Vivian Howard Hits a Home Run with Weekend Dinners at The Kitchen Bar at Chef and the Farmer Restaurant

Every restaurant owner comes to a crossroads when deciding how or if to move forward with their restaurant. This is similar to the crossroads they faced when they opened the restaurant and had to figure out how to design a menu that fulfilled their dreams while also satisfying the palates and wallets of their customers. A few years ago, celebrity chef Vivian Howard (best known for her award-winning PBS show A Chef’s Life) stood at the crossroads of her famous Chef and the Farmer restaurant in Kinston, N.C.

Old-fashioned sour cocktail at Chef and the Farmer restaurant

Vivian opened Chef & the Farmer in 2006, an ode to North Carolina’s traditional dishes with Vivian’s twist. Over the next decade and a half, the restaurant in the middle of nowhere became a destination for Vivian’s fans, a check on many bucket lists, a far-flung but worthwhile place to experience “country” food in a decidedly “un-country” way. But when fans dined at her restaurant, Vivian wasn’t there. She was busy writing and promoting her cookbooks & magazine articles, managing three other restaurants, making celebrity appearances, and being there for her husband, children, and aging parents. In 2022, the building, the business, and ultimately, Vivian’s gut told her it was time to re-envision Chef & the Farmer. She chose to close the restaurant to consider its next chapter and her role in it.

A New Vision

Closing the restaurant gave Vivian time to reimagine how to reopen it in a way that met the needs of Kinston and her fans, her other professional responsibilities, and, most importantly, in a way that allowed her to be there for guests but didn’t deplete her mentally and physically. She decided to open the restaurant’s kitchen bar one weekend a month and share the line with an old chef friend or two, to make the dinner events more manageable. It would be part of her work but not the whole of it. The Kitchen Bar at Chef and the Farmer emerged. One weekend a month there would be two seatings on Friday and Saturday evenings, sixteen tickets/diners each, and where seven courses rooted in NC story would be served. The themes and the dishes would change as Vivian saw fit, but this new concept would allow Vivian to go back to her passion for cooking and engaging with diners.

Securing Tickets

After a failed attempt or two of trying to reserve tickets, on November 29, 2023, we received an email from Vivian’s team announcing new weekend dinner dates for 2024. We immediately went online and successfully reserved tickets for Friday, April 12, the 7:00 pm seating. A couple of weeks before the event, we received another email with event instructions telling us where to be and when, explaining what to expect during our dining experience with Vivian, and that her 14-year-old twins, Theo and Flo, may be on site to show us to our table. It seemed we would be in for a truly personal dining experience, and we grew more excited about our upcoming dinner with Vivian.

Kinston, North Carolina

Photo: YouTube / @NickJohnson

Kinston Needs Help

We drove into Kinston around 3:30 pm on April 12th and decided to drive past Chef and a Farmer before checking into our hotel. After years of economic decline, made worse by hurricanes, many storefronts sit empty in downtown Kinston. First impressions of this poverty-stricken town led me to wonder why Vivian would ever want to open a restaurant here. Then I admired her for trying to help her hometown. We checked into the Hampton Inn, which also was in decline, and rested before getting ready.

Vivian Howard's daughter Flo at the Chef and the Farmer restaurant

Around 6:45 pm, we arrived at Chef and the Farmer and were pleasantly greeted by Vivian’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Flo. She took our name, informed us where to hang out until we were called in for dinner, and occasionally came back to chat with us. She told us her twin brother, Theo, was at a basketball game. She asked us where we were from and was impressed we traveled all the way from Wisconsin for dinner with her mom. She asked us how far we were from Chicago, and told us that is where her father is from and that she likes Chicago and has been there many times. The restaurant door opened and a couple of servers walked out with trays of cocktails. We were served an old-fashioned sour cocktail, blended, and topped with cinnamon.

Chef Vivian Howard cooking in her Chef and the Farmer kitchen

Once inside, we were seated at the kitchen bar. Our seats were closest to where Vivian and Chef John May would be cooking. As servers took our beverage/wine order, a short, thin woman dressed in a chef-style jumpsuit and baseball cap walked in front of the stoves near us to check on a few things. It was Vivian. No grand announcement, no introduction, just Vivian getting things prepared for dinner as guests were conversing with one another,

April 12, 2004 menu from The Kitchen Bar at Chef and the Farmer

Vivian turned around and greeted everyone. She told us the seven-course dinner was a tribute to spring and briefly talked about each dish on the menu. As the dinner progressed Vivian took time to explain each course in greater detail before she served it to us — literally. On many occasions, she placed or cleared a plate in front of each of us, while jumping into our conversations. She was relaxed and the small guest size suited her well. Best of all, each dish was amazing!

Unlike other celebrity chef dinners where sous chefs do all the cooking and the celebrity chef appears for photos and book signings, Vivian’s kitchen bar event was a grand slam! It was personal. It was a great dining experience. Best of all, Vivian was a part of it the entire time. She is passionate about her cooking and making sure guests really enjoy themselves. And she was generous to share her family and family stories with us. We highly encourage everyone to reserve tickets right away since there are only sixteen seats available per dinner. Sign up to be on Vivian’s email list. That way if the dinner events sell out, you’ll be notified as soon as new events are scheduled. Sign up here, you’ll be happy you did!