We first spoke with Chef Vivian Howard about four years ago when her second show, “Somewhere South”, was about to debut on PBS. A lot has happened in that time, and we reconnected with her to ask if she’ll be doing any TV again, what she is up to now, how her original restaurant Chef and the Farmer (the focus of her first show “A Chef’s Life,” which still airs on KLCS and Create) is doing, and what’s a go-to healthy dish she likes to make.
Vivian, when last we spoke, Somewhere South was about to launch on PBS. What’s been the viewer feedback with the show as it continues to air on Create?
I think good. Honestly, I wish I could say I had more feedback, but I don’t. I think that when the show first came out, it was early pandemic and it was a great antidote, but it felt like it went by really fast (laughs). And North Carolina, where I live where I live, we do not have a Create station, so the fact that it’s airing there is great to know. I didn’t even know that.
I love watching the mix of unexpected ethnicities and food in the South and you do point out the South isn’t just about black or white cultures. It was educating to see so many Asians who used to have markets there, and Latinos as well, all brining their food and creating communities beyond just what we typically think of as Southern food.
The whole point is to show the things that we bring to the places that we land, our food traditions and our ingredients, how they shape that place and how that place ends up shaping those traditions. And also, to really demonstrate that Southern food is always evolving, and we don’t get to say “That’s not Southern because it looks ‘other’ “now, but maybe in 50 years it may be something that’s completely engrained into the fabric of this place.
Are there plans for more Seasons? Was it fun for you to do and do you want to travel more?
It was such a great experience making that show, I felt like I was really learning. Not just how to make TV, but learning (laughs). But I have just taken a break from being on TV and traveling and all that. My children are 11 now. Ben and I are in the middle of getting a divorce. I’ve written about it, I write a column for this magazine Garden & Gun, and I wrote about it there. It’s a Southern literary magazine, it has nothing guns. The title is a little misleading.
Do you miss doing TV at all?
If the right project came along and it allowed me to stay close to home and do something that I felt was bringing value rather than entertaining. I mean, I think it’s important to do both at once, then I would do it, but I’m not chasing TV.
What has life been like for you since we spoke in 2019?
Well, I opened two restaurants in Charleston during the pandemic, and I started writing that column which I really, really enjoy. I have launched a new business called “Viv’s Fridge” and they’re stand-alone smart fridges that have food meals in them that are prepped in our restaurant’s kitchen. We launched on the Carolina coast this summer with three there.
You just put food in there?
Yeah, basically a consumer goes up, they’re outside 24-7 and a consumer goes up and swipes their card and a door opens and everything you take out you’re charged for once the door closes.
Is the original restaurant is still going?
Chef and the Farmer, we closed in June, we’re going to reopen a very reimagined version hopefully this summer. It’s been kind of ‘’lay-low land’, ya know?
I heard a show on the radio, and someone was going down to North Carolina for a gig and a caller recommend that restaurant, so thought, “Oh, I guess the restaurant is still doing well.”
We were open till recently. Really, I closed because I want to open a restaurant that I would open in 2023 rather than one that I would open in 2006. But then I also wanted the opportunity to really focus on the Viv’s Fridge business. I think it’s a big idea that I hope can become a bigger part of our business, so I wanted to focus on that.
So, what’s an average day like for you now?
I woke up this morning at 5:30, I had a deadline today. I’d written an Op-Ed for the New York Times that I think will publish on Friday. So, I woke up, finished that this morning, took my kids to school, came back, had a bunch of emails and a couple phone meetings and then sat down and ate lunch. I work from home now for the most part, and my kids just got home from school and I’m getting ready to go to a basketball game that my son is playing in. So not too bad.
Do you ever worry about running out of ideas about to do in life?
No. I’m a really curious person, so I think as long as you’re curious you’re always finding new things that you’re curious about. I go through periods where I’m more interested in different types of work than I am necessarily cooking, but I’m able to exercise that in a weird kind of way.
What keeps you going and doing what you do? Just the curiosity?
I really just like new challenges; I like fixing problems. I think there’s a lot of problems in the high-end restaurant world related to margins and staff retention. So, my “Viv’s Fridge” is a way to kind of address that in a practical way, using kitchens that we already have, rather than opening new restaurants.
I like projects with a beginning, middle and end, I’m not a great manager (laughs). Restaurants like mine are only open for dinner service, normally, so that leaves your kitchen only producing revenue a small amount of time. How can we produce revenues, for butts that are not in seats, in our same kitchen, rather than opening a ghost kitchen or a burger restaurant to try and make money. How can we be smart about how we do it in our own kitchen.
[“Viv’s Fridge”] are big refrigerators; we put them outside of wine shops so they’re a natural amenity for a wine shop. We have about nine of these fridges now. I wrote a [New York Times] Op-Ed that will publish on Friday that is about the future of restaurants. And “Viv’s Fridge”, I fleshed that out in the end. I spent the last three days writing it, so it will be a much better portrayal of what my tired mind can do right now. (laughs)
I always think of you if I cook vegetables in a pot of water for a while and I realize it’s “pot liquor “ and it has benefits. Do you get that a lot from people?
No, but I can see why you would. People here do it naturally, so they wouldn’t credit me for it. It’s certainly not a bad practice, also being in L.A. where there’s a water shortage, it’s a great way to water plants, if you have any of that water left over. You can only drink so much of that.
What is an easy healthy dish that you make?
I don’t know that this is easy to make as much as once you make t hem, it’s easy to have. Every two months or so I make a bunch of frozen burritos. I make some of them vegetarian and I make some of them with meat. I pan fry them on the outside so that they’re crunchy and then I freeze them. And when you heat them up, you just heat them in the oven, they stay crunchy; so, I pack my daughter’s launch with those. Whenever somebody comes over and visits, that’s a gift I send them home with. If I go to someone’s house, I take frozen burritos (laughs).
I find the challenge with cooking is cleaning. How often do you clean your stove and vent? Any tips?
I try to wipe down and gently clean every time I cook. And once a week I’ll take things apart and get out the stainless-steel spray. I also find it generally a pain-point (laughs).
Do you get viewers saying they miss your show since we last spoke?
Oh yeah, people would love for me to do something else, I think.
Is there anything you’d like to add for our viewers? I do think people want to see more of you. There’s no plans for another “Somewhere South”?
The funding model is really hard, and we produced that series largely on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the chances of getting something like that again are really slim. If I get the opportunity to do something like that, I will. Am I going to dedicate my life to fundraising? I can’t.
You can watch Chef Vivian host A Chef’s Life, Sundays on KLCS; visit klcs.org/schedule to find the full schedule.
Keep up with Vivian on her social media: Instagram (@chefandthef); Twitter (@chefandthef); Facebook (@DeepRunRoots) or visit her website: vivianhoward.com