This weekend was going to be an adventure! Or so I thought. I was in the Outer Banks for work and I planned to stay through the weekend photographing lighthouses and visiting the new Shelly Island in Hatteras. My plan was quickly dashed by a series of nasty storms and a construction accident on the bridge that wiped out the power to the Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. No power + rain = not my idea of fun at the beach.
At first I was disappointed. More than disappointed, if you really want to know. As I lamented my misfortune in a missed mini-vacay to my friend I tossed out the idea of heading to Kinston to the Chef & the Farmer on my way home Friday night. Why not salvage some of the weekend at least?
After a bit of hemming and hawing I decided I should take a page from my young self playbook and just do it, I had nothing to lose.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Kinston. Like many towns, Kinston has seen better days and better economic times. Also like many other Southern towns, Kinston is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. One factor in this transition is Vivian Howard, her husband Ben Knight, and their two restaurants: Chef & the Farmer and The Boiler Room Oyster Bar.
Secretly I hoped Vivian would be on property when I arrived. Last Wednesday she was at the Downtown Raleigh Farmers Market at the Blue Cross/Blue Shield tent talking veggies. I work only a few blocks away yet could not get myself out of the office to meet her. Bummer. I’ve been watching Vivian and Ben and their family since Season 1 of A Chef’s Life and I cannot tell you how many post-separation and divorce days I looked forward to watching her show.
Fast forward to last Friday. The restaurant is easy to find in this small town, thank goodness for my geographically challenged self. I didn’t have reservations, but was seated immediately at the bar. Right after ordering the C&F Salty Dog, a grapefruit-jalapeño concoction, I took a good look around the restaurant. While sitting at the bar was nice, I spied several empty seats over at the other bar, the one where the food magic happens. I couldn’t contain myself and asked the bartender what I needed to do to sit over yonder. He was such a nice guy and quickly got me seated right in front of the cooking station, by far the best seat in the house.
The heat poured out of the kitchen and across the bar carrying with it the savory aroma of meals in various stages of preparation. Behind the scenes Josh, Manny and Craig hustled in the kitchen, steadily prepping the likes of Blueberry BBQ Glazed Yard Bird, Tom Thumb, perfectly seared Painted Hills Ribeye, and cheesy Fresh Roasted Tomato Pie among many others.
“Hey darlin,’ how are you?” cooed Mallory, my server, “I’ll get you some water and I’ll come back and we can talk.” Upon her return she poured a glass of cold water from a glass bottle, much like they do in Italy, and we got to chatting about the menu.
What I loved most about Mallory, and everyone that works there, is that they are very customer focused. The service at Chef & the Farmer is impeccable. Not once did I feel rushed or like I needed to get moving so they could seat more people. In fact I believe they are booked so far in advance for tables that your only option as a walk-in is to be seated at one of the bars.
While I pondered the menu I asked Josh, one of the chefs, what menu plates he likes best. Thanks to Josh, who reminded me of my brother Josh, when Mallory swung by to take my order I eagerly chose the Tom Thumb (not the one of English folklore, but the Southern air-dried pork sausage). But wait! I didn’t stop there – I came to eat at the Chef & the Farmer, not nibble. Another of Josh’s favorites was the Casarecce, so I ordered that as well. Since I really wanted to sample a variety of the menu, I also opted for the Watermelon, Avocado, and Cantaloupe Salad.
Mallory put the order in, yet spread out the timing so I wasn’t bombarded with plates all at once. I felt less gluttonous that way. Josh asked me if I knew what the Tom Thumb was, to which I replied that I saw the Tom Thumb episode on A Chef’s Life.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, since I knew it was a sausage stuffed in a pig appendix, which admittedly made me a little queasy. Sometimes I can’t think about what I’m eating specifically, or the visual in my head becomes a turnoff. No worries here! Tom was a friend of mine: a salty, herby, crumbly friend served, as Josh liked to put it, as a Southern gyro. Accompanying the sausage was a cool, citrusy yogurt, a minty tabbouleh, and zingy pickled cucumber and onion. Piled together on top of the wood-fired oven pita, these flavors combined into a mouthwatering appetizer that left you wanting more. I ate it all and had to refrain from licking the plate.
My empty plate was whisked away and before I knew it there were two more dishes set before me. Casarecce (pronounced cah-sah-rech-ee) is a type of short pasta with curled edges and a groove down the middle. Vivian Howard gave this Sicilian pasta a decidedly Southern update by serving it with butter beans, sweet stewed tomatoes, and beef bacon, i.e. bacon made with beef, y’all.
