South By Somewhere

Vivian Howard holds up a bitter melon while shopping at an Indian grocery store in Cary.

Vivian Howard was honest with the packed Ballast Hotel ballroom Wednesday when she was asked to share how to balance her many life roles — she doesn’t.

Howard is the host of the Emmy Award-winning series “A Chef’s Life,” author of best-selling cookbook, “Deep Run Roots,” and chef and owner of several restaurants: Chef & the Farmer and Boiler Room in Kinston and Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington.

Howard candidly spoke about how it may not always be possible to find some perfect life balance, but she has, through the years, learned how to manage and move forward in a way that has made her “pretty darn happy.”

When asked — and she is asked often — how she does it all, she has answered the question in a number of different ways.

“I’ve lied,” Howard said, “and tried to fabricate some way I balance it all, or I’ve half answered the question. I actually said once that I balance my year and not my day — what the hell does that even mean?”

She was recently asked the question again in a professional interview and admits she must have been feeling particular, because she asked the male interviewer right back if he would have asked that same question to a man who has a family and successful career.

Howard explained that people often look to women to be this grounding force, to have perfect families or think that our lives should fit into a perfectly balanced circle like slices in a pie.

“If I were to stand up here and tell you I lived a balanced existence, or even pursued balance I would be lying,” she said. “Sometimes I am so overwhelmed I can’t even breathe.”

Instead, she has learned how to do something that she admits sounds less aspirational: She has learned to dedicate her time to something she believes in, helping her manage her life, rather than balance it.

She explained that before being the star of a PBS show, she didn’t feel unbalanced because she had put most of her focus on work as a chef and restaurant owner and felt like she was doing that well. It is only when she is failing at something that she then feels compromised.

After the show aired, she said, things went wild around her.

“I started every email with an apology, was not leading my team at Chef and The Farmer in a way that was productive or present, I wasn’t present at home, I wasn’t an engaged spouse, and I felt the most out of balance in my whole life,” she said, adding she was stuck in a cycle of apologizing, feeling bad and guilty.

But once she launched herself into writing her cookbook, “Deep Run Roots,” she learned an important lesson: She could only do two things well at once and that she could not be great at all things at all times.

“I’m either a good mom and a good chef, or a good spouse and can write a great book, but I don’t have the capacity to do everything well at once,” Howard said.

Being able to look back at past successes such as “Deep Run Roots,” makes it easier to shoulder the guilt that comes when she doesn’t feel as present in other roles she has.

As for some other practical tips, Howard shared that she has learned how to create rituals each day that seem to calm down the chaos. When she travels, she brings along a candle and unpacks her stuff to make her room a haven. Each night she puts things away in her home so she doesn’t wake up to visual chaos. She also shared how she recently was able to deal with a tough situation in her organization after checking off simple things on her to do list. It helped, she said, to clear other things off her plate so she could focus on a tough issue.

“I guess I manage by being highly productive, but accepting my own limitations,” she said.

Although she admitted to hating exercise, she said that has been a ritual that helps fuel the rest of her day.

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