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Why A Chef’s Life ended, and details about Vivian Howard’s new show

Vivian Howard’s PBS series A Chef’s Life aired its last full season nearly two years ago, though a special finale, titled “The Last Harvest,” aired last fall.

Will she be coming back to TV? Yes: The chef will be returning to PBS with a new, prime-time show called Somewhere South.

A Chef’s Life started as a documentary about farmers and traditions in Southern cooking. But as Vivian told me a few years ago, after her restaurant caught on fire, everything changed. The series’ episodes focused on a single Southern ingredient, but it was also about Vivian’s life and work at her restaurant, so it became a hybrid of a documentary reality series and an informational show.

Four years ago, in 2015, Vivian told me that “season four will be the end of those ingredients” that they were showcasing, so that’d be the conclusion of “the show as it exists right now.” A Chef’s Life ended up airing one additional season, for a total of five seasons, plus the “Final Harvest” special. (All of those seasons are on DVD.)

Somewhere South: Vivian Howard’s next PBS show

Vivian Howard A Chef's Life season three
Chef Vivian Howard, star of A Chef’s Life and urban legend at Food Network. (Photo by Rex Miller)

At the Television Critics Association press tour, Vivian said that her new series, Somewhere South, will focus on her being “a student learning about my friends and Southern neighborhood’s cultures and their food traditions.”

The new series—which will premiere sometime in the vague “winter/spring 2020” timeframe, according to PBS—will be produced by North Carolina-based Markay Media, which is owned by the series’ director, Cynthia Hill, who also directed and produced A Chef’s Life.

In the announcement for the new show, PBS called it “a culinary tour, exploring dishes that are uniting cultures and creating new traditions across the American South,” and adding that “Vivian travels the changing South in search of the dishes that connect us all — dumplings, hand pies, porridge and more — but which are expressed in delightfully different ways across cultures.”

The new series will have episodic themes, just like the first, but instead of Southern ingredients, it will focus on those dishes that are common across cultures. (Watch its trailer below.)

In an interview with the News & Observer two years ago, she explained that the new show emerged from a book that she was writing:

“I believe – and I’m not the only one – that there are only about 20 dishes in the whole world. And so my hope was to be able to write a book that was on that subject. It started with a book idea and organically kind of evolved into this idea that we’re going to try to project onto the show. Oddly enough, I don’t think my second book is going to be about that. I think the subject is too big, and I’m probably not the person to tackle that at this point. But I think as a student rather than an expert on the show, I can tackle this subject and learn from other people, rather than writing about it in an authoritative way.”

Vivian told TV critics at the summer TCA press tour that “every episode of South by Somewhere is about a dish that every culture shares. So we have a porridge episode. We have a dumpling episode. We have a pickle episode. And the goal is really to show how we’re more alike than we are different, but our food traditions are distinct related to where we come from and what we bring to the place where we land.”

She went into detail about dumplings:

“The focus of a dumpling episode is like trying to get to the bottom of what the hell a dumpling is. Because in my culture, we have this thing called chicken and pastry, and we boil the chicken forever, and then we roll out a dough, and then it’s boiled, and we call that a dumpling. And that would be a very humble dumpling.

And what we learned is that dumplings can also be a very highbrow food in that families will sit around a table and painstakingly fold a dumpling with a filling inside, and so it’s like, is this humble? Is this highbrow? So that’s what Ed Lee—the chef who I was talking to [in a clip from the show]—deduced it the best that we’ve figured out, which is, in some way, a dumpling is boiled dough.”

Beyond dumplings and other food, Vivian said that “one of our objectives is to show that we’re all immigrants.” She explained:

“We spend a bunch of time with the Geechee/Gullah community in Edisto that still has a very distinct and well-formed culture because of the isolated nature of where they live. We spend a lot of time with the Lumbee Indians in Lumberton in and around Lumberton, North Carolina. They’re probably the only people that are not immigrants.

We spend time in West Virginia with coal miners who their predecessors came here from Sicily, but they’ve been here a long time, and you would never look at them and say, You’re an immigrant. We have those stories juxtaposed with people who are obviously immigrant communities.

It’s about following the dish and making sure that we show that it doesn’t matter when you got here. We all kind of came here.”

This story was updated Nov. 25, 2019, to reflect the title change of Vivian Howard’s show from “South By Somewhere” to “Somewhere South.”

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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