Bridging the Divide

Tuesday, March 7, 2017
By: Vivian Howard, PBS television series “A Chef’s Life” and AgVocate, Chef and Television Personality
Vivian Howard, AgVocacy Forum

My story starts on a farm in rural Deep Run, North Carolina.


For as long as I can remember, I wanted to live in a city, and as soon as possible I made that happen. When I was 14 years old, I moved away from the farm to Winston Salem to attend high school. Before I was 22, I made the more dramatic move to New York to pursue a career in journalism. Dreams of journalism turned into a job as a server, and that job as a server turned into a job and an obsession with cooking. During my time in New York, I trained under some of the city’s most inspiring chefs, but ultimately a life in the rat race of New York was not for me. 


In 2005, my family convinced me (and my husband!) to come back to Eastern North Carolina to open a restaurant in the nearby town of Kinston. Perhaps a little naive but still determined, we hoped our restaurant might light a spark in our community and help transition some of Eastern Carolina’s displaced tobacco farmers into food farmers. To our surprise, the restaurant aptly named Chef & the Farmer did just that and has become known for thoughtful, creative cooking rooted in our region’s ingredients and traditions. Specifically, when creating our menu, we exalt local dishes I grew up eating, utilizing the ingredients that make Eastern North Carolina’s cuisine distinct. In fact, more than 60 percent of the ingredients we use in the restaurant come from within a 90-mile radius.


After Chef & the Farmer had been open five years, I felt the pull of storytelling again and set out with a childhood friend to make a documentary about food traditions in rural Eastern North Carolina. Out of that grew our PBS series, “A Chef’s Life,” a show that’s about people, place and tradition told through the lens of food. And based on the popularity of the show, I got to write a book called “Deep Run Roots,” an ode to the food of the frugal farmer that reads like a memoir.


Who would have guessed that a show about my life and love of food would create a bridge between people living in farming towns and those living in the city? I see now how it has created a common connection and helped people to see that we are more similar than different in our desire for good food for ourselves and our families. Pretty soon, not only were North Carolinians coming to the restaurant but people from all over the country. If you asked me in 2005 if all of that was going to happen, I would have called you crazy, but my hope with sharing my story has been to help make people hailing from rural America proud of their roots like I am now.


Through my boomerang journey and opening my own restaurant, I learned how impactful sourcing local ingredients can be. While not always the cheapest option for us when building a menu, the taste, the health benefits and the impact using local ingredients has on my community’s economy makes them worth it.


So, my story returned to rural Deep Run, North Carolina, and it’s looking like it may stay here a while.


The world population is expected to reach nearly 9.6 billion by 2050, and producing enough healthy and nutritious food for all will require collaboration and engagement across the ag sector and beyond.  It is important for everyone who plays a role in this important work to #AgVocate by sharing their story. Be sure to check out the other participants’ blogs as they #AgVocate. Tomorrow’s post will be hosted by Carrie Calvert, the director of tax and commodity policy at Feeding America, and will discuss eliminating food waste and reducing hunger in America.


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