After four seasons as host of A Chef's Life, the PBS documentary series exploring Southern cuisine and its traditions that she cocreated, Vivian Howard is no stranger to risk taking. She knew that adding a food truck to her eight-week East Coast book tour for Deep Run Roots might complicate things, but her sense of adventure outweighed any uncertainty.
As a producer of the show, it's my job to pump our social media loyalists with insight as to Vivian's whereabouts. I joined Vivian and the gang for six of the tour's final twelve stops. A couple of things I learned: like a truck's broken belt, Tom Thumb nachos don't fix themselves, and Vivian's band of country-come-to-town ragamuffins is essential to what makes her book-and-food-truck tour tick.
The truck's serpentine belt snapped three times on tour. Of course it did. "The truck itself is a bit of a wild card," food truck manager Casey Atwater admits. "It's a 1997 Sara Lee bread truck designed to 'haul buns' over short distances. We have it loaded with kitchen equipment and food and we're traveling much greater distances. This takes a toll. Sometimes mechanical issues throw us a real curveball."
The first time the belt cracked under pressure was on October 27, three weeks into the tour and twenty minutes into a drive from Savannah as the team headed home for a cherished night off. It took Casey about three hours of tinkering to get the upfitted former bread truck back on the road.
"With a stop almost every day of the tour, a lot of preplanning has to be done," he adds. "Where will we park it at night? Where will we park for the event? Where will we park before the event and prep if we're not permitted to go straight there?" In Arlington, a Giant grocery-store parking lot doubled as a prep station and a quiet-enough venue for a Facebook live chat with Vivian, which attracted over 17,000 views.
Even more random than a wonky truck racing through twenty-eight cities in two months is the crew that stumbled into the whole thing.
In September, Vivian posted a sign-up sheet at Chef and the Farmer, her ten-year-old farm-to-table restaurant in Kinston, inviting staff members to join her on the road.
Krista Hernandez, who grew up on the West Coast with a Mexican dad and an English-Irish-Welsh mom, took her up on the offer. Krista relocated to eastern North Carolina from Anaheim, California, in May 2016 with her boyfriend, Aldo, a North Carolina native. Though she was reluctant to give up her pastry chef job at what she calls "a lively California brasserie" in Los Angeles, she decided to give Carolina a go. Under the tutelage of Chef and the Farmer's longtime pastry chef Kim Adams, she settled onto a new path, two time zones away from the grandmother who stoked her early interest in baking.
Kinston native Madison Mauck returned home to find a spot on Vivian's food truck before she even had the chance to hear about it. With a fresh degree in studio art and historic preservation from the College of Charleston, she found the town's face-lift invigorating. "I was looking for ways to participate in the community," the youngest truck staffer says of her dreams to become a city planner. Madison had never worked in the restaurant, but in becoming an essential member of the food truck troupe, she came to maintain order and revel in a little chaos.
The team served dishes made famous on A Chef's Life, such as eastern North Carolina-style fish stew and Scarlett's chicken and rice. Some, like Tom Thumb nachos, are adaptations of recipes in Deep Run Roots, Vivian's cookbook with stories from her hometown. Others, like Vivian's banana rolls—a honky-tonk take on sushi—were created on the fly.
"Sometimes it feels like I'm in a circus," Madison says with a chuckle, "but everybody we meet is in a place of joy. Vivian's vision has touched so many people, and it's awesome."
Somewhere between Virginia Beach and Bethesda, Maryland, Casey hears a familiar vibration that escalates to a rumble. The banging is coming from the frayed belt slapping against the truck's engine—again. He pulls over to lift the giant hood. I imagine he mumbles a few unprintable phrases before a woman pulls up with her friend and asks if he needs help. As Casey and this new helper are unraveling the ruptured serpentine belt, the woman says she's a fan of the show. Turns out, she owns an oyster company and, once the belt is replaced, she sends Casey on his way with a peck of fresh oysters, hoping Vivian will crack open a few.
Three years ago, Casey left behind a successful banking career and showed up at Chef and the Farmer in search of a change. He began as a line cook, then became Vivian's assistant before taking on his current position piloting the truck. He's found that his old and new professions aren't that different. "The ability to connect with people and earn their trust is universal," he says.
The team arrives in Bethesda as a caravan. Vivian takes an Uber from Arlington and I drive my rental car. Following behind the food truck is a satellite car whose primary purpose is to wait for the truck to break down on the road. We search for a place to dock and prep, maneuvering the truck through narrow city streets to a reserved parking spot in front of the Williams Sonoma on Bethesda Row. Bacon-wrapped pickled watermelon rinds are the appetizer and shrimp stew the main course, followed by chewy pecan pie for dessert. The crew begins to whip everything up as the line forms. Fans walk up and try to purchase a copy of Deep Run Roots and a ticket, to no avail; the store manager realizes he's underestimated the turnout. He directs the crowd to the Barnes & Noble a few blocks away, but one woman returns empty-handed—they're sold out, too.
By the time we begin packing up, two hours have passed, Vivian has signed more than two hundred books, posed for as many photos, and listened gracefully to her fans' emotional accounts of how she has inspired, encouraged, and reminded them of their best food and family memories. As I stand beside her, collecting camera phones and snapping photos, I can hear the sincere trembling in their voices.
Afterward, I gather the gifts—homemade cinnamon buns, preserves, and cookies—before whisking Vivian out the back door to my rented Kia and driving us off to the hotel. The crew ambles in, Casey having found sweet sleeping quarters for the truck in the hotel's back alley. As we slump at the reception desk waiting to check in, a man in a suit behind us in line asks, "Are y'all a rock band?" We glance at one another with exhausted eyes and giggle. I can't remember if anyone answered.
This article appeared in print with the headline "On a Roll."