Three times a week at 9 p.m. I take a trip to eastern North Carolina. Actually, I watch the TV cooking show, “A Chef’s Life,” on Create TV. The half-hour program chronicles the life of chef Vivian Howard at her farm-to-table restaurant, Chef and the Farmer, in Kinston, N.C.
According to the opening montage, Vivian Howard grew up on her parents’ farm and moved to New York after college. She left her advertising job and worked in Manhattan restaurants, where she met her husband, Ben Knight. When Vivian and Ben decided that they wanted to open their own restaurant, Vivian’s parents offered to back the new venture only if the young couple opened the establishment in her hometown of Kinston.
The appeal of the show is observing the restaurant staff at work in the kitchen, watching the family dynamics between Vivian and her husband, her parents, and twin children, and enjoying the North Carolina countryside. We follow Vivian into the fields, markets, and kitchens of her neighbors and vendors, accompanied by a bluegrass soundtrack. Each 30-minute episode focuses on one main ingredient. I am a picky eater, but I still enjoy watching episodes featuring peppers, okra, cabbage, pickles, butter beans, chicken, pork, cornbread, and grits.
After watching a few episodes, you get to know the recurring characters, like Vivian’s favorite produce vendor, Warren, of Brothers Farm. Warren, often in shorts and bare feet, accompanies Vivian to his farm fields to pick hot peppers, beans, and okra. I am always on high alert to spot Warren at every far-flung location from Vivian’s guest chef cooking event at the James Beard House in New York to her book signings and food festival stints.
Since the show has been filmed for several years, you may not always see the episodes in order on any given night. (I have also found “A Chef’s Life” on PBS channels 21 and 13 on weekend evenings). I generally figure out the timeline of any particular episode by the age of Vivian’s twins. From toddlers to pre-schoolers, her young son and daughter make appearances in most episodes. The episode on chicken highlighted the third birthday party for the twins, including the delivery of a chicken coop and baby chicks. One of the last programs was filmed just before the twins were set to start kindergarten.
The restaurant scenes show the back-of-the-house chefs, butchers, baker and prep cooks toiling all afternoon to prepare and then rushing around to fill orders during the hectic dinner service. The viewers see how much Vivian relies on her staff when she takes time off to write her first cookbook, appear on TV shows to promote the book, and then travel around the South in a food truck for book signings.
A fun part of the restaurant vignettes is when Vivian introduces new menu items to the server staff for tasting so that they can promote the new dishes to diners that evening. When Vivian decides to highlight an ingredient—figs, peaches, country ham—that ingredient shows up in several menu dishes.
My favorite character is Vivian’s husband, Ben Knight. He appears truly supportive and proud of his wife and plays an important role in the main restaurant, Chef and the Farmer, as well as in their second restaurant, The Boiler Room. In one season, we see Ben in his painting studio and learn that he will finally have an art exhibit of his colorful abstract paintings, after focusing on the restaurants and family for 10 years.
A travel show, a cooking program and a family reality series presented with a mild Southern drawl, “A Chef’s Life” is must-see TV!
Kim Kovach baked and sold gourmet cookies out of her tiny New York City kitchen, developed recipes for food companies and enjoys writing about food. Visit kimkovachwrites.com.