On Oprah, writing a new cookbook full of flavor bombs, and one piece of technology keeping her sane during these trying times.

By Hunter Lewis
October 23, 2020
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Credit: Baxter Miller

Editor’s note: The news can weigh heavily on all of us during these strange days, and especially on small business owners and employees whose jobs have been altered by the pandemic. Hey, we could all use a little inspiration and light, so we’ve launched Best Practices, a new column for F&W Pro, to share how leaders are facing unprecedented challenges head on during the pandemic while growing personally and professionally.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Anyone who has found themselves trying to steer out of the cooking ruts that inevitably developed from preparing dinner six or seven nights a week over the past eight months will find culinary salvation in Howard’s new cookbook, This Will Make It Taste Good. It’s full of smart solutions, what she calls “flavor heroes,” like Red Weapons, bright and refreshing pickled tomatoes that taste like a cross between chutney, pico de gallo, and hot sauce, and add depth and intrigue to simple workaday dishes. 

Howard earned her bona fides as one of the best culinary storytellers of her generation with the award-winning TV show A Chef’s Life, and she launched her second show, Somewhere South, in 2019. She had planned to promote the new cookbook with a nationwide tour—but that was the Before Times. Now, she’s sticking close to home with a handful of “drive-thru” book signings in select Southern cities and hosting a virtual tour from her home in Deep Run near Kinston, the eastern North Carolina town where she and her husband, Ben Knight, opened Chef & the Farmer, their flagship restaurant, 14 years ago. It’s where her core team of five has been fine-tuning new business models like mail-order quarantine cooking kits that feature condiments from the book like Red Weapons; reopening the dining room of their Wilmington, North Carolina, pizzeria Benny’s Big Time; and beginning to book small dinners and pop-ups at Chef & the Farmer again.

One of the better outcomes of the pandemic? More time to focus on new projects, including Handy & Hot, a biscuit and hand pie shop, and the restaurant Lenoir, both in Charleston, South Carolina, Howard told me. “I wasn't being pulled in a million different directions. So I was able to spend a lot of the summer getting Handy & Hot open and dialing in our procedures and recipes. And I'm not sure that that would have been the case if we had not been in this unfortunate situation. There's always a silver lining.”

How do you communicate with your team in Kinston and Wilmington, and also in Charleston when you can’t be everywhere at once?

I am both a great communicator and a terrible communicator. If I have a really close relationship and an open door with the person at the helm at the Wilmington and Charleston restaurants, I can communicate my desires and my concerns more effectively. I want the people in those places to really own that leadership position and make sure that their team knows they're seen. My chef in Charleston and I connect every morning for what's supposed to be about 10 minute and ends up being about 45 minutes to an hour, to talk through the day before and the plan for that day.

It's a new business and we opened in an environment that none of us had ever been in before. There are a lot of things that we're working out on a daily basis. It's about having a close connection and an open line of communication with the people who are in leadership. 

It’s been hard because for years, the people in my organization said, "Don't bother Vivian. Don't ever bother Vivian." Sometimes that worked, but more often than not, an issue would slowly find its way to me. I've had to make it really clear to my leaders that this is the most important thing. They have to bring it to me and not waste time taking it to other people because it's going to eventually end up on my doorstep. It's about streamlining the communication, but having a really open door with a few people.

I like talking on the phone. I'm in my car a lot. The whole Zoom thing requires a level of being ready that I'm not always ready for. I like to have my communication be more constant so we're not putting things off for the weekly meeting that inevitably, there's too many people on, and nothing is decided and no movement is made following it.

How do you work with your core team of five in Kinston?

We established our circle really early on during the pandemic. They've not only become my most trusted professional peers, but we've all become quite close personally. We're pretty much in front of each other all the time.

In business we’re all thinking about new ways of reaching our customers in different ways than we did in the past. Have you come up with some good ideas?

Oddly enough, two years ago we were positioned to open a biscuit and hand pie shop in Kinston called Handy & Hot, but because of Hurricane Florence and just having to close for two weeks related to that, we decided that we would put that on hold and invert that business model to a shipping model entirely. That's always the way that I kind of saw it—not only selling biscuits and hand pies and coffee in town, but shipping specialty baked goods elsewhere. We just turned it on its head and started shipping cakes and pies and loaves of bread about a year and a half ago, so when the pandemic happened and we had to shut down, we already had this infrastructure in place.

Shipping takes some research and we had already done that. We started shipping the quarantine kits—which were some of the condiments that are the building blocks that I wrote this book about—with recipes and no-brainer ideas on how to use them. It wasn't related to baking at all, but geared toward helping people get dinner on the table in an accessible but exciting way. 

We shipped 5000 units of those quarantine kits and really dialed in our processes. When it was time to go to Charleston to open Handy & Hot, the team came and did that with me too.

Is this shipping model something that you're going to grow in the coming years?

Yes. It is something that has proven to work for us, and we have a platform, so we're able to get the word out about the things that we're going to ship. But I have a major concern about how wasteful all of the materials are. The fact that we're shipping a pie that costs $35, but then once we add our packaging and shipping costs, you're buying a $75 pie. That’s something that you might buy once or maybe even twice for a gift, but it's not on a weekly basis. I want to be mindful of that and not see the shipping model as the end-all be-all of what we can do as restaurateurs who want to get our food in front of people.

What are some things that you've been doing differently during the pandemic that might carry over into your life once we're out of this mess?

