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Chefs All Over North Carolina Connect With Fans Online

From Vivian Howard’s hand pies to Sangria Saturday with Nikki Miller-Ka

Vivian Howard making hand pies
Somewhere South

Press tours, book signings, cooking demos, the food festival circuit; the formula that most chefs and cookbook authors have followed to promote their work has been pretty much the same for years until now. The current Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the marketing handbook out the window and everyone from celebrity chefs on down to local food writers are scrambling to adapt.

Here in North Carolina, as in much of the country, many of these chefs and authors have turned to livestreaming to promote upcoming cookbooks, teach classes, or just engage with their audience in general.

For chef Alyssa Wilen and her husband Andrew that has meant transitioning their Charlotte-based cooking school from in-person classes to online lessons. What appeared to be a challenge at first has since turned into a way for Wilen to engage even more with her students, albeit in a slightly different manner.

“In a way I do feel more connected because we are online,” she said. “I see a lot more people making the food. They are watching to make it, not just for entertainment. We receive a lot more messages of the dishes everyone is making.”

“I miss seeing everyone’s faces though when I teach,” she added. “At the end of each virtual class now I ask everyone who feels comfortable to turn on their cameras so I can say hi and see everyone.”

Cookbook author Nancie McDermott has also transitioned to the digital world. For someone who can give dozens of in-person demos a year, filming cooking tutorials online has given her a sense of purpose.

“My current daily Facebook live videos are my response to the stay-at-home policies that went into effect in mid-March,” she explained. “I wanted to do something to help, to ease the burden of this sudden and incomprehensible change in daily life we were living through.”

Each day on her Facebook page McDermott cooks through a particular recipe or dish, chatting with viewers and answering questions along the way. And she isn’t alone. A number of North Carolina chefs, food writers, and cookbook authors have started going live on social platforms like Instagram and Facebook.

Garner, NC, based pastry chef and blogger Jenni Field does daily cooking demos as well. A recent Facebook live session spent making spiced caramel corn got 50 comments and over 240 views.

Chef Richard Gruica would normally be in Croatia this time of year setting up logistics for his culinary tour business Captivating Croatia. Instead he’s sheltering in place at his home in Charlotte and posting videos for dishes like banana bread with streusel, pickled daikon and carrots, and seared tuna with mushroom dust to show how elevated food can be prepared in home kitchens.

Winston-Salem food writer and blogger Nikki Miller-Ka has taken to Twitter with cooking advice and to Facebook with videos for Sangria Saturdays, where she shares quick and easy sangria recipes with her followers, while Charlotte’s Heidi Billotto has been offering cooking lessons via Zoom and sharing some her favorite North Carolina culinary finds on her Facebook page.

For chef Vivian Howard the statewide lockdown came right as she prepared for the premiere of her new PBS show Somewhere South. A promotional calendar that included a large premiere party and in-person appearances was scrapped and Howard, producer Cynthia Hill, and their team scrambled to figure out what to do next.

The Emmy and James Beard-award winning chef had previously done some Instagram story videos with cooking tips and Q&A sessions and was comfortable with the format.

“Normally we’d have lots of production meetings” before making a decision like this, Howard explained. “This seemed like an obvious way to engage so I said, so what, let’s do it,” she said, laughing.

Her Just the Tips series of Instagram stories focuses on the topic of the week’s show and usually involve her making some version of the featured dish with her kids, who manage to steal the spotlight each week.

“It ended up being a really brilliant way for people to share a bit about ourselves and create community through a shared dish,” she said.

After receiving hundreds of photos of hand pies from viewers after the hand pie episode and corresponding Just the Tips session Howard said that the Instagram story platform will likely be a permanent part of how she markets her cookbooks and television shows.

She added that one of her favorite parts of engaging with her fans over Instagram was seeing the mistakes. “I appreciate seeing imperfection,” she said.

“It’s not perfect, but we’re doing it.” A sentiment on hand pies, for sure, but also a motto for cooking and existing in a pandemic.

Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen [Official]
Nancie McDermott [Facebook]
Jenni Field [Facebook]
Captivating Croatia [Official]
Richard Gruica [Facebook]
Nikki Miller-Ka [Twitter]
Heidi Billotto [Facebook]
North Carolina’s Own Vivian Howard Premieres New PBS Show Focusing on the South [ECAR]
Vivian Howard [Instagram]

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