Vivian Howard is in a constant state of motion and evolution, a chef turned restaurateur turned television personality turned cookbook author. You may have seen one of her PBS shows, either the Peabody- and Emmy-award-winning “A Chef’s Life,” which ran for five seasons, or “Somewhere South,” a six-part exploration of culinary culture and history below the Mason-Dixon line. Maybe you’ve visited or gotten pandemic takeout from one of her North Carolina restaurants: Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, Benny’s Big Time in Wilmington and Charleston’s Handy & Hot. Or maybe you were a fan of her epic best-selling debut cookbook, “Deep Run Roots.”
Always juggling and forever creating, Howard is back with a new cookbook, “This Will Make It Taste Good.” A seismic shift in tone and approach, it was profoundly shaped by the success and criticisms of her first cookbook, which Howard obsessively tracked on Amazon. Every morning, she would read the latest reviews. “I always wanted to be a writer,” she says. “This was the first time I’d ever put anything out in the world, and I wanted to see how people received it.”
There were patterns to the writeups. People loved the stories but yearned for simpler recipes. A common theme was, “I’ll never cook anything from it, but I love reading it.” She decided her next project would focus on how she cooks in her own kitchen, using homemade condiments forged from just a few ingredients to bring to life whatever she has on hand in the fridge, on the counter or in the pantry. Howards calls it “a streamlined way to make simple foods exciting.”
“This Will Make It Taste Good” is organized by its 10 cheekily titled condiments (she calls them “flavor heroes”), such as “R-Rated Onions (rich, deep, soft, meaty, sweet),” “Quirky Furki (umami, sea-driven, textured, funky),” and “Herbdacious (full, round, herbal, nuanced, fatty, smooth).” Each condiment powers a full chapter of recipes, so the R-Rated Onions appear in everything from barbequed pork to French onion soup. To help out cooks without enough spare time (aka almost everyone), most of the condiments are designed to stay fresh in the fridge for at least a month. Howard recommends making a few favorites to have on hand, so one can rotate through flavor profiles. “I eat something one night, and it may sound like the best thing at the time,” she says. “And then I want nothing to do with it for at least a week.”
To complement the 125 all-flavor, no-fuss recipes, she unspools her autobiography in the chapter openings. “The stories in this book are about being a working mom; a professional with imposter syndrome; a public persona who really wants to evolve, but people won’t allow me to do it; and about growing up feeling chubby while living in a house with a dad who was always on some fad diet,” says Howard. “The stories, while not about food, use food as a vehicle to tell a universally relatable story about my life.”
One of the other goals of “This Will Make It Taste Good” is to free up home cooks from the perfection they see all around them. “I think that food television and cookbooks are really valuable,” says Howard. “But one of the things they’ve done for us has really made us feel that if we don’t have all the ingredients, if we don’t have the right brand, if we don’t have all the stoves aligned, then we’re not going to be successful in a particular recipe.”
If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that what’s in our pantries is a gift, and we really need to be able to make complete use of it.Vivian Howard
Her goal is to empower people to confidently swap out ingredients without feeling like they’re missing out on the intention of the dish. There’s no need to make a special run to the grocery store for an ingredient you may never use again, and there’s no need to overlook a similar product you have on hand. “If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that what’s in our pantries is a gift,” Howard says. “And we really need to be able to make complete use of it.”
Her other mantra throughout the book is to meal prep, but do it right. Instead of making a dish whose quality will decline dramatically by the next day or one that has limited pairing potentials, make some of her flavor heroes instead. Then use those to accent a variety of recipes, many of which are ready in 30 minutes or less.
This means taking a different approach in the grocery store. She recommends simply buying a flexible array of staples. Howard’s shopping list always includes ground turkey, whole chicken, pork chops or steak, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, romaine lettuce, dried beans, and white and brown rice. “I don’t even think at the grocery store,” she says. “It’s just about getting the things that we always get.”
Her cooking routine is equally important. Though she admits to using a plethora of pans and bowls to make a single dish at her restaurants, she takes great pains to cook in just one pan at home, if possible. “A lot of the recipes in this book are me roasting a chicken on top of cauliflower or on top of a big slice of crusty bread or on top of rice or grits,” she says. “That’s a means to make dinner in just one pan and also not waste everything that chicken has to give as it roasts.”
The other chief difference in the way she cooks in the opposing environments: no “mise en place,” which refers to having all the ingredients laid out and prepped before one starts cooking. Instead of taking that approach at home, where her twins are running around and the counter space may be taken up by other projects, she forgoes this meticulousness and simply keeps the ingredients she uses most often within easy reach. Always on hand are kosher salt, olive oil, bacon fat, grapeseed oil, a peppermill and hot sauce.
In a desire to further streamline her culinary workspace, she recently went through all her cabinets to rid herself of the equipment she hadn’t used within the previous six months. The placement of the trash can was a longtime problem, since it was right in the center of the work area. When one of the kids popped by to drop off trash, whatever Howard was doing ground to a halt. So that got moved. “I don’t think we should be afraid of change in the way we function in our kitchens,” she says.
These small shifts will have a meaningful impact on her day-to-day happiness in the kitchen, but she doesn’t plan on making sweeping reforms for 2021. “I try not to place so much emphasis on New Year’s resolutions, because I’ve never been successful,” Howard admits. “I’m looking for the next year to be better than the last.”
For those people who like such resolutions, she recommends keeping them simple. “We need to pick things that will work and that we can actually do, rather than saying, ‘I’m going to cook dinner for my family five nights a week, and we’re going to sit down and stare at each other while we’re eating,’” Howard says. “I think we could make a promise to ourselves that’s actually possible.”
After all, who knows what this fresh year will bring in the months to come. Nothing’s for certain, except for one thing: Vivian Howard is going to keep pushing forward and keep pushing herself.