Vivian Howard Wants to Dismantle Traditional Notions of 'Southern' Food

Vivian Howard and Gullah chef BJ Dennis discuss soul food over a variety of grits dishes at Hannibal’s Kitchen as owner Saphia Huger looks on.
Vivian Howard and Gullah chef BJ Dennis discuss soul food over a variety of grits dishes at Hannibal’s Kitchen as owner Saphia Huger looks on.
Image: Rex Miller

For five seasons, on A Chef’s Life, Vivian Howard stepped into the role of PBS reality TV star, introducing viewers to her life as a chef, a mother, and a restauranteur. Howard had previously lived and worked in New York City restaurants, but returned to her hometown of Kinston, North Carolina, to open The Chef and the Farmer, a restaurant serving regional, local cuisine with a focus on the fresh and the seasonal. The show followed the cadence of any personality-based reality show, centering Howard’s experiences and introducing other “characters” along the way—real people in her community with knowledge about the food she was making and interested in.

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Though I watched every season of A Chef’s Life mostly for Howard’s take-no-shit attitude and her very clear reluctance to conform to reality star expectations, ingredients like pole beans, ham hocks, and tomatoes were the true stars. Howard’s self-effacing charm lent itself well to this format, but it became clear to dedicated viewers like myself that her patience was running thin. “I felt like I was lying and projecting this idea that I was the head chef at a restaurant and also the author of a 600-page book and the star of a TV show and a mom,” Howard told Jezebel. “Truthfully, I can only do two of those things at any given time.”

In her new show, Somewhere South, which is currently airing on PBS, Howard steps instead into the role of host, taking viewers on a journey through the history of Southern food and placing those foods into their context in the modern South. By exploring the food that people in the South are making, Howard aims to paint a portrait of the communities we are all a part of and to highlight the ways in which where we come from directly influence who we are. Somewhere South operates along the same lines as other traditional travel food shows, but Howard’s presence is a balm. She takes the viewer on her quest to learn more about everyday foods and makes a convincing argument for Southern food as the one truly American cuisine.

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When Jezebel spoke with Howard, she was quarantined at home in Kinston, after having recently shut down her restaurants. We chatted about the genesis of the show, how to handle delicate subjects that others in the culinary world won’t touch, and her very important stance on the scourge that is quarantine sourdough: “Hell no!” she said emphatically. “I’m standing against it, privately.” Our conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, is below.


JEZEBEL: A Chef’s Life is one of the most well-done shows on television, and it’s been a favorite of mine since it started airing. When I discovered Somewhere South, though, I was incredibly surprised. It’s truly one of the best travel and food shows that I’ve seen. What precipitated the decision to change course?

VIVIAN HOWARD: It was really hard to make because A Chef’s Life was so much about my personal and my own professional journey that in some ways, it really didn’t matter what I said because it was all my story—or the story of my family and my direct community. I very much wanted to step outside of that, because I felt like we were painting a very narrow view or focus of what Southern food is or what it means to be Southern. So one day I said, “I’m not doing this anymore, I want to do this other thing,” and that didn’t land all that well. I didn’t think through all the pieces of it, so it took our team a lot of research and thought and pondering around the conference table of doom for literally several years. For it to be out in the world and getting the type of reaction from people that it is, is really a relief for all of us.

Was it difficult for you to make this change? It seems like A Chef’s Life was focused so much on you and your life, but the new show is more about the community you serve and the communities around you.

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The first two seasons, I still really didn’t even know what was happening, and then I became more aware. It felt like we were casting stereotypes that we never really intended to. I felt like I was trapped in a box and not really able to evolve. Some of the recurring people on the show started to become tropes, and I felt like it was time to evolve what we were doing and look outward. I was also just fatigued by myself and I felt like I had started acting and so, I’d hit a wall.

If A Chef’s Life was basically a show about you, what’s your intent with Somewhere South?

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It’s meant to show how the South is just a microcosm of the rest of the nation. Our culture and community has evolved and continues to change like the rest of the country does. It was a big discussion among our group and PBS as to whether or not the word “south” would be in the title, and it was something I was against because I don’t think that this is really about being Southern so much as it is about being American and recognizing all the communities that make up our community. I want people to walk away with the idea that, for the most part, at some point, we came from somewhere else. The things that we brought with us—the food traditions, the language traditions—they shaped the place we landed, and then that place shaped those food traditions. We’ve seen that happening all throughout history, and it really has been happening at a fever pitch as we all share in restaurants, and on social media, and on television. We’re blending and adopting new ways of cooking and new ingredients all the time. A place and its culture are not static and things are always shifting to suit the community that’s there at that time.

