The women grew up seven miles apart in
The two soon learned that no matter how fiercely you long to leave, the longing to go back home may be just as great.
In 2006, Howard, 36, returned with her husband,
Today, the two women are responsible for introducing eastern
Last month, the show won a Peabody award, the broadcast equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize. "A Chef's Life" also was a finalist for a
Their success has not come without struggle. Both public and cable television networks rejected their show early on. Some folks in
"A lot of what we do is, we just do it," Hill said. "We have faith."
A circuitous path home
Growing up, Howard was friends with Hill's younger sister. So when she came up with the idea for the show, Howard sought advice from Hill, who worked in the film industry. Hill thought Howard was crazy for opening a restaurant in a struggling former tobacco town. But when Hill realized what a talented chef Howard was, she thought: "OK, this could be interesting."
Howard had left
Howard waited tables and then talked the chef into training her in the kitchen. She parlayed that experience into stints working for chef
Although the opening montage of "A Chef's Life" says her parents offered to help the couple open a restaurant, Howard says it was actually Collier who asked them to return to open a restaurant for him in downtown
"Everybody thought it was a wild idea," said Collier, who has known Howard since she was a young child. "I had confidence in her."
Collier says he couldn't have foreseen that Howard would end up creating a television show and securing a deal for two cookbooks, which was announced 10 days ago.
"I knew she'd make it in the restaurant business," Collier said. "She doesn't quit."
That's a trait Howard shares with Hill, who followed a similarly circuitous path to her filmmaking career.
Hill had admired the pharmacist with whom her mother worked at a local drugstore. He was respected and successful. Hill came from a modest upbringing; after her parents divorced, she lived with her mother, two siblings, grandparents and an uncle in a three-bedroom house.
"I didn't want to be poor anymore," she said. "I wanted something different."
While working her way through pharmacy school at
She was captivated. Befriending a crew member, she was soon learning about the world of filmmaking. She made videos to fulfill the project requirements for her pharmacy rotations, including interviewing residents on the Zuni Indian reservation in
Hill attended Auburn for 18 months without finishing her degree. She imagined a future making health education videos. Instead, she married a man who owned a video post-production company and moved to
When Hill returned to
Howard and Hill's partnership works because both women intuitively understand the food landscape they are trying to portray. "A Chef's Life" isn't just a cooking show. It's also a documentary about Howard's life and an exploration of Down East food traditions, highlighting such dishes as collard kraut and chicken and rice.
Living Southern foodways
Two weeks ago, Howard and Hill were at a chicken farm filming for the 13th episode of the second season. They took a break before Howard was to eviscerate a chicken for the first time on camera.
Howard noted, with disappointment, that they had not included cucumbers as a key ingredient in planning for the third season. The two rhapsodized about the simple salt and vinegar cucumber salad that was a summertime staple on their families' tables.
Their banter moved onto squash, the ingredient to be profiled in the first episode of season three. Howard described how squash and onions are cooked down in a cast-iron skillet in bacon fat. Hill picked up the thread: "It's in a little bowl. You only take a little bit of it ..." Howard finished the thought: "Because it is so potent."
They understand the foodways of this region because they have lived them.
"Like, when we went out to film fried chicken," Hill explained, "I said, 'Vivian, let's have banana sandwiches.' " In this part of the world, fried chicken is often served with sandwiches made with soft white bread, mayonnaise and bananas. "We had a conversation," she added, "about how to slice the bananas."
The women's easy rapport belies the struggle it has been to produce the series.
"We have scratched and clawed to be able to do this," Howard said.
Hill first approached The Food Network through a contact, but got nowhere. She sent a 10-minute trailer to
Howard and Hill lined up small sponsorships from a
A few more sponsors have come on board to help support the second season. But a large sponsor -- say, a major food company or kitchenwares brand -- to help cover the entire cost of production remains elusive, despite ongoing discussions with eight or 10 corporations.
"We realize that none of us are good deal closers," said Howard, seated a few feet from Hill, in her home kitchen after finishing that day's filming.
The conversation soon turned to the material to cover in episode 13: the trip to the chicken farm, Howard making deviled eggs with her mother, Howard's appearance on the "Today" show, her cooking at the James Beard House. It's a lot of material to fit in 30 minutes.
"Can we make 14 episodes?" Howard asked.
"That's what I'm thinking," Hill replied. Then, with a laugh, she added, "We don't have enough money to film 13 episodes, let's do 14."
Weigl: 919-829-4848 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @andreaweigl
(c)2014 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
Visit The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) at www.newsobserver.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services