Reality TV, despite the name, mostly serves up scripted dialogue, manufactured drama and plenty of well-worn stereotypes. If, like Vivian Howard, you are a) Southern and b) have moved from New York to your home town in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, the show that most TV producers want is something more like megahits “Duck Dynasty” or “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” “People want me to cook muskrat on the side of the road,” Howard said, not bothering to hide her irritation. “That, I could get money for.”
But the 36-year-old chef doesn’t cook muskrat. Nor does she see why she should have to, just to be on TV.
And so where most reality programs hurtle from one disaster to the next, “A Chef’s Life” ambles along, trailing Howard as she buys buttermilk from one neighbor, then learns from another how to perfect a Southern biscuit. The series paints a sensitive portrait of her life and the lives of her neighbors in Kinston, N.C. And along the way, it has done something else: helped to revitalize their city by luring culinary tourists.
In my latest story for the Washington Post, I illustrate the difference that one chef can make to a small town. Besides doing great work, Howard is a marvelous chef. You heard it here first: She’s the next great Southern chef.