I think that’s what’s been the most illuminating about the show! It feels wrong to say “fusion” when it comes to the food that’s being discussed and prepared on the show, but I think it’s also safe to say that if some of these food items were taken out of context, they could be called “fusion” on some menus.

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I think fusion is kind of a dirty word because it represented a time when people with no real connection to particular cuisines were just meshing them and melding them and calling it something. What we’re talking about is really about the food traditions you have and how they’re shaped by where you end up. It’s like the pepperoni roll story. Sicilians came to West Virginia to work in mines and they brought their cured pork products like salami, and they needed a snack. They ended up taking this yeast roll pepperoni snack down into the mines because the work they came to the United States to do demanded that sort of handheld, easy-to-eat lunch.

To me, fusion food sounds like a very ’90s term. I think of weird egg rolls filled with ingredients that have no business being together. That’s something that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been watching because I think in a different time and place, we would say that a pepperoni hand pie is just another form of “fusion.”

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It’s shaped by work and by necessity and by what’s available where the Sicilians ended up. It’s shaped by outside forces rather than a chef’s ego.

Unfortunately, I think “fusion food” is a phenomenon that could be directly attributed to American culture. But in a similar vein, what do you think is the most American of American foods? Is Southern food the answer?

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It absolutely was shaped by all of these influences: people coming from Europe, people coming from Africa, European bringing traditions that they adopted because they occupied India. All of our chow chows and our relishes are tinted orange or yellow because of turmeric, which is a spice that officers in the U.K. fell in love with when they were in India, and it slowly made its way to the American South, and that becomes distinctly Southern. I would argue that “Southern food” is our nation’s original cuisine.

Of all of the things, it’s the only thing that it could be.

It brings together the most influences. You look at California cuisine or Northeastern cuisine, and from my perspective, that doesn’t have as many influences that are related to the worldwide influx of people from all over the world really coming together to establish what we could consider a cuisine.

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When I think of California cuisine, it’s mostly about the variety of ingredients that are available, produce-wise. This is specifically influenced by immigrants, essentially, or people who were brought here otherwise, not of their own volition.

Right. And also, Southern food has always been influenced by agriculture and the need to be frugal and the need to be resourceful. If we look at world cuisine, some of the ones that we revere the most like Provence or Tuscany or Szechuan, they are all rural agricultural cuisines [where] one of the pushing factors is a need not to waste anything. It’s peasant food. And so much of the food we revere in the South is the same thing.

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What stereotypes are there about Southern food that you’re looking to dispel with Somewhere South?

We think of Southern food as coming out of the African and European traditions, but what we’ve seen making the show is that there are so many more influences at work now. They’re shaping our food in real ways and delicious ways, so that’s one of the things I’d like to challenge. The other is this wide-held belief that Southern food is very meat-centric and very heavy. You see that, historically, Southern food was very much rooted in grains and fruits, and a little bit of meat spread across a plate. We see that with hand pies, you’re gonna see that in the dumpling episode: hand pies and dumplings both old and new, stretching something that is valuable with something that is more plentiful.

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It’s born out of frugality.

Absolutely.

I wanted to talk about the porridge episode, which was really well done, especially in the way that you’re tackling the race issue, which I feel has not been handled well, if at all, on any of these sorts of travel shows. There’s so much opportunity for discussion, and it’s almost a necessity for people doing these shows to discuss this stuff head-on, and it feels like nobody is willing to do so. But that episode of Somewhere South is the first time in my memory at least that I’ve seen someone do it correctly. 

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Thank you. The agony that went into figuring out how to do that was real. First, it was like, am I the right person to do this—a white woman—and we decided yes. And that’s one of the most important parts. Someone like David Chang can talk around it and speak directly at it because he’s sort of outside of it. And then African Americans can talk about it among other African Americans, but it’s very much a one-sided conversation. I feel like white people have been very afraid to talk about it head-on and to tackle it in an open forum and to really just listen. By doing that, I feel like it was very uncomfortable, and I’m sure you could tell.

You did great.

