In the world of celebrity chefs, vulnerability isn't something you see a lot. Machismo, sure. But a chef who admits in her cookbook that she can't improve upon her mother's chicken and rice recipe? That's not exactly the norm. Unless you're Kinston, N.C.'s Chef Vivian Howard, star of the Peabody Award-winning PBS series, A Chef's Life. After reading Howard's new cookbook, Deep Run Roots, it's plain to see that just like the show suggests, with Howard humility is a virtue.
Take for example the chapter on rice. Rather than simply sing the praises of the Anson Mills' Carolina Gold, as so many have before, Howard uses the space as a place to chastise herself for the arrogance of her youth.
"I wrote this story in the rice chapter about my mom," Howard explains. Growing up Howard always watched her mom make her signature chicken and rice. Thinking that she could improve upon her mother's methods, when her mom got sick with arthritis, the chef delivered her 30 individually vacuum-sealed packages of her updated recipe. "Well, in a post-surgery delirium Mom tells me it's awful and tells me to take the rice packets home," Howard says. "I'm six months pregnant with twins and this sends me over the edge. But what ended up happening was I learned to make it the way she made it."
That's what makes Howard's show and her subsequent cookbook so endearing, her revealing honesty.
"When we first started making the show, I didn't think anyone was ever going to see it so I was completely uninhibited," Howard explains of her signature openness. "The director is a childhood friend of mine, so it always felt really safe. Then, when people actually did watch it, I realized that that's one of the things people were responding to, the fact that I was able to show vulnerability and that I do not appear to be a badass in any way. Then I realized when we got ready to make the second season, I have to continue to be myself."
That normal gal attitude has paid off. For Howard it's meant the opportunity to do what she's always wanted to do — write. And come to find out, she's damn good at it.
"I've been able to merge these two things that I really love — writing and cooking," says Howard. "I want to do more books, but I don't think that requires me to ditch the kitchen. If anything I became a much better cook through the process of writing this book."
Deep Run Roots is a 600 page beast of a book.
"I can't remember how big Sean Brock's is," she says of Brock's Heritage cookbook. "But mine's actually much longer. You see mine, you're gonna be like 'Holy shit!' It weighs the same that my daughter did when she was born — 4.7 pounds. And that's because it's so heavy on stories. It's like 200 recipes, which is pretty average, but there's a lot of stories and those, that's my favorite part of the book."
The emphasis on stories makes sense when you look at Howard's bio. The chef began her culinary career hoping to be a food writer. She got her English degree, but then life took her to New York City where she waitressed and eventually interned at Wylie Dufresne's famed wd~50 before becoming a chef. After she and her husband Ben Knight opened a successful soup company out of their NYC apartment, Howard's family lured her back to North Carolina where they opened Kinston's Chef and the Farmer. Now, after four seasons of her successful TV series, Howard is taking her show on the road for a nine-week food truck book tour. But why go via food truck when she just could have flown into each city for the tour?
"I'm asking myself that question right now," she says from Raleigh, N.C. where she's sitting in a book shop signing 2,000 copies of Deep Run Roots. "I did it because in some respects it simplifies it. Obviously we have a lot of logistics I wouldn't have had if I was just doing dinners in other folks' restaurants. But I've done a fair amount of dinners in the past few years in unfamiliar kitchens and frankly I'm fatigued by walking into unfamiliar kitchens and asking where the blender is."
Instead, Howard's maintaining her kitchen control thanks to the truck, and plans to serve up some of the classics viewers have seen on the show during her stops. Recipes like watermelon pickles wrapped in bacon, that most odd of North Carolina dishes, Tom Thumb, and of course her mama's chicken and rice, may be served to those who attend her book signings.
For a lot of people, getting a chance to taste Howard's cooking outside of Kinston will be a big draw, but it's the writing in the book that should be the real star of the show — a book entirely written by a working chef, mother, and TV star all without the help of a ghost writer, a rarity in the cookbook biz and something Howard's not afraid to talk about.
"I think it's fine to have a ghost writer. But if I were the ghost writer I'd really want my name on that book too," she says. "I think it's silly for chefs to pretend that they're doing something they're not, because I think the consumer doesn't really care. They just want to read about that person and understand their recipes." But, she adds she wrote every word in Deep Run Roots because those are the kinds of books she likes to read. "I think you can tell when someone has written a chef's book," she says. "Whether or not it gets projected through someone else's lens or they think it's your voice, there are some things that are lost. I'm not the best chef in the world, but I wrote this book because I wanted to write. And I think the stories in it are things people can relate to and many of them have universal messages."