As we traveled about an hour from our home in the heart of North Carolina, we made our way to the hometown of my husband’s favorite chef, Vivian Howard. She hails from Kinston, North Carolina, where she, along with her husband, Ben, owns two restaurants, The Boiler Room and the Chef and The Farmer. Chris has been a huge fan since discovering her PBS syndicated show, A Chef’s Life. Something about her dedication to local farmers and her passion for mixing modern cuisine with traditional southern food and cooking techniques, reminds Chris of his childhood. We both grew up in Johnston County, a predominantly rural county. Chris’s grandfather, a passionate farmer, dragged him along to the Farmer’s Market in the summer, where he sold everything from potatoes to peas. Therefore, Chris has a deep appreciation for Howard’s culinary style.
We arrived in Kinston, in time for lunch at the Boiler Room. Chris ordered the K-Town BLT Burger and I had the meal pictured above. I’m not sure who enjoyed their meal the most, Chris or me, but both were a level above typical bar food. I mean, who adds pimento cheese, bacon, pickled green tomatoes, pepper jelly and siracha mayo to a burger? We were both skeptical, at first, but that burger alone, was worth the trip to Kinston!
Another surprising part of our adventure was staying in a bank. We did not stay in an actual bank, but a “luxury boutique” or inn that once served as a bank, called The O’Neil. You may be able to get the layout from the photos, but I will attempt to describe how the esteemed designer and owner, Stephen Hill, turned a cold 1920’s era building that closed its doors in the 80’s into an opulent inn of seven distinct rooms. From the front entrance, the O’Neil hides the once enclosed teller counters with raised seating areas, decorated with comfy chairs and antique tables. Overhead, impressive chandeliers hang from the original ceiling, a Michaelangelo-esque display of plaster painted to draw attention to the detail of an era dedicated to the finer art of architectural design. All of this luxury in the lobby is anchored by another unique structure. The original 16-ton vault greets guests and serves as a refreshment oasis, complete with vintage refrigerator, Keurig coffee-maker, and ice-cold bottles of water. Our room did not disappoint either, other than the three flight of stairs I made Chris climb. (An elevator is available, but I felt a little claustrophobic inside. Did I mention I like to workout, too?) Each room at the O’Neil is one-of-a-kind, and I would love to stay in each one. And, I am sure I will not have to twist Chris’s arm to take me back after the dinner we had at the Chef and the Farmer!
My only regret to visiting Vivian Howard’s flagship restaurant was the lack of pictures, but Chris and I only had eyes for each other and of course, the food. In the manliest of fashions, he ordered the Brasstown Beef with a pecan romesco, roasted broccoli, and onion rings. I ordered the Bangin’ Cheeseball, BLT oysters, and Jedd’s Lettuce. We sipped cocktails while we watched the chefs sear beef, fish, and chicken in an understated dining room, filled with diners of all ages. The cheese course with homemade crackers was by far my favorite. One, because I indulged on carbs, but mostly because I have never had anything so wonderful in my life. Each bite held a unique flavor, and it became increasingly more addictive with every morsel. The salty ham combined with the savory and sometimes sour or sweet cheeses were decadent. When the main course appeared, I was glad I only ordered oysters and a salad, but what surprised me most was the absolute perfection of each dish. Chris’s steak was picturesque to say the least, and the entire experience was priceless. Another dream come true for these foodies and soulmates, who stumbled upon a public television show of a local girl from up the road a bit, who loved to cook upscale food with simple North Carolina ingredients.