I did the best I could do. I think the lesson for me was that, yeah, this is hard, but it’s important to talk about it and to listen and to open the lines of communication because we were at a standstill at this point. It is one of the elephants in the room, and if we were gonna set out to make this show and make it powerful, then we were gonna have to do all the things, and do them with a lot of thought and discussion. What you see is me on camera, but if you could see the table of producers, you would see so many of the communities and the cultures that we learn from on the show represented at that table. It was always like, “What’s your gut check with this?” If anybody had any kind of reservations, we rethought what we were doing and had a deeper discussion about it. Over the course of making A Chef’s Life, I had gained the trust of more than three million viewers per episode, and those are, in many cases, white people that would never listen to the conversation David Chang was having with someone or a conversation that any of the African American food luminaries at the table in the porridge episode were having, but they’ll listen to me. That’s why we felt like this was a unique opportunity to reshape the way people see their neighbors, and just soften the edges around the way we feel about each other.

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How does it feel to be the gatekeeper, to be the one with the platform to giving permission for the three million viewers to think about these things critically, which I don’t think a lot of people do in their everyday?

Well, it’s been so nerve-wracking, because we didn’t know if it would work. We didn’t know if our viewers from A Chef’s Life would watch the new show and be like, “Oh I don’t get to see Vivian’s kids as much, oh I don’t get to see her fighting with her husband in her restaurant as much.” I started getting texts after the hand pie episode from people just saying how much they learned. My dad, who never quite understood what [the new show] was until he watched it, said, “You’re really making people think. You made me think.” It’s so nice! I was like, “Damn Dad, you’re really surprising me.” [Laughs]

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Our goal was never to draw the line in the sand or push people away or piss people off, it was always to bring people in. With every theme that we discussed, it was like what does this do? Does this make things worse, or does it make them better?

What’s so remarkable about the show is that it feels very well-paced and expansive, and different from other travel food shows

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When we first started doing this, Anthony Bourdain was still living and we talked about the show being similar in spirit to what he did, but doing it just in our backyard. It’s travel but just travel into other people’s experiences that may live in a place that is just like yours. We watched all the things in the category, and overwhelmingly, we just took a lot more care to make sure that I wasn’t telling other people’s stories—that I was hearing it and learning about it and respecting it, and that we were sharing people’s stories that don’t often get shared. I think just the tremendous attention and care that we gave to that is really unusual.

That’s what struck me the most about it. I think with a lot of the other shows of the genre, there’s a sense of Columbusing, you drop in, you hop on the back of a motorcycle, you interact with the natives, and then that’s it. Your show reminded me a lot of Salt Fat Acid Heat. It’s clear that you’re there to learn. 

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Right, to learn, and not just to learn for voyeurism, but to learn to be a better neighbor, to be a better cook, to be a better human.

Walk me through the process of how your team is selecting which stories it is you want to tell or highlight and who you want to have on, what their significance is, and what makes it so that they can get to be a part of the thing.

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In every episode, we wanted to represent two to three different cultures—people that looked different, that their ancestors come from different places that have had a different experience here in the United States. Generally, there’s at least one person in every episode as a jumping-off point—someone I know. If I have a rapport with them already, there’s a comfortability that you can feel on camera.

We knew that we needed to focus on dishes that resonated with people. Take the pickle episode: What is the pickle that has taken our nation by storm in the last five years? Kimchi. So we would be ridiculous not to delve into kimchi in some way. In the dumpling episode, we go to Mississippi, because Mississippi is the least likely place you would expect to find a deeply embedded Chinese community, and also a deeply embedded Jewish community. If you’re looking at the story of dumplings, there’s this tradition of dumplings that is arguably most developed in China and then the tradition of boiled dough dumplings, and you know, matzo balls are one of the most ubiquitous dumplings in the world. We’re looking at the subject or the dish, but trying to pick the most important or the dishes that resonate the most with viewers, and representing them in a place that is least likely.

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Somewhere South is more valuable than other shows of its ilk, right now.

This is not something that we saw coming, but because we’re all at home right now and every episode is about a dish that we already make, it’s like something that we know. You can see yourself in it, and it oddly feels like a community exercise to watch it and engage with it. It’s meant to bring people together and at this moment in time, it has this unique opportunity to do that through things that we eat that we already see ourselves in.

Managing Editor, Jezebel

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DISCUSSION

As a former refugee of the South may I say that I would beat a nun for a giant bowl of both my Granny’s Southern Grits and her spicy Collard Greens.

Man I miss her cooking....