For those of us who missed seeing Vivian Howard going about her day at her North Carolina restaurants, KLCS recently started re-airing Season One of “A Chef’s Life.” This was a good time to catch up with her to see what’s new. Howard ended the series even though it was still popular. Fans will soon get their Southern food fix with her new show that’s a progression of “A Chef’s Life,” which she talks about with us, as well as her favorite L.A. food spot to visit, and how she ended up on TV in the first place.
You’re on CreateTV and have been on KLCS’ Saturday afternoon cooking block, where we brought back Season 1 airing now. Do you get feedback that perhaps your show is a guilty pleasure in a noisy world?
A lot of people are still finding the show for the first time, that is one of the positives of PBS, is that things come back around. People tell me all the time that it’s the one thing they watch as a family and lots of couples tell me that it’s the one thing that both he and she agree on. I’ve never heard “guilty pleasure,” I don’t think anybody feels guilty for watching it. (laughs)
What was the theme or aim for your show when you started?
When we first started, the goal was to show the South, and particularly the part of the South that I live in, for the nuanced place that it is, full of actual human beings, not mystical fairies or idiots chewing on their toenails, because I think so much television that’s made about the South does just that. One of our goals was to present the restaurant business and cooking professionally for what it really looks like, versus so much of what you see on typical food television. It’s not glamorous, it’s also not a competition cooking scenario. So we wanted to show what it really looked like to work in a restaurant.
Do you have a favorite dish that you make, for your restaurant or yourself?
I feel like signature dishes, I don’t think any chef could really say they have a favorite dish if they’re actually cooking, you’re interests are always evolving.
This isn’t the traditional PBS cooking show, what made you originally want to do TV?
We had been opened about five years when the show started. What happened was, I had always wanted to be a writer, a storyteller, and I wanted to make a documentary about the dying food traditions of eastern North Carolina, and I reached out to a childhood acquaintance of mine who was a documentary film maker and asked if she wanted to help with that. She’s from the area. So we started working on it, and as part of that, I ended up in front of the camera, but that was not the original goal.
I loved the show, I miss it. It was nice to see your family on the show. I especially loved when you cook with your mom. There was “The Final Harvest” episode. Was that all there was to the show since it was about your restaurant and there wasn’t a natural next season or did you just want to do other things?
I was tired. Our show is really different in that we didn’t stage things, and I had had every professional and personal triumph and tragedy documented for six years and I really felt as if I had earned the chance for a space in media that was not so personally intrusive. Also my children had been on TV since they were three months old and they’d become really aware of that and aware of the way that they felt different and special and I really wanted them to know that they were in fact not special. It’s not working though! (laughs)
Since the show isn’t on the air anymore, I know a lot of the fans loved Ben. What happened to him, is he still your partner in crime in your work or now more of an artist on his own?
He primarily works on his art now. We have three restaurants and the owner/ manager role is really different, for multiple spots versus one. This has allowed him to pursue what it is he’s always wanted to do.
What’s the most frequent question you get?
I get asked a lot – how are my children? Because people who watch the show, feel as if they’ve watched them grow up. I get asked – how do I balance everything that I try to do? And I get asked – why ‘A Chef’s Life’ ended.
What’s your answer to – how do you balance everything?
I say, “Would you have asked me that if I were a man.” We have been making another show that was an evolution of “A Chef’s Life.” So, I would say I have less balance than I ever have, just because I have inserted myself into a lot of different projects.
For fans who miss seeing you on PBS weekly, what’s the next show about? Do you want to talk about that?
It’s called “Somewhere South,” it should start in March and every episode is about a dish that every culture shares. So, we have a dumpling episode, we have a pickle episode, a hand pie episode, porridge. It reflects more of my work as a journalist and food history enthusiast, than my work as a chef who’s running a restaurant kitchen. So, I learn from people that I know in-and-around all parts of the South that come from different backgrounds.
So far, everyone’s had a Julia Child story, do you have a Julia story or did she inspire you in any way?
I’ve always been embarrassed to say that I did not grow up watching Julia Child. God, I wish I could say that I have strong memories related to that. But, my Julia Child story is that I really loved the movie “Julie and Julia” (laughs) and there are a number of people who have been doing that with my cookbook and that’s the greatest compliment that I could get.
Do ever just pinch yourself you get to do this for a living and follow in the footsteps of educating people about cooking on TV?
I feel like I don’t pinch myself, I feel like I get pinched a lot (laughs). I feel like the nature of my show and where I live and the impact that our restaurants, and the shows, had on my region really gives me a type of responsibility that most people on TV don’t have, in that I feel responsible for representing a place and moving it forward. That’s what I mean by “I get pinched.” At no point does this feel like a luxury.
When you’re in L.A., do you have any favorite places to dine or food shop?
The Grant Central Market. I was just there and I shot a special with Marcus Samuelsson. People always, because of my work, ask me, when they travel for restaurant recommendations and L.A. is hard, because depending on wherever you are in L.A., you can recommend something that’s terribly far away. But I felt like Grand Central Market was so diverse and it feels so much more authentic than most food halls. I was just really impressed with the variety there. Now I can say Grand Central Market when people ask.
Is there anything you want KLCS viewers here in L.A. to know or add?
You’re in L.A. I feel like a lot of people see “A Chef’s Life” and they see that it’s about somewhere in the South and they think that they probably won’t connect to that. And some people think they won’t connect to it because it’s a cooking show. But I always tell people that “A Chef’s Life” is a show about people and family told through the lens of food and it’s really the themes and the message that are universal.