The butter beans reminded me of lima beans. Funny enough I looked them up and wouldn’t you know it, they are lima beans. I’ve never been a fan of lima beans, but part of this visit was an exercise in stepping out of my comfort zone to try something I wouldn’t normally eat. Mallory stopped by to check on me and asked how the food was. I told her it was delicious and I even loved the butter beans. “There are a lot of things that I didn’t eat before working here,” said Mallory “but Vivian is good at taking those things and turning them into something you want to eat.”
Last up was the Watermelon, Avocado and Cantaloupe Salad, which I selected at the recommendation of Josh the chef. The salad was the perfect combination of sweet, salty, vinegary and heat. Each layer stood out individually, yet blended together if that makes sense. Pickled cantaloupe, fresh watermelon and avocado were bathed in a tangy vinegar-lime-basil, topped with jalapeño slices, olive oil, and salt. With each bite your tastebuds were greeted with this marriage of flavors before the sweetness of the watermelon, the creaminess of the avocado and the softness of the pickled cantaloupe danced across your tongue. It was divine.
Although I was a full as a tick on a hound dog at this point, was I going to pass up dessert? That was a resounding no. Choices! Choices! So what sweet treat to eat? I pondered my choices as I poured over the dessert menu. It was not an easy decision, but I finally set my sights on the spiced blueberry and caramel Tres Leches Cake.
While I waited for my dessert I chatted up my kitchen bar neighbors Anna and Jeremy. They were celebrating Anna’s 29th birthday on their second trip to the Chef & the Farmer. Right about the time we were chatting up our mutual admiration of Vivian Howard, A Chef’s Life, and the Chef & the Farmer, Ben Knight, Vivian’s husband and co-owner of the restaurant, strode past. The birthday girl asked for a photo with Ben, and shamelessly, I mooched in on that photo op and got one of my own.
Ben Knight is the manager of both restaurants and an artist. His artwork hangs throughout the space and adds pops of color and structure that draw your attention around the room. Recently his paintings have found walls in several galleries around the South.
Later we shared bites of dessert as if Anna, Jeremy and I were friends and hadn’t met only moments before (off clean spoons, of course). I scooped up a bite of tres leches (Anna’s favorite according to Jeremy) and handed it to her. She replied while taking the spoon, “Look at this. I’m sitting here sharing dessert with someone I don’t even know.” I laughed. Sometimes life is about sharing in the good things, even if it’s sharing with strangers.
What a cake it was! The tres leches was three moist layers of coconut milk soaked cake served double stacked with spiced blueberries, caramel sauce, and a coconut lace cookie. I savored a few bites before reaching the stick a fork in me, I’m done stage, but not before relished in a bite of Anna and Jeremy’s creamy chocolate chess pie. And with that the curtain closed and this girl was finished eating.
Before I left I met Lucas, the Chef de Cuisine and talked to him about my blog and my 22 year old son, Juston, who has found that he likes to cook and work in a restaurant. I always knew this would be a good fit for him (mom’s know these things!). But the end of the conversation Lucas told my to bring him by to hang out and let him see how the restaurant works. Juston would love working in a place like this! I’m definitely going to have to take him there the next time he comes home from Boone.
Before I left I moseyed over to the gift shop, where I met James. James is a Kinston native that left to see the country, living in California, then Detroit, followed by Chicago. After many years of being away from home James came back to Kinston and started working at the Chef & the Farmer. He mentioned after we talked for a while that he was coming up on his seventh anniversary of the day he started working for Vivian on 1 August. James truly enjoys working there and he helped me select the autographed Deep Run Roots cookbook that I now call my own. Happy 7th Anniversary James! I’m so happy to have met you.
I have always said I’ve never met a stranger and this was evident after my “world tour” around the restaurant. And with that my hours long, multi-plate evening at Vivian and Ben’s restaurant came to an end. Weekend redeemed.
I can tell you this: we need more Vivian’s in this world to celebrate what the South has to offer in food, community and culture. It’s not the stereotypes portrayed across the media or Hollywood. If you want to see what the South is about, watch A Chef’s Life. Vivian Howard has done much to highlight the importance of agriculture in North Carolina, not only as a way of life, but as the backbone of the culture & sense of community here in the state I love. Here’s to many more seasons! If you want to see it firsthand, make your reservation for the Chef & the Farmer, but book early ’cause they’re busy!
Chef & the Farmer
120 W Gordon St
Kinston, NC 28501