To speak ill of Chef Vivian Howard is to speak ill of the south. She personifies, with a folksy, girl next door vibe, bouncy North Carolina twang and neighborly affect, the small-town life of the rural Carolina coast. One can easily picture her loaning sugar or baking a sweet potato pie and delivering it, still warm, to new neighbors. Her PBS “cooking show”, A Chef’s Life, is pure crack for the chef in me. I thoroughly enjoy watching her, her wobbly husband Ben, and the ever-changing staff of The Chef and The Farmer, navigate the choppy waters of the restaurant world. And not unlike a modern-day Julia Child, Vivian isn’t afraid to allow her missteps and ever-present insecurity to make it into the show’s final edit. That transparency, a flinching willingness to present viewers with her warts, is one of the most endearing aspects of the show.
A Chef’s Life is a refreshing departure from the plastic competition shows that dominate the cable landscape. On ACL there’s no figuring out what to do with fruit leather, Limburger cheese and rotten shark in under thirty minutes for a panel of jaded industry opportunists. Instead, Vivian tasks herself with coming up with chef-worthy dishes from familiar southern staples while simultaneously flailing through a day without a dishwasher or dealing with shitty contractors. One show it’ll be sweet potatoes, the next persimmons or cornbread. That’s it. It’s entirely charming.
In 2017, I was tasked with helping the out-of-town chefs with their mise en place for the first Memphis Food and Wine Festival, of which Vivian was a participant. At the eleventh hour, moments before the throng of ticket holders breached the front gate, she frantically told me she needed an induction burner. Hers wasn’t working. Knowing there was one sitting on my baker’s table twenty miles away I sped off through the growing mass of arriving guests and headed home. While I was dodging party goers and traffic on I-240, Vivian, quick with her wits, was jury rigging a heat source from sticks and cinder blocks. When I returned, I found my friend and former line cook Kristen, a Vivian Howard acolyte herself, happily stripping pole beans and peeling shrimp with her idol on upturned washing basins, the need for the burner long forgotten. The rest of the celebrity chefs were working the crowd, absorbing praise. Not Vivian. She was knee deep in shrimp poop and pea strings. That vision alone cemented my undying respect for her.
Last year, on a month-long tour through the pandemic-stricken southern states, Kristin and I ordered takeout pizza from her Wilmington, North Carolina restaurant Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria and loved it. The King Louie, a masterwork of “pineapple jam, mozz, Calabrian and serrano chiles, speck and mint” was by far the best pizza we’d had as a couple. It was so tasty. The pineapple jam, some spiced concoction so flavorful I could have eaten it alone off a dirty Nike, was the star of the show. And how it paired with the smokey speck, chiles, “fancy mozzarella” and mint was culinary brilliance in motion.
So, primed for another round of down-home deliciousness by last year’s magnificence, Kristin and I entered Howard’s latest venture, the Charleston-based Lenoir, with high expectations.
The mostly empty restaurant (to be fair, we scored an early five o’clock reservation) was what you might envision out of a Vivian Howard enterprise. Fastened to a far wall in the dining room were familiar wash basins of varying sizes and styles, an unintended wink to my experience at the food festival. Teak accents, beautiful antique floor tiles, an outdoor dining room shaded by a room-appropriate awning and gently swaying elephant ears, a central bar…Lenoir is a beautiful restaurant—even by Charleston’s rigorous standards—and one worthy of its celebrity inhabitant.
But the food, sadly, didn’t scream anything but mediocrity. It pains me to write that sentence. The last thing I want to do is sit up on my high horse and judge a hero of mine. But I have to be honest, Lenoir’s food wasn’t anything special. All of the current cheffy buzzwords and ingredients were present (as was Vivian in the kitchen and dining room): dashi, furikake, mostarda, nuoc cham, chow chow, nori, chermoula, pork belly, Stracciatella, Carolina Gold rice, South Carolina peaches, gochujang, parker house rolls, buttermilk sorbet, “perfect fruit”…but nothing but the Ricotta Dumplings & Pork Belly with Smoked Peaches, Hazelnuts and Calvander Cheese lifted us off our seats. I will give the kitchen a nod for presentation. Every dish was lovely to look at it. But five of the six plates placed before us lacked either seasoning or acidity. It was obvious there was talent in the kitchen. This was not food cooked by rubes. But the food suffered from too much fusion and kitsch and not enough attention to the more technical aspects of fine cookery. I readily admit to being hyper-sensitive to such things, as I should be perhaps. I am a chef after all. It could be that ninety-nine out of a hundred diners will find Lenoir a pleasure palace of southern culinary curiosity and take offense to this review. And maybe that confounding one percent who nitpicks Lenoir’s offerings will take equal comfort from the fact that the Vivian is actually in the kitchen, in the dining room, counseling the bartender, signing menus and lending her glow to the operation. I certainly did. For now, I guess that’s enough.