining what it means to be a modern chef. Her commitment to creating beautiful, artful food goes hand-and-hand with her advocacy for the local economy in her home community.
Here’s to hoping that people will like how all that tastes on the road.
Want to check out the food truck? Check here to see when Chef Vivian comes to a town near you.