Written by guest columnist: Sherri Robinson | Photography provided by Vivian Howard
Vivian Howard, along with her husband and business partner, Ben Knight are opening “Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria” in Wilmington this month. It is easy to figure out where the “Benny” comes from – Ben Knight – of course; but, did you know “Big Time” is the nickname Vivian’s Dad, John, bestowed upon his youngest?
Vivian grew up near Kinston in the little community of Deep Run where her parents, Scarlett and John farmed growing tobacco, cotton, corn, and a “Down East” staple, soybeans, while also raising hogs. Vivian, the youngest of four, became the lone bird in the otherwise empty nest at home as her older siblings departed to begin adult lives. She worked alongside her parents on the farm plotting her escape from what she once thought was rural purgatory, choosing boarding school at age 14.
Vivian first attended Salem Academy, an all-girls Moravian boarding school in WinstonSalem, most likely a compromise between parental protection and “Big Time’s” desire to spread her wings. Salem Academy was followed by Virginia Episcopal School, a very selective college preparatory school located in Lynchburg, Virginia, offering a coeducational environment to young men and women from all over the world.
Tradition won out for college, Vivian, like her father is a graduate of North Carolina State University holding a degree in English. She once aspired to be a news broadcaster, in fact, her first job in New York City was as an intern on CBS’ Sunday Morning. However, a semester spent abroad in Argentina in a culinary themed program planted the seed that grew into the Chef, revived the Farmer, and ran back to the deep roots of Eastern North Carolina.
While working as a waitress at Voyage Restaurant in New York, another member of the staff caught her eye and captured her heart, Ben Knight. Not only did Vivian fall in love with her future husband, she also unearthed her passion for cooking, creating culinary delight while folding her storytelling and entertaining prowess into the recipe allowing the people, places, and ingredients she grew up with to garnish each dish.
Howard has authored one cookbook, titled Deep Run Roots – Stories and Recipes from my Corner of the South, which was released in October 2016 and remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for 3 weeks straight. In 2017, Deep Run Roots – Stories and Recipes from my Corner of the South, won four IACP Cookbook Awards including: Cookbook of the Year, Julia Child First Book Award, Outstanding Restaurant Cookbook, and Outstanding Cookbook in the General Category. Howard certainly isn’t finished, she plans to write another cookbook, one many look forward to reading and using. In October, the 5th Season of Vivian’s acclaimed television show, A Chef’s Life, debuted. You can enjoy this award-winning show on your PBS station or on demand at PBS.org.
of us are familiar with Vivian and Ben from A Chef’s Life, a 2014 Peabody winner for Excellence in Broadcasting, a 2015 Daytime Emmy winner for Best Directing of a Lifestyle/Travel/Culinary program, and a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Culinary Host. Additionally, Howard was nominated for James Beard Foundation Award for Television Program, On Location (2014, 2015, 2016), Visual and Technical Excellence (2015), Outstanding Personality Host (2015), and American Cooking: Deep Run Roots (2017). Vivian was named a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast a phenomenal six consecutive times 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. Vivian has also been nominated for two other Daytime Emmy’s including: Outstanding Single Camera Photography (2015) and Outstanding Culinary Host (2017).
Their Kinston flagship restaurant, Chef & the Farmer, has been given a AAA Four Diamond Award seven times (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016), a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence (2009), and was named an Open Table Top 100 Restaurants in America (2011).
Upon deciding to venture into opening another restaurant, one outside of her native Kinston area, Vivian and Ben chose Wilmington partly because of our growing population, UNCW, and the many tourists we host each year. Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria represents a fun adventure poised to reap success in an already warm environment. Unlike their first venture in Kinston, often credited with revitalizing its downtown area, this Wilmington undertaking shares no responsibility to making Wilmington grow and means less pressure for Ben and “Big Time”. As Vivian remarked, “Wilmington is going to continue to grow, and if we open an excellent restaurant and push to keep it excellent, then it’ll be successful no matter who I am or if I’m on TV or not.”
There’s a lot to like about Wilmington. From a practical perspective, it’s only an hour and a half away from Howard’s Kinston headquarters. It has historic ambiance of Eastern North Carolina, and Benny’s will occupy a former shirt factory in the “emerging” South Front community, anchoring a major redevelopment effort there. But best of all for Vivian Ben, and the twins is that Wilmington is on the coast where they hope to, one day, enjoy a beach house and some coastal relaxation.
Howard and Knight long toyed with the idea of doing a pizzeria after a fire damaged the kitchen at the Chef and the Farmer. When renovating to reopen and, according to Vivian, “so that we could eat pizza ourselves”, the pair took the opportunity to add a wood burning oven. Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria is Vivian & Ben’s concept of a “fun, Italian-American pizza and pasta joint.” They’ll serve 14-inch, wood-fired, loosely Neapolitan style pies. They will offer standard toppings and will engage in the experimentation they are famous for with combinations like squash blossoms with brie and honey. There will be large salads to share, a monkey-bread-like garlic knot, pastas, and a menu section dedicated to fried items like mozzarella sticks and eggplant parmesan.
Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria is not going to be a small plated affair. It is designed to be a place to enjoy “communal dining”: sharing a pizza pie; sharing a salad that will REALLY feed four; sharing a large-format dessert of chocolate, pistachio, and vanilla ice creams topped with garnishes like mini Baked Alaskas, inspired by iconic Brooklyn pizzeria L&B Spumoni Gardens. “That kind of all-inclusive feeling is what we’re going for,” says Howard.
The plans for the warehouse district, a commercial plan for restaurants and office space, were unveiled during Chef Howard’s talk at WILMA’s Women to Watch Leadership Initiative luncheon, this spring. Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria will feature two wood-fired pizza ovens, a full-service bar, wine on tap, and the infectiously charismatic visits of “Big Time” and Ben along with their adorable twins, Flo and Theo.
We might also expect the walls to be adorned with some of Ben’s artistic work and, perhaps, the filming of an episode of PBS’ A Chef’s Life – after all we are Wilmywood or Filmington, depending on who you ask, with that great big Screen Gems Studio right on 23rd Street. You can also bet your bottom dollar that, though the cuisine might be Italian, customers can expect Howard to uphold her dedication to locally sourced ingredients.
The staff of Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria are North Carolina products as well, the Chef in Residence hails from Charlotte with the Sous Chefs and General Manger from Raleigh. Other positions will be filled by locals. To learn more about Vivian Howard, A Chef’s Life, Chef & Farmer, and Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria visit http://www.vivianhoward.com. And, remember, “when the moon hits the sky like a Big Pizza Pie…that’s AMORE!” Wilmington is going to be blushing with amore for Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria.