By Vivian Howard
I grew up in rural eastern North Carolina, where farmers and their families were my neighbors, my friends, and my family. In this place, Deep Run, where I now live with my husband and two children at the end of long gravel driveway that flanks a wheat field, there’s not a whole lot going on. There aren’t any stop lights or fancy grocery stores, but there are at least a half-dozen produce stands and four times as many fields full of turnip greens and corn. Farming is the backbone of our community, economically and culturally, and has left an indelible mark on me as a person and a chef.
Over a decade ago when we opened Chef & the Farmer, after cooking in the bustling kitchens of Manhattan, I was worried it would be difficult for people to understand what I wanted to do and the food I wanted to cook. I thought I wanted farmers to grow the ingredients I was used to cooking in New York — haricot verts, purple potatoes, apricots or watercress —not just the sweet potatoes or collards I remembered from my youth. I look back at this now and laugh. Instead of cooking food that had anything to do with me or eastern North Carolina, I guess I thought I could uproot generations of tradition to fit a specific mold I had envisioned in New York. Eventually, I came to lean into this place I call home and the folks who grew the ingredients we were using.
When faced with 500 pounds of blueberries about to spoil, I made blueberry vinegar that evolved into one of our restaurant’s signature dishes, blueberry bbq chicken. When my neighbors dropped off a ziploc bag of collard kraut and I realized old folks down the road from me were masters of fermentation, a technique I was just beginning to understand, I saw that I could apply “cheffy” techniques to humble ingredients. When Curtis Smith, a farmer I work with, tells me he’s about to have strawberries, I now know that the first ones of the season aren’t the sweetest. They’re better baked into cobblers or helped along with a little sugar. As it gets warmer, our strawberry preparations change. End of season berries stand on their own. In short, I learned that ingredients grown here are as versatile and as nuanced as ingredients grown in New York. They’re as complex and competent as the people and the soil that grows them. Although my career and my role at Chef & the Farmer has evolved over the last decade, one thing that has never wavered is my commitment to sourcing local ingredients directly from the folks who grow it. It’s because of these ingredients that I am who I am as a chef. These growers and their product have helped me find my voice.
As a society over the last generation, we’ve become disconnected with our food source in many ways. So often our foods are processed and cleaned to remove any trace of the farm where they came from. This makes it easy to forget about the folks behind our food, the ones who work hard to deliver environmentally friendly produce, the ones who have stories that could fill a book twice the size of Deep Run Roots, the ones whose families work alongside them, day in and day out, missing out on summer vacation.
This is one of the reasons I’ve been thrilled to partner with IMPAC, International Member of the Precision Ag Community over the last year. It’s one of my missions to reconnect consumers with their food growers who are committed to sustainable practices, food safety and social responsibility. At the end of the day, these farmers are real people, just like you and me. They have a story worth hearing and IMPAC provides a platform for these rich narratives to flourish. It’s been an honor to help bring these stories to the surface over the last year, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the recipes along the way.