Fans of Vivian Howard, the James Beard, Peabody, Daytime Emmy award-winning chef, restaurateur, and television star, might be surprised to learn that she never actually wanted to work in restaurants growing up. She wanted to write.
“I always wanted to be a journalist,” she says. “I gave up on that dream pretty early on but just wasn’t actually able, I guess, to let it go.”
Howard met (virtually) with Eater Carolinas to talk about her evolution from renowned local chef to regional restaurateur to celebrated television personality and cookbook author. It may have been a circuitous route, but she’s finally realized her dream of being a writer.
Her second cookbook, This Will Make It Taste Good, was released earlier this week and is the culmination of more than a year’s worth of work, adjustments, and COVID-19 pivots.
Her first cookbook, Deep Run Roots, was a narrative journey through Howard’s corner of Eastern North Carolina and the ingredients (and people) who drove her Kinston, North Carolina, restaurant Chef & the Farmer to national acclaim. It was a massive hit for a first-time cookbook author, and one that traced Howard’s roots through her food.
The book spawned a PBS show, A Chef’s Life, that ran for five seasons and won her two Daytime Emmys, followed by a second PBS show, Somewhere South. In all measurements, Deep Run Roots would have been considered a runaway success.
However, Howard admits, “I woke up every morning for the whole year after [the book] came out and read all the new reviews on Amazon. The thing that stuck out was that several people said they wouldn’t cook from the book because the recipes were too complicated.
“I had this whole idea that I had to write a simple cookbook.”
As she worked her way through her next cookbook, something just wasn’t clicking. “I wasn’t feeling it,” she says. The very last chapter of the book was titled “This Will Make It Taste Good,” and it was a collection of homemade condiments that Howard leans on, both at home and at her restaurants, to elevate simple ingredients and recipes.
It was the one chapter out of the entire book that truly excited her, but, “In this simple cookbook, [those recipes] didn’t make sense.”
“I decided to flip the entire idea on its head and write a book about those things,” Howard says. The simple cookbook was put aside and This Will Make It Taste Good was born. Those 10 condiments now form the backbone of the cookbook, with simple ideas for their use and more in-depth recipes under each one.
In the book, Howard acknowledges that when she started working on this new project, in May 2019, things in her life were a mess. Guest counts were down at her restaurant, filming her television show was so exhausting that she abruptly decided to end A Chef’s Life, and the combined stress of everything was taking a noticeable toll on her marriage.
“My life was a dumpster fire,” she writes, “but somehow writing this book protected me from the fallout.”
Howard’s brutal honesty is what makes her books, and arguably her television shows, so appealing. She doesn’t fit the mold of celebrity chef; she’s not surrounded by a coterie of gatekeepers intent on maintaining a carefully crafted image for public consumption.
The narrative headnotes to the recipes and the essays sprinkled throughout the book portray a woman who, at a time of great personal turmoil, found comfort in sharing her food and her words with others.
“Condiments had become my escape. No, these condiments became my mission,” she writes.
She tells Eater Carolinas, “I love writing about food, but not about how it tastes and smells, but using food as a vehicle to write about life.”
With names like the Little Green Dress (described as “if chimichurri and salsa verde had a baby in a bed of olives”), V’s Nuts, and R-Rated Onions, the condiments are pure Howard: cheeky, fun, packed with flavor.
The book was also perfectly timed, maybe scarily so, for the type of cooking folks across the country found themselves relying on as the pandemic spread across the world and shut down America’s restaurants.
“Not only has people’s cooking changed,” Howard says, “but I know people that have never cooked before who are cooking now.” She relates the story of her best friend from college who, in the Before Times, used her oven in her NYC apartment to store her cosmetics. “She had to get her gas turned on and figure out how to make cheese toast,” Howard recalls, laughing.
With an almost instinctive understanding of how most people truly use cookbooks, Howard notes that the entire premise of This Will Make It Taste Good is to allow people to adjust and tweak to fit their needs. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure book with recipes.
“I want people to think about recipes differently,” she says. “I hope that this book gives people confidence in their ability to put things together, and know that you don’t necessarily have to follow every single [step] to the letter in order for it to taste good.”
After nearly a decade of nonstop work, between restaurants and writing and filming, Howard seems content to sit with This Will Make It Taste Good for a while. She closed her second Kinston restaurant, the Boiler Room, earlier this year, and her husband, Ben, manages most of the day-to-day operations of their Wilmington, North Carolina, red-sauce joint Benny’s Big Time. She opened a grab-and-go spot called Handy & Hot in downtown Charleston’s Renaissance Hotel this summer and has plans for a restaurant called Lenoir at the same location, although that is on pause during the pandemic. Mostly, though, she’s been happy for the chance to step back and spend more time with her family.
“You have enough time to start thinking about what it is you want,” she says of life during COVID. “If you’re going to reopen or rebuild your restaurant, what is it going to look like?”
“The restaurant business is such a hamster wheel that you just keep going,” she says. “You never think about, This is not actually what I want it to look like.”
For Howard, there are no plans to return to how things were in the before times. “Going back to the way it was just isn’t on the table,” she says.
As for another cookbook?
“I have no idea what that would be,” she laughs. “Maybe This Will Make It Taste Good Part 2?”
Like everything this year, cookbook promotional tours look a bit different. Howard and her team have scrapped traditional cooking demos and bookstore visits for a series of three drive-in events, starting this weekend in Raleigh.
You can join Vivian in Raleigh (October 24), Charleston (October 25), and Richmond (November 7) for a curbside drive-thru event and pick up a signed copy of This Will Make It Taste Good, a picnic pack of goodies from the book, and the chance for a safely distanced photo op with Vivian from your vehicle.
Organizers note that all these events will strictly observe CDC guidelines. Masks are required for entry.