When it comes to celebrity chefs based out of North Carolina, Chef Vivian Howard probably leads the pack! Given her national exposure on PBS and her television show, A Chef’s Life, Chef Vivian has brought a certain amount of acclaim and panache to the small town of Kinston, NC. But I admit that I haven’t watched her show but instead, ran into Chef Vivian over the past two years at a variety of events. I don’t always buy the foodie hype around chefs but after a great meal at her restaurant, the Boiler Room, I decided to check out her main restaurant, the Chef and the Farmer. As luck would have it, she had a special chef’s dinner running in November so I grabbed a ticket, grabbed a friend and decided to see what all the fuss was about.
The ride from Raleigh is about 90 minutes, not a bad ride but certainly one which needs a worthwhile destination. The Chef and the Farmer is located in a larger, brick building which I initially thought was an office but no! There’s a subtle, wood-carved sign by the front door giving away the restaurant inside. We chat with the hostess up front and it’ll be a short wait before our dinner is seated. I scan the dining room and there’s definitely a more urban feel to the space. Even though it showcases a lot of multi-hued wood-paneling, the concrete floors and colorful abstract art hung up gives the space a modern, design sensibility. Open kitchen to the back right, busy bar to the left, the crowd at the Chef and the Farmer is definitely a little older than what I ran into at Boiler Room. Probably due to its higher price points and more formal dining experience.
Soon enough the hostess nudges us all to head to a side doorway, up a flight of stairs and to the second floor and their Gallery Room where tonight’s special dinner is to take place. They’ve got four tables set up, 10 to a table. A paper menu with the evening’s fare is presented at each place-setting. While there was a basic menu presented on the website, you get all the details here on the paper menu which looks great. The theme for tonight’s dinner is My Argentine Thanksgiving which pays homage to Chef Vivian’s semester abroad during college and her attempt to create a Thanksgiving dinner while overseas in Buenos Aires. It looks like a delicious mix of S. American and Italian cuisine with hints of the South! We meet our tablemates Randy and Warren and sit down to eat.
The dinner starts of with a cocktail for the evening, a fernet float! A digestif paired with coke and a scoop for vanilla ice cream, delicioso. Next up is a large plate of plump, perfectly fried empanadas. While the basic beef empanada is wonderful, the stand-out flavor to me is Chef Vivian’s corn, onion and cheese which is hearty but a bit lighter on the tongue. For this specialty dinner, there’s also a wine list with suggested pairings and you can mix and match as needed. Everything’s quite affordable in the $8 to $12 range and from Argentina.
Next up on this wonderful menu is the ensalada rusa, a tossed mix of beet, apple and sweet potato in a light citrus dressing. It’s refreshing but also substantial with a lot of crunch and flavor! One common theme you’ll find throughout Argentinian cuisine is “hearty”, they don’t mess around with their food or calories. As we’re finishing up the salad, a cheer goes up in the room and looking around, I spy Chef Vivian joining us for the evening. Dressed in denim coveralls and looking comfortable, she tells us about her experience overseas, her homesickness and her attempt to re-create Thanksgiving in Argentina which is heart-warming. She does some meet and greets with some of the tables and sits down to sample some of the dinner.
The meal moves on to the heartier, meatier offerings, hooray! We are offered up a huge, turkey milanesa: a flattened turkey cutlet fried in bread crumbs with a bit of arugula for contrast. And then a plate of boneless beef ribs spiked with cranberry orange glaze and pomegrante. Wonderful given the flavorful, luscious fat on this cut. The fruit makes for a good counterpoint and adds some brightness to the dish but I LOVE beef ribs. And if Argentina serves up a lot of anything, it’s beef. Paired with a fantastic sweet potato gnocchi with chorizo, you’re going to have to roll us away from this dinner table soon….
While the meal has been progressively more delicious, one of our tablemates has stopped eating and is enraptured by Chef Vivian! As a huge fan of her show, she seems to have lost her appetite given how thrilled she is. And eventually, Chef Vivian is able to make it over (she’s pretty popular tonight as you can guess) and greets Randy with a hug. She’s a very gracious lady and takes time to say hi to her fans, we get together for a group photo and then she’s off for the night. We finish the meal with a wonderful dulce de leche cake made of cornbread chiffon and spiked with crushed pecans. It’s similar to light, layered corn cakes and topped with some citrus segments, yum. But let’s face it, we’ve been eating all night and can barely fit this last course in.
We say our goodbyes, grab our leftovers and head into the evening totally stuffed and happy! For my first visit at the Chef and Farmer, you can’t get much better than tonight’s experience. A wonderful meal, great service and the chance to spend some intimate time with Chef Vivian! I found her menu to be full of flavor while still staying true to its country (Argentina and USA) roots. She plays around a lot with international ingredients and cuisine while retaining the simplicity of great country food, kudos! I’m already looking forward to a return visit to the Chef and Farmer for a standard dinner service to see what they do off the regular dinner menu. But if you’re already a fan of Chef Vivian, one of these specialty dinners will really be a thrill. Sign up for her email list to get regular notice. At $75 per person for this Argentine Thanksgiving, it was a very worthwhile visit and I’m pretty sure you’ll feel the same way too.
Note: Chef Vivian will be returning to the television screen on PBS with her new series: Somewhere South which debuts on Friday night, March 27. On the show she’ll be digging into the food of the new American South and Southern food traditions.
Chef and the Farmer
120 W Gordon Street
Kinston, NC 28501