Vivian Howard (copy)

Vivian Howard is a North Carolina native who runs two restaurants in Kinston and has a TV show on PBS.

My wife, the lovely and talented Beth, just observed a birthday and decided to “stop working outside the home.”

I’m not supposed to say “retired,” but you get the idea. As part of the celebration of these two grand occasions, I reserved a table for Beth and me at Chef and the Farmer restaurant in Kinston.

Through the PBS TV series “A Chef’s Life,” you may have heard the story of how this restaurant came into existence and how it has continued to thrive. In brief, Chef Vivian Howard and her artist husband Ben Knight had been living in New York City, where Vivian received an extensive culinary education under the tutelage of several noted chefs. Growing up near Kinston, Vivian had vowed never to return.

Be careful what you vow.

With the promise of help purchasing a restaurant courtesy of her family’s generosity, Vivian and her husband not only returned but established one of the great restaurants in the state of North Carolina and in the U.S.

Beth has been such a fan of the show that she has probably seen every episode of the TV series and she had previously asked for and received Howard’s cookbook as a gift as well. (You may recall that the word “fan” is a shortened version of the word “fanatic.” Not that I am implying.)

So we actually cut a vacation to Kitty Hawk short a couple of days, just to drive three hours down to Kinston for an expensive dinner.

Was it worth it? You bet.

We arrived about 30 minutes early, allowing enough time to walk around the neighborhood near the restaurant and to visit the restaurant’s gift shop, where I purchased a Chef and the Farmer T-shirt for Beth. Kinston itself is a small town dealing with a challenging economy and shrinking population. But the area near Chef and the Farmer showed signs of new life, an outgrowth of the restaurant’s success that has had an impact on the entire town. Happy patrons relaxed outside a bar that inexplicably also featured people dressed in chicken costumes while beckoning to cars. A man sat outside a store and offered to sketch our portrait.

We went into the restaurant about 10 minutes before our reservation and the host seated us. On the walls all around, we noticed beautiful artwork created by Ben. Moments after we were seated, our waiter named O.J. brought us champagne, which we had not ordered. He then informed us that someone had provided the champagne and our first two appetizers as a gift. We were amazed.

Eventually it came time to order. O.J. provided answers to all our menu questions, and he was glad to offer suggestions. Then, course by course, the food arrived. With remarkable flavors and attractive presentations, much of the fare locally grown and sourced with an emphasis on healthy Southern cooking. Yes, I know that feels like an oxymoron, but in this case it wasn’t.

Nothing about the restaurant’s operation seemed slovenly or haphazard. From the artwork to the restrooms, to the waiters to the people who bused the tables, there was a practiced courtesy and attention to detail. At the end of the meal, O.J. surprised us again by presenting Beth with a card from the children. They had sent handwritten notes of love and congratulations to her. And they also had paid for the entire meal. As you might imagine, Beth was moved to tears. Before we left the restaurant, we had photos taken with the staff. It was an evening we will long remember.

Three thoughts:

As the success of this one restaurant demonstrates, though it is difficult, there is tremendous power in doing any honest work with such creativity, passion and integrity. As my writing colleague and local business owner Mark Gibb and others have pointed out, small, local businesses have remarkable potential not only to provide needed goods or services but to transform local economies and neighborhoods. Let’s continue to talk about how this might play out in the Greensboro area.

In this season of Thanksgiving, we do indeed give thanks for rich blessings, and we work for the day when all people will feast together in peace.

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