James Beard Awards Finalist Disqualified Over Ethics Concerns

According to reporting by The Washington Post, one of the finalists for the 2023 James Beard Awards has been disqualified for "more likely than not" having violated the organization's code of ethics. Timothy Hontzas, the owner and executive chef of Johnny's Restaurant in Homewood, Alabama, is the chef in question, and according to the foundation, the basis for his disqualification are credible accounts that speak to the chef's verbal and allegedly physical abuse. A statement from the Ethics Committee explained that when the committee reviews allegations against a chef, it considers "a host of available information, such as public records and interviews of relevant individuals."

During a Zoom call with an ethics committee investigator, the chef reportedly answered questions about several incidents where he was accused of "yelling at customers for not shutting the front door, yelling about the ice machine not being filled, yelling at the kitchen staff, and one incident in which an anonymous accuser said ... 'it got physical.'" While Hontzas acknowledged that he does, on occasion, raise his voice, he claimed that he was the victim, not the aggressor in the altercation, that the matter was resolved peacefully, and that the employee stayed on a year following this incident. 

Hontzas' disqualification has stirred up quite a controversy among the chef's colleagues, drawing attention to the James Beard Foundation's 2021 changes that now require candidates for awards show a "demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, environmental sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive."

How have Hontzas' colleagues reacted?

Fellow chef and friend John Currence said Hontzas is "extraordinarily dramatic, vocal, [and] passionate," adding, "He embodies your nutty Greek cartoon character in every possible way." Currence's reaction to Hontzas' disqualification was no less dramatic, as he smashed his own framed James Beard Award with a brick and threw it away, posting a picture on Instagram, along with a tirade that — among other things — said Hontzas had been the victim of "skewed reasoning and fake virtue-signaling by the spineless, rudderless, consciousnessless @beardfoundation."

Joining the protest, Chef Vishwesh Bhatt not only took down his James Beard Award, but also resigned his volunteer position as regional judge for the foundation, questioning whether it has let its pursuit of diversity eclipse its recognition of genuine merit. Bhatt told the Post he wondered, "Am I on this committee just because I happen to be of Indian origin ... or am I on here because you actually want my opinion and respect what I have to say?"

For his part, Hontzas, a 2017 James Beard semi-finalist for his region, puts forward his track record of long-term staff and said he invited the investigator to speak with any member of his team. One food writer told the Post that while Hontzas shouldn't be yelling at people in his kitchen, she feels like he's been unfairly singled out for behavior that's more common than it should be in kitchens all over the country.