HE COUPLE sits at a back table in Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, the
Italian eatery in Wilmington’s up-and-coming South Front district, sur-rounded
by several plates of food — two or three pizzas, some appetizers,
a few pasta dishes.
It’s not so much that they have a big appetite. This visit isn’t driven by
hunger. It’s about quality control.
The couple are the owners, Benny and Big Time themselves.
Benny is Ben Knight, restaurateur and artist. Big Time is Vivian
Howard, his celebrity chef wife.
“Ben, his nickname has been Benny among his friends forever, and we
also thought that sounded kind of Italian,” Howard says, intentionally
exaggerating her Southern accent to mispronounce the first syllable as
‘eye.’ “And my dad’s nickname for me has always been Big Time.”
Papa Howard proved to be
prescient, because his daughter
is nothing if not Big Time.
She’s the creator and star of
the Emmy-award winning PBS
show, “A Chef’s Life,” often
set in Chef & the Farmer, the
couple’s destination restaurant
in Kinston. She’s the author
of “Deep Run Roots,” a 600-
page, best-selling and critically acclaimed cookbook/memoir that celebrates
Southern food and culture.
“He calls me High Rent now,” she says.
It’s about 5 p.m., and the dinner crowd is trickling in. A couple of patrons
recognize them from “A Chef’s Life” and wander over to say hi. But for the
most part, they go unrecognized.
And that’s OK. It’s more important that they taste the food than sign
autographs. It’s the former that will give the restaurant staying power, rather
than the fleeting nature of fame.
“We wanted to open a restaurant in a community that was growing with-out
my celebrity as the catalyst,” Howard says. “We wanted to do something
in a town we wanted to spend more time in, and Wilmington has a lot going
for it. The population is growing; it’s on the coast. It can support more qual-ity
restaurants. That really has nothing to do with me being on TV.”
Inside the historic walls there are no clues to the famous owners’ identi-ties.
No photos of them, no references on the menu, not even any of Knight’s
artwork. That’s by design. They want people to come — and to come back —
because of the ambience and the cuisine.
“We wanted to put together a restaurant that people can enjoy coming to with their kids, for maybe longer than
a generation,” Knight says. “It’s not really about the here and now as much as it is about something that has staying
Benny’s Big Time is the couple’s third restaurant, but their first outside Kinston, near Vivian’s hometown of Deep
Run. It’s the first not centered around Southern traditions.
“As restaurateurs, our interests lie more with the style of restaurants that we like, that have the neighborhood or com-munity
feel, where regulars are recognized,” Knight says. “That was one of the reasons why we chose to do Italian, a
WBM september 2018