The restaurant closing has given me an opportunity to look at this fast-moving train that I was on. People were on it with me, but I did not necessarily feel as if I was driving. It's allowed me to look at that from a different perspective and be purposeful about how I want to move forward, both the restaurant and my career in general. I never would have stopped and looked at anything unless I'd been forced to. 

Is there any piece of technology right now that's making your life better?

Before the pandemic, I got a Ziip Nanocurrent device for my face and it is making my life so much better. It's this electrical thing and it's very relaxing, and it feels like it's this easy thing that I can do for myself. Actually, I feel bad I don't have a sponsorship for it because I have gifted literally 12 of these things. Right now, the future's so uncertain and we can't control things, and I'm also personally trying not to buy anything. This is something I bought right at the beginning of the pandemic. It's been my little baby blanket I've been hanging on to and running all over my face.

If you have a mentor, what’s a valuable lesson they've taught you?

Well, I can't say that I specifically have a mentor. I've gotten a lot of inspiration and positive, forward-thinking ideas from the podcast called How I Built This with Guy Raz. Whenever I'm feeling like I need a shot in the arm, some kind of validating and inspiring conversation, I always turn to that. Raz interviews all of these movement makers, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders, and they share their journey of how they got to where they're going. Really good ideas have the power to make change and resonate with people are something that 1. Solved the problem and 2. It’s something that only you can do. 

Is there anybody in the culinary universe or outside of the food world that you look to for inspiration for how they model their career?

Is it going to sound super cliched if I say Oprah? I've always looked to people who have consistently or constantly evolved their career because they're evolving personally. If you're evolving personally and you're able to let your public persona evolve with you, I find it to be a much more interesting story to follow. Oprah is someone who's always done that, and she's very transparent and vulnerable about her evolution and her interest. People have gone along with her. 

Do you get comments from friends or customers in eastern North Carolina who are worried that Kinston isn’t getting the same attention as your other projects? Like, "Oh, she’s going to move to Charleston." Or, "Oh, she’s forgetting where she came from?”

It's one of my biggest struggles. Somehow I've created this scenario where I feel responsible for the community and for the region and people expect me to carry a lot of that burden. I closed our second Kinston restaurant, The Boiler Room, in June and announced that we were not going to reopen. People were so pissed off and called into question my commitment to eastern North Carolina, and that really left a bad taste in my mouth. I feel like I've done a lot for my town, at least.

Closing The Boiler Room was an effort to do what we've been doing in a better way. We were spread too thin with two restaurants in a small town. We're not going to be the same thing that we were before and I don't want to be; what we were before was not working. I've resolved for people to just be the way that they're going to be. If they want some part of what we're doing, great. And if not, maybe they'll do something themselves.

In your first cookbook Deep Run Roots, your talent for storytelling became clear. Tell me about your role as a storyteller and how you translate that into your role as a leader and as a restaurant operator?

I think my greatest strength has always been storytelling, whether it's written or on a menu. I think my greatest attributes as a leader are sharing enthusiasm and passion for what I'm doing. That has always translated to the people on my team. Because I'm able to tell a story about what it is that we're doing and what it is we want to do, people can get on board and believe in it. 

Walk me through the creative process of your new cookbook This Will Make It Taste Good

After Deep Run Roots came out in 2016, every morning for a year, I woke up and read the new reviews of the book on Amazon. One of the things I kept seeing was that people thought the recipes were too complex, so I decided, come hell or high water, I'm going to write this simple book where all the recipes have four ingredients and nothing is more than a page long.  

I went about writing a proposal and a table of contents and recipes and I was so disappointed. There was no piece of me in it. I had chapters that are snacks and sides and desserts and all the usual suspects, and at the end of the book, I had a chapter called This Will Make It Taste Good. It was all of these building blocks that I use when I cook dinner, to make those four-ingredient recipes really exciting. I got really excited about this particular chapter and then thought, what if I were to just flip this whole book on its head and write a whole book about the building blocks and thereby really share with people the way that I cook at home, which is really an extension of the way that I've cooked in my restaurant? It’s been empowering for me to have a roster of condiments in my fridge that I can add to this or stir into that or put on top of this to make basic stuff really exciting.

So I wrote another proposal for this book that would be about the flavor heroes. I started out with 20 building blocks, and then narrowed it down to 10 that all represented different kinds of flavor profiles and textures. One of the things that was really fun for me was giving all of the building blocks names and personalities and personifying what they do in food. It was such a different creative process that was cathartic and different than anything I'd ever done.

Deep Run Roots was very much a love letter to North Carolina and the food that makes this place what it is. This was a more personal narrative and cookbook because it represents the food that I actually cook. In a lot of ways, it was almost easier than dialing in on the history of the place.

Your timing is pretty damn good by focusing on flavor bombs and flavor heroes. We’re all cooking so much that sometimes we get into cooking ruts. 

That’s why we began selling those quarantine kits with the condiments from the book like the Community Organizer (a Southern sofrito) and the Red Weapons (pickled tomatoes). When I was finishing writing this book and the pandemic was here, my biggest regret was that it was not going to be out in the world for home cooks to call on when everybody's at home cooking. Little did I know we'd still be in the pandemic. 

I think it's really empowering because I've had a lot of people get the condiments in the mail and then post what they've made with it. Suddenly somebody who is a mediocre cook, who always follows recipes, has taken this condiment and really made it work in their kitchen for something that they were already making. That's the first step toward really learning how to put things together and cook without a recipe. That's what I want: for something that I have written or something that I've taught you to make to give you the confidence to do something else without my instructions.