How often have you driven 2½ hours to go out to dinner? If you are like me, the whole concept would seem pretty far-fetched. That is, until this past weekend when we made the foodie pilgrimage east to Kinston for dinner at Chef and the Farmer.
If you are asking yourself what makes this restaurant so special, you have somehow managed to miss the PBS television series “A Chef’s Life” and the award-winning cookbook “Deep Run Roots.”
The show follows a prodigal daughter of Kinston, chef Vivian Howard, and her family, co-workers and suppliers as they explore the challenges of running a high-end restaurant that focuses on regional ingredients in a city that has seen better days. While the show touches only peripherally on the community of Kinston, our visit revealed far more.
Prior to this past weekend, I had had limited exposure to Kinston, which is located on the coastal plain in Lenoir County. My wife had been there once for a meeting many years ago. After that visit, I noticed that the city manager’s position was vacant and was being advertised.
When I mentioned this to Mary, for the first and ultimately only time in my career, she forbade me to apply for the position. She had been so overwhelming unimpressed by Kinston that she could not wrap her head around us possibly living there. But now we were actually going to spend good money to go to Kinston to eat and spend the night.
Much to her surprise, as Mary looked into the logistics of a trip to Kinston for dinner, she discovered that there is more going on there than just a single restaurant run by a media-savvy chef. We actually had two choices of boutique hotels to stay in within walking distance of the restaurant: the O’Neil and the Mother Earth Motor Lodge.
The first was located in a former bank building rising five stories over the main street downtown. The hotel skillfully incorporated the teller windows and vault into a gracious lobby with seven plush rooms for lodging on the floors above. Nearby, an old motor lodge had been renovated and recalled the days when America first embraced the postwar travel opportunities afforded by the newly ubiquitous automobile.
Both of these accommodations were created by another prodigal child of Kinston, Stephen Hill. He had returned and started Mother Earth Brewing. Looking out from his brewery, he decided that he did not want to spend the rest of his life looking at decrepit buildings, so he began purchasing buildings downtown.
He has created a performance venue and a distillery to go along with the brewery and hotels. He is also renovating nearby homes to rent to artists. Another surprise for us was this focus on the arts in Kinston. According to one local leader, Kinston has one of the largest collections of public art in the state.
The Arts Center is located in a skillfully renovated historic building downtown with a soaring two-story atrium and multiple exhibit spaces.
Next door is Art 105, which houses numerous artists’ studios within walking distance of the Arts and Cultural District, where the homes for artists are located.
All in all, the synergy that is developing in Kinston between food, art and historic renovation is very impressive. In the good old days, the “Magic Mile” of downtown Kinston was a primary source of life’s day-to-day necessities.
The new development occurring there has a decidedly different focus — though apparently one that is bringing new money and people to town. I am told that locals are no longer the primary patrons of Chef and the Farmer. And based on my experience, visitors are also leaving cash and departing with art to grace their far-distant homes. For me, it was very encouraging to see a community taking positive steps to change its economic future.
Could we here in Moore County learn something from Kinston? We have an opportunity through our new economic development plan to not just make do with the status quo, but to seize a new day. Can we be as bold as Kinston? Or will we just continue to rely on what life throws our way?
Perhaps our leaders should pay a visit to Kinston or other places that offer a different perspective on the way forward to a new and better economy. Broadening horizons is a good thing for making new realities possible.
Kyle Sonnenberg, who served as Southern Pines town manager from 1988 to 2004, has returned in retirement after a three-decade career in city management in three states.