A new reality TV show explores Eastern North Carolina foodways, culture and even community development through the eyes of a local chef and her husband. It’s a welcome exception to television’s usual outlandish depiction of rural life.
Like other reality TV shows, PBS’s “A Chef’s Life” explains the premise in the first 45 seconds. Unlike other reality shows about rural America, it’s worth watching. Chef Vivian Howard returns to her hometown of Kinston, North Carolina, to open her own restaurant.
Reality television has not been kind to rural America. You can underline that statement and add subtitles if the show is staged in one of the rural subregions that make up the American South. “A Chef’s Life,” a new series that premiered this fall on PBS, counters the Buckwilds and Swamp Peoples of the small screen with a narrative about the strengths and wisdom of rural communities.
The show follows Vivian Howard and Ben Knight, the young couple behind the Chef and the Farmer, a celebrated Southern restaurant the two opened in Vivian’s hometown of Kinston, North Carolina.
In the opening credits of the show, Chef Vivian sets up the story’s premise: An Eastern Carolina daughter returns home to raise a family, run a small business and explore her community through the lens of food. Interspersed with Vivian’s narration are beautiful sun-soaked shots of Eastern North Carolina farms and the farmers who tend them. Heritage-breed hogs root at the camera and a float resembling a giant ear of corn sails through a tiny main street parade.
What follows is a representation of rural people and place that is rarely seen on television. The people are creative, intelligent and interesting. The family drama is relatable. And humorous moments aren’t at the expense of those on screen.
Since the premier in September, Knight says they’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Viewers have told him the series is showing a humanity in the rural experience that most people don’t get.
“What you see in those other reality shows creates a huge schism in how we treat one another in this country,” Knight said. “This show is trying to bridge that gap in a way that is approachable.”
That approachability is partly because the series was not the idea of network executives. Instead, it grew organically from Howard’s desire to document the region’s unique foodways after making sauerkraut “by the signs” with neighbors. Pursuing the project led Howard and Knight to collaborate with another Eastern North Carolina native, filmmaker Cynthia Hill.
Hill has a long history documenting life in her home region, starting with her very personal film, Tobacco Money Feeds My Family. Recognizing the lack of funding for independent Southern documentary projects, she co-founded the Southern Documentary Fund. The fund is a non-profit that provides resources for filmmakers, including fiscal sponsorship, which she describes as a strategy “so we can stay here and do our work here.” She also went to school with Howard’s older sister and was immediately on board with the idea of the show.
“Going through the area and documenting rural traditions, farming and cooking was something that I definitely was interested in because it’s where I’m from,” Hill said.
Hill says that after their initial meeting the project took its own course.
“We started filming because there was a 4th of July parade happening in Deep Run with a corn float,” she said. “We just shot it to see what happened. I quickly saw that the way to get at these Southern traditions was through Vivian. She’s interacting with farmers and learning from old-time foodways on a daily basis. She’s also a natural on camera, so the direction to form the show around her restaurant became obvious.”
Beyond being equal parts reality series and cooking show, “A Chef’s Life” tells the subtler story of a rural economic development effort that plays to the historical, cultural and agricultural strengths of Eastern North Carolina. It does so without glossing over the risky challenges and tensions of opening a “progressive eatery” situated within the nation’s fourth poorest Congressional district.
“People grow up here and then they leave,” Howard said. She’d like to see the show help change that.
“We’re always struggling in Eastern North Carolina with our image. We want to show it for the cool area that it is. Now that people our age are interested in farming again, we’d love for the children of former tobacco farmers that have moved away to see that plot of land as attractive and come back to make a life here.”
Crafting an independent show about their home region has required creative approaches to fundraising. An initial Indiegogo campaign raised more than $50,000 for the production. With the economic development tie-in, state and local government sponsors also came to the table.
The sponsorship slots for the show include the Lenoir Committee of 100, a local non-profit that provides funding for projects “deemed beneficial to the citizens of Lenoir County.” Other supporters are the North Carolina Pork Council, the Golden Leaf Foundation, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina and Carolina Wild, a B corporation that produces and promotes juice made from North Carolina-grown muscadine grapes. They all see the series as beneficial to attracting positive attention, tourism dollars and additional investment to the region.
The success of “A Chef’s Life” to raise independent funding, find partners and gain national distribution is a good sign for the emergence of homegrown “reality” and documentary series. Affordable cameras and editing software have meant that more rural people have access to the equipment needed to make broadcast-quality entertainment.
Hill sees this as an opportunity to move national dialogue.
“There’s a lot of history and thought that is there that we’re able to capture more easily now,” she said. “Rural people have something to say, and we want to contribute to a national conversation.”
However, the democratization of media can make it harder to get noticed, “There is so much noise now. There are more channels than ever, but still very few places where true documentary series can live.”
“A Chef’s Life” is already filming its second season. Funding at this time is unclear, but the team is looking for additional sponsors invested in supporting the economic development of the region through storytelling.
Shows like “A Chef’s Life” that document the beauty of rural traditions, art and life hold the potential to help America “fall in love with itself,” to use the words of folklorist Alan Lomax. Such shows offer Americans a chance to see what is worth loving about the diverse people, places and cultures that make up our collective experience. They reinforce our values.
As more rural media makers tell their own stories, will viewers tune-in for complex characters and dramas that reflect our own lives? Or do we only like our rural reality characters as rubes, serving as the punch line to some tired national joke about hillbillies?
Howard says she hopes both rural and urban viewers will take something positive from the show. It’s a thought summed up by the Avett Brothers lyrics that open each episode:
I wish you’d see yourself as beautiful as I see you.
Why can’t you see yourself as beautiful as I see you?
A Chef’s Life is currently airing on PBS nationwide as a 13 part series. The producers have developed an educational website for the series that includes features from the show, recipes, ingredients, and additional interviews with North Carolina farmers and producers preserving the unique traditional foodways of the state.
Lora Smith studied folklore and documentary studies as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A native of Southeastern Kentucky, she lives in North Carolina and serves as the communications officer for the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation.