A Real Reality - Interview with A CHEF’S LIFE creators Cynthia Hill & Vivian Howard

Both Cynthia Hill and Vivian Howard are natives of down east North Carolina. Five years ago, they came together to create what they thought would be a documentary about preserving endangered southern foodways. What resulted is the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning PBS docu-series, A CHEF’S LIFE, which, upon conclusion of its second season, boasts over 2.5 million viewers per episode. With Season 3 set to premiere in early September on PBS stations nationwide, we sat down with Chef Vivian and Cynthia, the show’s director, to talk about their journey and what it means to create a real reality (instead of the fake kind).

So, what are you each looking forward to with season 3?
V:  I think Season 3 is our best season yet. It’ll be really great when America sees me clog in the Meatpacking District (in NYC). I tell the story of when I applied for a bartender job at this bar called Hogs and Heffers and then I clog.

C: All of it! I’m just excited about this season. I think it’s the best so far. Storylines are compelling, and I feel like on the production-side we finally know what we’re doing and each episode is a complete story. There’s also a nice seasonal arc that is a fun journey to take the audience on.

Vivian, you travel a lot with the show, making appearances and exploring ingredients. What type of impact have you noticed the show having through your travels?
V: I think the show is having an affect on people’s perspective of our community. People say, “Oh my god, I’m dying to go to Kinston! It looks so awesome!” and I just laugh inside because it’s like me saying 'I'm dying to go to Portland,' but so are a lot of people. Now people are clamoring to get to Kinston in that same way. It’s now become a travel destination. That’s one of the big things I’ve noticed that is always surprising. Another is the way people in my industry respond to the show, so when I go to other places, I’m approached by chefs who like the show and appreciate how we represent the business. I really wanted to represent the restaurant industry in an honest way.

I’m sure fans are really interested in the new ingredients that will be introduced this season. What has been your favorite ingredient to explore in Season 3?
V: I loved learning about clams because until recently---it’s not like one of these ingredients I grew up eating---I probably didn’t have a clam ‘til I was about 20 [years old]. It was fun to learn about clams, how to shuck a clam, and to learn about this old southern dish called “clam hash.” It’s rare at this point that I get to learn about southern dishes that are new to me, but I learned a lot and the viewer will too. I also loved talking about rutabagas. If you think the turnip is not sexy, well, the rutabaga is the most ugly, sad vegetable on the planet! It was cool to highlight it and show a lot of different things you can do with it.

C: For me it’s not necessarily about the ingredient but about the stories that come from that ingredient, so I’d say the beet episode is probably one of my all-time favorites, because Vivian makes a beet cake for Ms. Mary’s birthday with Lillie wearing the “All About Me” t-shirt. You can’t script something that good!

I imagine you both get interesting feedback from fans of the show. What is the question fans ask you the most?
V: “How do you do it all?” My answer is: I have a lot of help. I live across the street from my parents, my mother in law, my husband. I have a nanny. I’m not really juggling it all. I’m a wreck most of the time. 

C: People don’t typically ask me questions. I get folks calling me with ideas for possible things that we can film for the show. I guess you can say I don’t get questions, I get suggestions, but I appreciate that.

What is the most important role you feel the show is playing amongst the larger crop of food shows? What makes A CHEF’S LIFE so special?
V: It’s not really just a food show. It’s about people, place, and community told through the lens of food. Even people who don’t watch food shows watch our show because they’re instantly connected to the fact that I’m not sitting there stirring a pot.

C: I think that it’s real. It shows a side of the restaurant industry or the life of a chef that’s true. We don’t try to doll it up or make it more dramatic by adding a competition or any other gimmicks. What you see is what you get. It’s a real reality instead of the fake kind.

A CHEF'S LIFE enters its third season with a Peabody and an Emmy Award win and over 2.5 million viewers per episode, which are really major accomplishments given the show’s short lifespan and its humble beginnings. What are a couple of significant ways the show has changed your lives?
V: I used to get up every morning and get dressed, put on my kitchen clogs, and go to the restaurant. Now I get up every morning and go to my office. My work has just totally changed. I still participate in running the restaurant, but it’s not all that I do. And that used to be all that I did.

It’s made me a better storyteller--having to tell a complete story in 24 minutes and also tie it to the next episode was a challenge for me, so I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a storyteller and a filmmaker just by making a so-called “food show.” I hope we get to make [A Chef’s Life] for a long time. I’m proud of it.

Do either of you actually watch the show when it’s broadcasted?
V: Oh hell no! I watch all the episodes when Cynthia sends them to me for approval, but it takes me days to do that because the idea of watching myself for 26 minutes is painful. I usually watch that file alone. The thought of watching it while other people are watching is way too uncomfortable, so I don’t.

C: I do, but I’m watching it for a different reason. I’m watching to make sure it looks good coming through the cable compression. I’m watching to see what viewers see after it's been ingested by various broadcasting outlets.

Vivian, there’s a video floating around of a little girl who is in the kitchen, making recipes pretending to be you (“My name is Vivian, and I’m a chef!”). How does that make you feel to know you’re inspiring young people in this way, especially young girls?
V: If you had said to me 5 years ago, I would be a role model for young girls I would’ve laughed. The fact that it’s happening makes me want to be a better person and actually be a role model. It informs my daily choices and the way I conduct myself.

Any advice for young chefs, Vivian?
I always tell young people who say they wanna be chefs, “before you go to culinary school or decide what you wanna do, you need to work in a restaurant kitchen.” Just because you like working with food doesn’t mean your only option is to be a chef. So work in a restaurant kitchen to find out if you’re the type of person and personality who likes that work. And if that‘s not your thing, you can research and see what other jobs are out there---and tv show host is not one of them!

Any advice for young filmmakers/producers, Cynthia?
Tell stories that you’re passionate about. Quoting Sheri Castle from the casserole episode, “It’s hard to make your dream come true.” But if you don’t try, they definitely won’t come true.”
When we started out, we didn’t know what we were getting into. There was no “dream” per se. But had we had a dream at the beginning to guide us, it would have come damn near close to where we are now -- telling stories we want to tell, about things that are important to us. We’re blessed.