Vivian Howard, star of “A Chef’s Life,” the Peabody, Emmy, and James Beard Award-winning television series, will surprise you. Her soothing drawl and Southern belle looks belie a steely conviction.
There’s a moment in an episode of her latest PBS show, “Somewhere South,” in which food is simply the backdrop for an unflinching discussion about racism in black food culture. Yet she does not back down from addressing a tough subject with African Americans who work in the food industry.
In a recent interview we asked what possessed her to persevere.
“Because we talk around it all the time, and we talk with people who look like us, that’s on both sides of the argument, and we are very reticent and nervous to talk about the elephant in the room,” she said.
“I was so nervous at that table my voice was shaking, and when I was watching with the team we talked about, ‘Should the host of the show be seen like that?’ and I think it’s really important to show. We need to become OK with talking about these things.”
That’s just one of many compelling scenes. North Carolina native Howard, the author of New York Times bestselling cookbook “Deep Run Roots: Stories & Recipes from My Corner of the South,” has turned out to be more than just another celebrity chef. She’s taken on the role of a student, a guide and ultimately a journalist in tackling this series.
The camera travels with her throughout the region to film food experiences with Southerners of many different backgrounds including Geechee and Gullah descendants of African slaves and Lumbee Native Americans, as well as Korean, Puerto Rican, Tex-Mex and other cooks with ethnic influences.
Each show focuses on the origins and contemporary tweaks overlaid on the South’s most popular traditional dishes from hand pies to barbecue. We chatted with Howard, founder of restaurants Chef & the Farmer, Boiler Room Oyster Bar in Kinston, N.C. and Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington, N.C., to find out what’s in store in this adventurous show that’s more grits than glamour.
You’re creator, producer and host of the show, so how did this series come about?
Over seven years, my interest as a professional and my interest as a human being really evolved and we wanted to broaden the definition of what Southern food is and challenge people’s assumptions about what that means.
Each episode focuses on a particular dish. Was it tough to decide which ones?
I’m of the assumption that there’s only 20 dishes in the whole world and I made a list of what those dishes would be with the hopes that we would make several seasons.
How did you conduct your research?
It was a very strategic thing with a lot of planning because we wanted to include a variety of communities.
In the “Greens” episode, we spent time with the Lumbee Indians, and we wanted to represent communities that are newer to the South. So within each episode, we try to visit with and learn from three or four different cultures ... we started with someone who had a connection to each one.
How do you know where to go?
We did a pickle episode and we went to a chow-chow festival and met a group of South Asian chefs who have a traveling group called Brown in the South and that took us to Kentucky to meet with a chef who’s Sri Lankan.
She introduced us to a friend who does charity work in the hollers of Appalachia. We film and sometimes that introduces us to where we go next.
You’re talking to Southerners of many different ethnicities. What have you learned about fusion cooking?
It’s interesting how the food traditions we bring with us are shaped by the place we land. The miners came from Italy and brought cured pork products. Based on the work they did, some very smart housewife rolled the pepperoni in yeast rolls (pepperoni rolls) so her husband could have something to hold and eat with one hand at work. That’s how people from Italy shaped West Virginia food culture.
In the pickle episode, a chef named Cheetie Kumar is making a pickle. In her traditional culture it was made with mango. But she’s using watermelon rind and flavors of India and it becomes this thing that’s really Southern.
You talked in the show about how country cooking wasn’t respected for a long time and now it’s coming into its own. Are you proud to be a part of that?
It’s one of my greatest sources of pride to shine a light and highlight very humble food that is delicious.
It’s interesting that I’ve become a journalist. That was one of the reasons I made the show. In the beginning I was cooking on the line every night and struggling to find staff. Now I’ve written a 700-page book on Southern food. I love storytelling.
The answer you got when you started talking to a group of African Americans about soul food was stunning. It stopped the conversation cold, then one person explained that in black culture Southern foods were “demonized” for a long time.
I think I learned a lot there. I never thought black people demonized their own food. But then they explained that when they gave it this name, soul food, that was taking ownership over it. I would never call the food that I cook soul food because now I understand more about what it is, and what it means.
I’ve watched episodes of “No Passport Required” and Marcus Samuelsson goes into all these ethnic neighborhoods where he’s totally accepted as an Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised, black American. But there’s still tension when a white Southerner goes into some black communities in the South, isn’t there?
We’ve had so many conversations with production teams about is it OK for Vivian to do this? And why are you the right person to tell this story?
I’m not telling it. I’m a student in this show, and I have this platform because I’ve earned the trust of more than 4 million viewers.
How did you get the inside track?
I am the face of the show but the team behind me, and beside me, they look like all the people that we film with. Our producer Shirlette Ammons, she worked to get BJ’s trust and it was because of her relationship building with all these people.
How has the show changed you and how has it changed your cooking?
It’s made me a more soulful cook. I’m not making soul food, but I’m cooking with soul.
So do you rinse your yellow grits now, like Emily Meggett, the matriarch of the Edisto Geechees?
Yes. I skim some of the hulls off (laughs). And I considered myself a baller when it came to grits!