Vivian Howard ’00 is reinventing Southern food and breathing new life into a Southern town.
Few Southern staples are as simple—or as satisfying—as the tomato sandwich. At its most basic, it’s two pieces of white bread, mayonnaise and a few slices of fresh tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper. For many, it’s the taste of summer. It evokes memories of times gone by and gatherings with family and friends. It reminds us of the goodness that comes from the earth and unsnarls the increasingly tangled ties between the farm and our table.
That may seem like a lot to ask of such a simple sandwich, but it barely scratches the surface of what a tomato sandwich can do in the hands of the right person. Someone like Vivian Howard ’00, the chef and co-owner of Chef & the Farmer, a restaurant in Kinston, N.C. In Howard’s hands, the white bread becomes a homemade rustic onion bread that is slightly toasted, and the mayonnaise becomes a roasted corn aioli. The tomatoes are Cherokee purple heirlooms just plucked from the vines of a local farmer, and they are added to the sandwich in layers with salt and pepper and a bit of pickled onion on top. Just like that, a simple sandwich becomes spectacular.
And that spectacular sandwich becomes the latest step in Howard’s rapid rise in the culinary world, where she is widely recognized for her mouth-watering reinventions of familiar and forgotten Southern standards such as candied yams, grits and something known as a Tom Thumb. (More on that later.) She has been a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Award for outstanding chefs, and a new PBS series featuring Howard and her exploration of Southern food traditions is airing nationally this fall.