Chef Vivian Howard, a James Beard Foundation Award semi-finalist and owner of Chef & the Farmer and the Boiler Room in Kinston, was the keynote speaker at WILMA’s Women to Watch Leadership Initiative Luncheon event Tuesday.
Howard spoke candidly about the growth of her career and the rising number of demands she faces as her roles continue to expand.
Part of that expansion includes a new Wilmington restaurant
, Benny’s Big Time, in the South Front development on Greenfield Street.
In an introductory speech, Terry Espy, president of MoMentum Companies, congratulated Howard on being the first to sign onto the commercial portion of the South Front development project, which is expected to include 15-18 new businesses. South Front, an urban warehouse redevelopment in Wilmington near the existing South Front apartments, is planned to include tenants such as restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and butcher shops.
Howard told the audience of nearly 700 people at the Wilmington Convention Center that the name Benny’s Big Time comes from a combination of nicknames. Her husband and business partner, Ben Knight, is known by friends as Benny, and at an early age Howard’s father nicknamed her Big Time.
The restaurant will serve Italian American food: wood-fired pizzas, handmade pasta, and salads, nibbles and desserts meant to be shared family style. Howard said she envisions it as a family-friendly restaurant but also the kind of place girlfriends gather for dinner and drinks.
Howard said that while several North Carolina cities were considered for the new restaurant, in the end she chose the place where she and her family would like to spend more time.
“I’ve always had a dream of having a house at the beach,” Howard said.
Howard also spoke of the changes coming to her Peabody Award winning PBS series, A Chef’s Life
. The series documents dying food traditions that utilize ingredients specific to the South. After five seasons, Howard said she has covered just about all of those ingredients, and it is now time to shift the narrative.
The new series, which is yet to be named, will focus on the common threads that run through different cultures in relation to food, family and ceremony. It will celebrate the idea that every culture has foods of significance, and that in many ways, people around the world are more alike than they are different.
Howard said that she will visit families and ethnic communities in North Carolina and throughout the United States, rather than traveling abroad to tell these stories.
As for plans that Howard and Knight were considering opening a Boiler Room in Wilmington, Howard said she doesn’t want to put the cart before the horse. Benny’s Big Time, as well as the new television series and her upcoming second cookbook – her first, Deep Run Roots, was released in the fall – are at the forefront for the time being.
And, also, don’t forget the beach house.
“We will have to see how this works, if it’s successful, if it’s something we can manage personally, and also if I’m able to get that beach house,” Howard joked.