Chef and the Farmer: From Tobacco to Farm-to-Table

by Bruce E. Boyers

The good old days in Kinston, North Carolina, were certainly old but, in terms of healthy eating, not what you would call good. For three years in the mid-1970s, I lived in the area. The farming consisted of conventionally grown tobacco, corn, cotton and soybeans. The food was either fast food (which was very quickly taking over) or local fare such as pork barbecue, hush puppies, black-eyed peas and thick bacon fat (called fatback).

[caption id="attachment_29708" align="alignright" width="270"]A Chef's Life Watch some clips from the upcoming PBS series, A Chef's Life.[/caption]

But the Kinston farm-to-table restaurant Chef & the Farmer has changed that scene rather dramatically, and quite successfully. Since their opening in 2006, they have steadily built a following based on their modernized version of traditional Eastern North Carolina food culture. The ingredients are locally sourced from sustainable farmers. Not only has the restaurant become popular throughout the area, but it has had a major positive impact on the local food scene.

Quirk of Fate

Chef & the Farmer came about as a rather happy accident when Vivian Howard (chef) and Ben Knight (general manager) relocated from New York to be closer to Vivian’s parents. “We were living at 151st and Broadway in Harlem,” Ben told Calmful Living. “Vivian was working at a couple of different restaurants and also at a catering company. We had started our own soup delivery business; we made the soup out of our apartment and were delivering all over town.

“We had some friends who were really excited about what we were doing and wanted to help us open a storefront. When we began talking about that, Vivian’s parents got wind of it and were a little worried that it might mean a more permanent place for us there. They offered to help us open up Chef & the Farmer in North Carolina. They suggested we come down, look around, and take a peek at some of the nearby towns and figure out where we’d like to possibly do something. It turns out they’d already purchased the building that the restaurant is in today; so fortunately we decided that we liked Kinston best. We opened up the following year, in 2006.”

Following Farm-to-Table Footsteps

The inspiration for a farm-to-table restaurant actually came to Vivian and Ben just before their relocation. “One of our favorite places in New York at the time we chose to move was Blue Hill restaurant, run by Dan Barber,” Vivian explained. “We saw the model they had set up, and the fact that they were really placing emphasis on local agriculture, very high-quality product, and knowing where all that came from as well as the story behind it.

“We felt as if this area would benefit from something like that, because Eastern North Carolina was once made up of tons of small tobacco farms—small family farms that were able to actually earn a living growing this one crop. With the decline of the tobacco industry, many of these farmers were displaced. We felt that we could revitalize our region by offering a market for farmers to sell new sustainable goods.”

Kick-Starting a Local Scene

In that such a scene did not exist in Eastern North Carolina when they arrived, Vivian and Ben had to see to starting it up themselves. “In the beginning we told folks in town what our plan was and they put us in contact with a few people,” Vivian recalled. “Those who wanted to do it jumped on board, and we’ve been working with several of them ever since. Then over the years others have heard about what we do and how we work with people and have got into it too. We’ve become the ‘first customer’ to lots of suppliers, and they expand their market then to other restaurants in Eastern North Carolina, to farmers’ markets, and also into the triangle [the three-city area of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill]. So in the beginning we sought people out, but now they come to us.”

Odd Location Becomes an Advantage

“People look at where we are and they think it’s the oddest location on the planet to have a restaurant like ours,” Vivian commented. “But Kinston is actually located smack-dab between several larger communities: we’re 30 minutes away from Greenville, Goldsboro, New Bern, and a little further from Jacksonville. None of these communities have a restaurant like ours, so we’ve garnered a reputation as the special-occasion restaurant in the region.

“I think the rest of the reason for our success is the quality of the experience people have here. Our food is familiar but not something that people can make at home. Our service is really refined but comfortable and warm.”

Gradual Seasonal Menu

As ingredients change with the seasons, so does the menu at Chef & the Farmer. “Because of the limited access to certain kinds of produce, ingredients and farmers in the area, when we first started we were forced to change the menu daily just based on ingredient availability,” Ben explained. “That’s how the menu has evolved and to this day how it changes. We don’t do a ‘fall menu,’ for example. It is a little bit more like people eat: we’re still getting tomatoes but you’ll see some fall greens on the menu. Those things kind of intermingle, so their preparation changes and really represents the moment.”

“We’re in that process right now,” added Vivian. “Summer is ending and fall is beginning, and we’re transitioning our menu slowly as we get different ingredients. We still have tomatoes and okra coming in, but we started getting some apples and we’ve gotten our first greens of the fall this week.”

Revitalized Food Scene

Local and delicious ripples have spread outward from Chef & the Farmer into the surrounding area. “When we first opened, the farmers’ market here in town was kind of dying like the rest of the food community,” Ben related. “A few years ago we did a good hard push to get more people involved, to promote the market and to bring more variety over there. It’s made a huge impact. There are just a phenomenal number of local folks who are enjoying it at this point.

“There’s one great story I like to tell: About four years ago we asked a farmer of ours to grow heirloom tomatoes. At the time we were unable to source an heirloom tomato within ninety miles of the restaurant—nobody was growing them. The response was always along the lines of, ‘This is such a heavy commercial agriculture area; the tobacco plant has many of the same pests as the tomato plant because they’re cousins of each other. It’s really difficult to grow heirloom tomatoes here.’

“So he tried and the first year struggled, but he worked his way through it. We started buying those heirloom tomatoes for the restaurant, and he began selling what he couldn’t sell to us at the farmers’ market. People here had never had a Cherokee purple, and the next thing you know, they’re going across the street to the farmers’ market and asking for the tomatoes. At this point he probably would say that’s his most popular product in the summertime, and four years ago you wouldn’t have found it in this area at all.”

Onward and Upward

While they continue the success of Chef & the Farmer, Vivian and Ben are taking on a number of other roles. Vivian is the focus of a 13-part PBS series called The Chef’s Life, which will appear this fall; and the pair will be opening an oyster bar across from their restaurant that will focus on oysters sourced from various locales along the North Carolina coast.

For a delicious farm-to-table experience, the “good old days” have become the good now days.

To find out more, please visit www.chefandthefarmer.com.