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Articles & Essays

"A Phoenix in Kinston: Chef & the Farmer Reopens"

Published 06/13/12
Edible Piedmont (Raleigh, NC)

 Vivian Howard thought it was just another false alarm when, at 9:22 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 7, she got an alert from the security system at her restaurant, Chef & the Farmer. She and her husband, Ben Knight, were tending their twins, who were about 9 months old at the time.

Then, one of the restaurant’s employees called after seeing smoke at the building. Then another called.

The alarm signaled again. This time, it indicated a break-in: The fire department busting down the restaurant’s rear door.

The fire, which started in an inside trash can near the back door, damaged a storage area and the kitchen, but did no structural damage to the century-old building. However, hot smoke billowed through the entire six-year-old restaurant - from the kitchen, across the dining room, to the wine shop in front.

“It got so hot that it exposed the nail heads on the old beams,” Knight says.

Thankfully, the building was empty - the fire started hours after Friday night’s service - so nobody was hurt. But when Howard and Knight saw the damage, they knew it would take time and a lot of work to reopen the award-winning restaurant.

“Everything in our lives from now on will be defined as before the fire and after the fire,” Howard says.

So many questions arose as they walked through the building. What could they salvage? Insurance would allow them to keep paying staff, but would a long closing mean they’d lose well-trained workers? And the biggest question: Would diners come back to this acclaimed restaurant in the unlikely location of Kinston? According to Knight, about 80 percent of Chef & the Farmer’s diners drive more than 30 miles. The local-food focus and creative dishes draw people from Raleigh, New Bern, Greenville and elsewhere in eastern North Carolina.

The restaurant received AAA’s Four Diamond award three years in a row. In December 2011, it was named one of Open Table’s top 100 restaurants in the U.S.

Now, the couple was throwing out napkins, light fixtures, even silverware (too tarnished by smoke).

The fire was the latest twist in a series of unexpected turns for Chef Howard and her partner in life and business, Knight. And it reminded them how warm can be the embrace of a small town.

Howard grew up in Kinston, where her father is a hog farmer and entrepreneur. She graduated from N.C. State University in 2000 and landed a job with an ad agency in Manhattan.

“When I was growing up, all I ever wanted to do was leave here,” she says.

She did well in the ad world, but realized that going to an office every day wasn’t what she wanted. She had developed an interest in food and got a job at Voyage, a New York restaurant, then graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education.

She got one more thing out of that job at Voyage: Knight, who also worked there. A native of Chicago, he was an artist who shared her interest in food. The two of them started a catering business out of their apartment.

Howard’s close-knit family wanted her to return to eastern North Carolina, but she resisted. Then, a small crack. “Her family had been begging her to come back, so she finally said, ‘Oh, let’s move to Asheville,’ “ says Knight. He insisted on eastern North Carolina. Several times. There’d be inexpensive studio space for him, he told her. Between that and her father’s offer to help finance a restaurant, she eventually caved.

“We were going to open a sandwich shop here. Then, she says, ‘Oh, let’s do a dinner restaurant,’ ” Knight says.

They looked at several towns and determined that Kinston was centrally located between New Bern, Greenville and Goldsboro, so the restaurant could draw from those populations.

Chef & the Farmer (the “farmer” is Howard’s father) opened in 2006 in what was not exactly a bustling area at the time.

“They were embraced by the community from the get-go,” says Adrian King, executive director of Pride of Kinston. “It has been not just a community thing, but a regional thing, attracting people to the community. Ben and Vivian have worked their butts off to make the place successful, and we are real proud of them.”

Pride of Kinston is part of the statewide Main Street program, which stimulates downtown development. The organization offered assistance with the building and in other areas. The couple’s effort and investment inspired other entrepreneurs, and that their need for local products helped revive Kinston’s farmers market.

Those good vibes returned the couple’s way as word spread about the fire.

Jeremy Law was Howard’s sous chef for about a year, before leaving in 2010 to open his own place, SoCo Farm and Food in Wilson. He contacted the couple when he heard about the fire.

“When my wife and I last ate at Chef & the Farmer, just a week before the fire, the food was the best it’s ever been,” Law says. “Truly great food can only come out of a happy kitchen. Vivian had returned to the kitchen after giving birth to two beautiful children. And I know Ben was happy to have her back in the restaurant, not to mention happy about his kids. They brought that energy to the restaurant. You could feel it in the service and taste it in the food.”

Knight and Howard knew they weren’t alone.

“Even folks I know who don’t eat here often have stopped by and brought us cards,” Knight says.

Howard adds, “The outpouring of support kind of blew us away.”

“It made us want to push as fast as we can to reopen,” Knight says.

Mother Earth Brewing Company offered to hold a benefit for the restaurant. Howard was touched by the offer, but proposed instead that the brewery hold a fundraiser for the farmers who supply the restaurant, who would lose income for as long as it was closed. Up to 15 area small farmers provide ingredients for the restaurant, depending on the season. The event took place on Jan. 20.

As repairs continued, more news came in late February: Chef & the Farmer was named a semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast in the James Beard Awards.

“The press we’ve received (since the fire) has been the best thing that has happened since we’ve been open, with Open Table, then Beard, and we can’t take advantage of it,” says Knight, 36.

The fire came in the midst of work on a series focusing on the restaurant and Southern ingredients being filmed for South Carolina public television.

Howard used the renovation time to hone her skills. She learned about charcuterie at a whole-animal butcher shop in Chicago, and plans to add eastern North Carolina-style meats that she remembers from childhood to the menu. Howard says it would have been hard to find time to train like that without the forced closing.

The fire might have provided an excuse to start over in a bigger city, with more chance for attention. But things are different now.

“We have a vested interest in the community. This is home,” Howard, 34, says. “I want this for my children, being able to see chickens and sheep, that life that I had as a child. That was not what I expected when we moved back here. I left home and never knew my parents as an adult. Now, believe it or not, I like them. They’ve been so supportive to me. They love our children, and I see how much having grandparents nearby enriches their lives.”

When Chef & the Farmer reopened on May 1, there was a whiff of smoke in the air, but it was only from the wood-fired oven which, undeterred by the idea of fire, Howard decided to add. Howard didn’t move on to be a Beard finalist, and the question of whether diners will return to this outpost remains.

But if the room had contained any more glowing smiles - from Howard and Knight, to servers back at work and Howard’s parents - it might have spontaneously combusted. And that was enough for now.

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