Small Screen to Small City, Get to Know Kinston

A Chef's Life | Markay MediaSmall Screen to Small City, Get to Know Kinston

Chef Vivian Howard’s documentary series, A Chef’s Life, has brought national attention to her restaurant and the Eastern North Carolina area where she grew up

There are several great reasons to visit Kinston – a small city in the Inner Coastal Plain between Goldsboro and New Bern – thanks largely to a growing list of popular venues in its downtown area. Helping ignite the interest in Kinston is the now-famous Chef & the Farmer restaurant.

If you want to sample the all-local Southern fare at Chef & the Farmer, make sure you reserve a table well in advance or arrive early in hopes of snagging a seat at the bar. Showing up on the late side works too, but by the end of the night, the menu might be depleted of seasonal favorites.

In spring, you’ll find small plates such as the “Turnip Run Ups,” comprised of potlikker, air-dried sausage, cornmeal and ricotta dumplings, and tomato jam; and large plates like the rice-crusted catfish. A popular summer dish is the pork-belly skewers sautéed with candied bell pepper and cilantro, or bruschetta topped with just-picked Cherokee purple tomatoes, smoked corn aioli and pickled red onion. And in winter, the menu is filled with fresh vegetables from Brothers' Farm, Putnam Family Farm and Tull Hill Farm.

Expect your fellow diners to be from nearby or far away, though many will have one thing in common — they will be fans of Vivian Howard, who, with her husband Ben Knight, opened the farm-to-fork restaurant in 2006 in a repurposed mule stable. It was a homecoming for Howard, who was raised in the nearby rural community of Deep Run, and was a rising culinary talent in New York City until her family lured her back to the South.

Chef & the Farmer, early on a star in North Carolina, became nationally known in 2013 as the backdrop to the down-home actual-reality series A Chef’s Life. The show follows Howard and Knight (whose colorful abstract paintings dot the restaurant walls) as they encounter the pleasures and pitfalls of running a restaurant. Make that two. They’ve also added the Boiler Room — a burger and oyster joint — to their roster. The film crew accompanies the chef on visits to meet farmers and home cooks as she digs deep into ingredients and Southern food culture. With her rich drawl, throaty laugh, and refreshing directness, Howard is clearly the star.

Others in the food industry are taking notice, too. Since opening the restaurant, Howard has four times reached semifinals for Best Chef Southeast in the James Beard Awards, and in 2014 she scored a two-cookbook deal and a product line through Southern Season. Meanwhile, A Chef’s Life won a prestigious Peabody Award and has attracted passionate followers.

Equally important, the success of Chef & the Farmer as well as the addition of a nearby popular brewery, Mother Earth Brewing, have reenergized downtown Kinston, lined with historic buildings from its past as a major tobacco and cotton trading hub. The revival is remarkable given that less than a decade ago, the main tourist attraction in the eastern city of 21,600 was a replica Confederate gunboat. (And, yes, the CSS Neuse II exhibit is still there and worth a visit.)

As for Mother Earth Brewing, homegrown entrepreneur Stephen Hill credits Chef & the Farmer with inspiring him and his son-in-law Trent Mooring to create the award-winning operation, housed in abandoned buildings a block away. Most recently, Mother Earth has added an attractive taproom, beer garden and merchandise shop.

Hill’s reach extends much further. He later opened Ginger 108, an Asian grill; and the Red Room, a bar and live-music venue. Meanwhile, he continues growing his most ambitious undertaking — developing an arts district downtown by turning crumbling houses into brightly painted buildings for residential and studio space.

Hill also has been renovating a 1920s former bank on Queen Street, part of which he’s turned into The O’Neil, Kinston’s first boutique hotel. Opened in 2015, each of the seven rooms inside this luxury hotel is different, and in the ornate lobby the original bank vault is still there.

Another lodging choice, outside of town, is Brothers Farm Experience, a bed and breakfast started by farmers Warren and Jane Brothers, regular suppliers of Chef & the Farmer. Warren Brothers has made several appearances on the show.

Along with dining at Chef & the Farmer and having a brew or two at Mother Earth, you’ll want to indulge in other downtown offerings such as the Saturday Lenoir County Farmers’ Market and The Overland Gallery – the latter features a nice collection of North Carolina art and craft, with working artist studios. Owners Cynthia Dunn, a potter, and her husband Michael, an architect, live on an upper floor of the former car dealership. His firm designed both Chef & the Farmer and Mother Earth.

When it’s time for lunch, check out the bustling Boiler Room, where you can start with a dozen oysters and move on to a hamburger or a butterbean burger topped with caramelized onion mayo, smoked gouda and tobacco onions, fully living up to its raves.

Once fortified, you’ll want to check out the CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center, a North Carolina Historic Site that contains the remains of the actual CSS Neuse, a Civil War ironclad that ran aground nearby in the Neuse River in 1864. While permanent exhibits are in development, you can see temporary exhibits and a fascinating orientation video about the ship’s history.

Other in-town attractions that are works in progress are the Kinston Music Park, a signature stop along the African-American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina that boasts a public art installation and performance space; and the Kinston Riverwalk, a 2.4-mile promenade that will connect the Neuse River to downtown.

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