Ed’s A CHEF’S LIFE Vacation: Around Downeast in 2 Days

I’m from San Francisco where there is an embarrassment of culinary riches on almost every block. That doesn’t make me a likely candidate for a trip to the middle of Eastern North Carolina, yet I was inspired by a PBS TV series starring a rising chef who found her own catharsis by going back home and opening a restaurant, Chef and the Farmer. A CHEF’S LIFE makes me care about Vivian Howard’s demanding life and the local people who support her on her journey. Each week I learn something unique about a familiar cooking ingredient. From the beginning, I was plain hooked.

Prominent on the show is farmer Warren Brothers who along with his wife Jane decided to turn their 1853-restored farmhouse into a B&B. Once I got wind of this, I made a reservation for my partner Jamie and me to stay at their home in April. The idea of meeting Warren and especially his colleague Lillie tickled us since they’re such memorable characters on the series. Once the date was set, I made a dinner reservation at Chef and The Farmer. As our trip became imminent, it was Jane who generously connected me with Vivian’s assistant Holley, and the ball started rolling from there.

Jamie knows what an idiosyncratic pre-planner I can be when it comes to our vacations, but this time we didn’t have much of an agenda. After an overnight stay in Raleigh, we started driving toward Kinston when we noticed all the signs for the Nahunta Pork Center in Pikeville. I remembered this was the place Vivian visited to get her famous Tom Thumbs, so we decided to stop. We have never seen so many pork parts in our lives. I tried a local delicacy called liver pudding, which was packaged as a slab in an airtight package, and even though I am not a fan of pork rinds, they were honestly the best I had ever tasted.

Jamie and I still had time after that detour to head down to the port town of Morehead City where we grabbed shrimp burgers with slaw and ketchup at El’s Drive-In since Vivian fondly praised them as part of her childhood summertime ritual. We got back to Kinston and finally met Holley who kindly guided us around the downtown area. First, we went to Buy Local Art Gallery where we met owner/furniture maker Ben Harper, a recent transplant who showed us the works of local artists including some beautiful oil paintings by John Silver of Lillie and Warren on the Brothers Farm.

We then made stops at the newly refurbished O’Neil building, which has been converted from a vintage bank branch into a high-end boutique hotel, and at Mother Earth Brewery, which gets frequent mentions on the show since the restaurant does pairings with their beers. Holley arranged for us to meet Vivian’s husband Ben Knight who was kind enough to chat with us and show us his impressively rendered abstract paintings which hang throughout the restaurant; a really good guy.

Before our dinner reservation, we made a pit stop at the nearby Boiler Room, Vivian and Ben’s more casual operation, because we needed to try the butterbean burger, which was just as delicious as it was proclaimed on that episode. Believe me, if we had enough room for an applejack, we would have devoured it. But dinner awaited and when we finally came back to Chef and the Farmer, we were treated like family. One amazing dish came after another. To say the experience exceeded our expectations would be an understatement, and the evening floated by in a culinary bacchanalia.

We came back late to Warren’s farmhouse where we finally met him and started shooting the breeze over leftover chocolate cake from the restaurant. The following morning, Lillie came over especially for us and made her homemade biscuits on the morning after her 69th birthday. It was like reliving the buttermilk episode except I was not courageous enough like Vivian to put my hand into the mixing bowl. Meanwhile, Warren made over-easy eggs from the chickens on his farm. It was so nice to sit around the table and chat about Lillie’s upcoming birthday festivities.

Later that morning, we followed Warren to his two-acre farm down the road where he showed us around, shared his family history, introduced us to his biggest hog which he ironically named Jane, and started cleaning the latest batch of turnips. After we said our goodbyes, Jamie and I headed over to Broadslab Distillery in Benson based on Ben’s enthusiastic recommendation and sampled some incredibly smooth-tasting moonshine made by owner and master distiller Jeremy Norris, who was featured prominently on the moonshine episode.

It was funny how we got to meet so many great people and felt like we knew them because of the program. When we got back home to San Francisco, I spent some time re-watching episodes online as now the settings are very familiar to me. A CHEF’S LIFE now felt like watching home movies of my vacation after visiting friends and family. There are so many people to thank who helped mastermind our itinerary. Jamie and I plan on coming back, maybe when tomatoes are in season so I can finally taste Vivian’s tomato pie.

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