The James Beard Awards require chefs to demonstrate a commitment to social justice
Hontzas, executive chef and owner of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, Ala., is one of those five finalists were nominated in the Best Chef: South category. But in the days after Hontzas was selected in late March, the foundation’s ethics committee received a complaint that the chef may have violated code of ethics that the Beard organization announced as part of a slew of changes in 2021 aimed at increasing its commitment to social justice and racial and gender equality.
The disqualification appears to be one of the first public examples of code enforcement. The committee is an independent group that reports to the board of the James Beard Foundation, which did not immediately respond to requests from The Post for comment.
“The Ethics Committee finds that it is more likely than not that you have violated the Code of Ethics,” the committee wrote to Honztas, in a letter forwarded to The Washington Post. “Following the Board’s Governance Committee’s consideration of the Ethics Committee’s recommendation, you have been deemed ineligible for an award this year. Additionally, you are prohibited from using the James Beard Awards seal, logo or image, and from claiming any recognition in connection with the 2023 Awards.”
Hontzas, 51, told The Post he sat down on Zoom in April with an independent investigator for about an hour. The investigator asked him about several alleged incidents: yelling at customers for not closing the door; yelling about the ice machine not being refilled; yelling at the kitchen staff; and an incident in which an anonymous accuser said Hontzas got into an argument with an employee where “it got physical.”
At the time of the investigator’s interview, Hontzas said he couldn’t remember any details about the last accusation, but a few weeks later, he thought it might have been an incident where a cook flipped out in the kitchen. “Maybe that’s what they’re talking about? But it was the opposite of what they said,” said Hontzas.
“What happened was, one of my boys flipped out to me, and my sous chef and another man led him outside,” added Hontzas. “We all went out there and just talked about it, and then the guy still worked with me for a year.” Hontzas said the cook did not move, and that the man is still his friend.
James Beard doesn’t like awards bearing his name
As for the other accusations, Hontzas said that yelling at customers about the front door is basically a ritual at Johnny’s, an interaction with a purpose (to keep the hot Alabama air from entering the dining room) but something closer in spirit to a shtick than a dressing down. As for yelling at his staff at times, Hontzas said, yes, he can be loud. He is said to be Greek.
Others who know Hontza agree on this point.
“He was an extraordinarily dramatic, vocal, passionate Greek. He embodies your nutty Greek cartoon character in every possible way,” said John Currence, chef and founder of City Grocery in Oxford, Miss Currence said of being friends with Hontzas. for more than 30 years. Hontzas previously worked for, and even lived in, Currence for a time in Oxford.
“But he’s vocal,” Currence continued. “I’m not kidding when I say 95 percent of his muscle mass is his diaphragm and his jaw muscles. I mean, it is what it is. This is what endears him to everyone. It’s just his noise.”
Currence’s response to his friend’s disqualification was also strong and dramatic. He took his own James Beard Award — for Best Chef: South in 2009 — off the wall and smashed it with a brick. Then he threw it in the trash. He posted a photo on Instagram.
“I’m sick right now in a way I can’t even begin to explain, but it’s past time to stop the cycle of insane blame and shaming through arbitrary accusations and NOTHING that comes close to due process and stripping people of credit that they deserve based on nothing but one’s opinion,” the chef said in the post.
Currence, 58, will be the first to tell you he’s old school. He says the Beard foundation has drifted too far in the opposite direction in its efforts toward diversity and inclusion, sometimes at the expense of deserving White chefs. He also accused the foundation of being more concerned about its progressive image than actually caring to root out bad actors. Currence acknowledges that he grew up in the industry when kitchens were hardened places, where voices were raised and tempers flared.
“Discipline comes in many forms, and just because it comes in a form that can make you in some way, shape or form uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it’s toxic,” Currence said. “There is no universal meaning.”
Currence said he never saw Hontzas “cross the line in my kitchen, his kitchen or anywhere I saw him work.”
A food writer who is a Beard committee judge for Southern chefs and restaurants and describes himself as a friend of Hontzas also admitted that the chef sometimes shouts, calling him “terminally Greek.” But he said he thinks Hontzas is falling for “behavior that is really something that a lot of people who have been nominated in a lot of other regions are guilty of.”
“That’s really frustrating because his behavior is not an excuse. He should absolutely not be yelling at anyone in his kitchen,” said the judge, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his publication is up for several Beard awards this year and he did not want the nominees to be associated with his comments. “However, it feels that the South will have to take the fall for it.”
Todd Price is a food and culture reporter for the American South from the USA Today Network. He is also a judge in the 2023 Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee. He resigned this week after learning of Hontzas’ disqualification.
Price said that as the only member of the committee representing the South, he was “asked about something that I was not even aware of and asked to defend something that was not even explained to me.” He said it put him in a “very uncomfortable position.” He said he was not told anything about the investigation, or given its results, even though phone calls and texts started coming to him after Hontzas’ disqualification. revealed to AL.com.
“I felt it was better to step away and make it clear that I was not involved in this process that was completely opaque to me,” Price added.
Price said all semifinalists for the Beard Awards are vetted, but he’s unsure of the depth of those questions given the number of nominees at that level. He is not sure if the finalists will be reviewed a second time before they are announced. But at any point, tipsters can contact the Beard foundation to file a complaint about a nominee or a chef who may be under consideration.
“A credible allegation of violation of the Code of Ethics may disqualify an Entrant, Semifinalist, or Nominee from consideration for a JBF Award,” the foundation records on its website.
For his part, Hontzas said he was contacted only once during the process, from the investigator. He told the investigator he could talk to anyone on his staff. The chef said he would give the numbers. Hontzas said no one from his team had been contacted for the investigation. The only other communication he received was the email from the foundation, which disqualified him.
In fact, Hontzas says, his staff has remained fairly loyal to him over the years. He has been with his sous chef for almost eight years. Two front-of-the-house staff have been working with him for five years, a dishwasher for over two years. People, in fact, come back to work for Johnny’s, the chef said.
“Not too scary of a place, is it?” he asked.
The Beard restaurant and chef awards will be announced at a ceremony on June 5 in Chicago.