UNC historian co-produces hit PBS show ‘A Chef’s Life’

From left, 'Chef's Life' team members Malinda Maynor Lowery, Un Kyong Ho and Cynthia Hill.

From left, ‘Chef’s Life’ team members Malinda Maynor Lowery, Un Kyong Ho and Cynthia Hill.

Cherokee purple tomatoes smothered in smoked corn aioli on homemade sweet potato onion bread.

This locavore sandwich, brainchild of Chef Vivian Howard of the Kinston, N.C.-based restaurant Chef and the Farmer, was named a top 10 dish of the year in Garden & Gun magazine.

But if you ask UNC historian and native North Carolinian Malinda Maynor Lowery what her favorite dish is at the farm-to-table restaurant, she cites the blueberry barbecue pork belly skewers.

Such are the contemporary Southern choices presented at the restaurant that is the focus of the wildly popularly PBS series A Chef’s Life. The reality/cooking show won a Peabody Award, one of the premier honors in broadcast journalism, for its first season. It was also a finalist for a James Beard Foundation award, another top honor.

From the Peabody Award website: “Apart from its fresh takes on grits and greens, it serves up a nuanced, non-stereotypical portrait of the rural and small-town American South, something rarely seen on television.”

Lowery is the show’s co-producer. UNC alumna Cynthia Hill (pharmacy ’93) is producer and director. Lowery also heads the Southern Oral History Program in the College, and she has a background in documentary filmmaking.

Vivian Howard of Chef and the Farmer. (photo by Rex Miller)

Vivian Howard of Chef and the Farmer. (photo by Rex Miller)

Hill, the director, and Howard, the chef, grew up together in Kinston. Lowery and Hill have been friends for about 15 years and worked together on Private Violence, a documentary on domestic violence that was shown at the Sundance and Full Frame film festivals and will be broadcast on HBO in October.

Viewers have been drawn to the authenticity of A Chef’s Life. Howard is the child of tobacco and hog farmers. After she and her husband, Ben Knight, left New York City to open the restaurant in Kinston, they developed strong relationships with local farmers. Chef and the Farmer sources 70 percent of its menu from within 60 miles.

“Both Private Violence and A Chef’s Life resonate with what we do in the Southern Oral History Program in telling people’s stories,” Lowery said. “A Chef’s Life focuses on Southern culture and history and food as a way to access those things.”

As co-producer, Lowery plays an active role in the show’s outreach strategy. She writes grant proposals, Web content, emails to partners and collaborators, publicity materials and more.

“Social media has been incredibly important,” she said. “We work as a team to create posts and to cultivate the audience and give them things they can act on in their own lives. One of the things I’m most proud of is a map that provides people with locations of local farmers so they can purchase the ingredients that they see on the show.”

Lowery calls both the PBS show and the restaurant “an incredibly important economic development resource for eastern North Carolina.”

“The local food movement is significant in North Carolina, and the brilliance of this show is that it provides a storytelling vehicle for that,” she added. “Vivian Howard has managed to convince people that buying local is in their best interest, not in somebody else’s best interest.”

Season two launches Oct. 5. For fans, Lowery promises some surprises in the lineup, like a one-hour holiday special, in which “Vivian will introduce us to a variety of recipes, old and new, and we’ll feature the stress of the restaurant season as it overlaps with the holiday season.”

Lowery said working on the show is “deeply satisfying.”

“My own life experience and my academic experience have helped me to [value] the need and importance of people understanding their own communities,” she said. “The show portrays the rich and diverse culture of the South and all that means.”

Follow the show at www.achefslifeseries.com, www.pbs.org/food/shows/a-chefs-life/ and on Facebook.

Check out a sneak-peek video clip from season 2.

[ By Kim Weaver Spurr ’88 ]