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English alum’s many hats: chef, TV star, commencement speaker

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Chef, restaurateur, TV star and NC State English aluma Vivian Howard (’00) served up a great speech as this winter’s university commencement speaker.

Earlier, she spoke with Bill Krueger, a writer for NC State’s Red and White for Life alumni blog. Here’s that entry:

Becoming the star of a television show has, in many respects, been great for Vivian Howard.

The show, A Chef’s Life, is now in its second season on PBS stations across the country. It chronicles Howard’s life as the chef and co-owner of Chef & the Farmer restaurant in Kinston, N.C., as well as her exploration of Southern food traditions.

“People’s response to the show has been great,” says Howard, who gave NC State’s commencement address on December 18. “It’s been great for the restaurant’s business. People are driving from all over the country to eat at the restaurant, and they are very excited to be there.”

But that has also meant a change in Howard’s role at the restaurant. Many of the new customers to Chef & the Farmer want to talk with Howard or have their picture taken with her. So, when the restaurant is open for business, Howard serves as more of an ambassador than a chef.

“It’s taking me out of the restaurant kitchen quite a bit,” she says. “During service, I’m more of a distraction now.”

Howard’s work in the kitchen is now done during the day, when she can concentrate on developing new items for the menu. She’s also working on a cookbook that is scheduled to be published in October 2016.

But it’s not as if Howard is complaining. She’s thrilled that the show has brought so much business to her restaurant, and she says the response from other chefs has been overwhelmingly positive.

“They say it represents what we really do and what a working kitchen is really like,” she says. “That’s been awesome for me, to have my peers respond in that way, and find it truthful and validating.”

What has caught Howard by surprise, though, is the personal connection that many people feel for her after watching her on the show. “The degree to which people connect with me and feel like they know me has been kind of alarming,” she says.

That’s due, in part, to the show’s frequent focus on Howard’s interactions with her family — her parents, her husband and her twin children — and family gatherings at the beach and on holidays. “That’s very taxing on your personal life,” she says. “That’s been a huge struggle.”

So Howard says there will be less of a family focus in season three, which is being filmed now.

As for her commencement speech, Howard says she plans to talk with new graduates about her own journey to become an acclaimed chef at a restaurant in eastern North Carolina.

“I’m going to talk about how I’ve gone down a lot of different roads and am finally able to do what I wanted to do,” she says. “Only, I’m going to say that in a lot more words.”

An earlier version of this article appeared in Red and White for Life, NC State’s alumni blog. NC State alumni magazine profiled Howard in the Autumn 2013 issue.