The Strange Chef Interrogations Behind 2023's James Beard Awards

The organization behind arguably the most prestigious award in food is coming under fire again. In a new report in The New York Times, Sam Fore, nominated for Best Chef: Southeast by the James Beard Awards, is calling into question its recent ethics investigation into her past social media posts. The foundation was responding to an anonymous complaint that Fore, who runs the pop-up restaurant Tuk Tuk in Lexington, Kentucky, was a bully who had written targeted attacks online. The comments in question? A series of tweets and posts raising awareness about sexual and domestic violence. 

In an hours-long Zoom call with a private investigator hired by the James Beard Foundation, Fore explained that the comments she had made were vague references to people she knew who were victims of such violence and their attackers. No names were ever mentioned. As Fore told the investigator, "You don't know who I'm 'targeting' with them. How is that targeted harassment?" Fore claims the interview was really an interrogation and was her one opportunity to clear her name. 

In addition, Fore is shaken that a lifetime of work in the food industry can be undermined by one anonymous complaint. As of right now, the chef is in limbo, awaiting an ethics judgment from the foundation before the June 5 award ceremony. 

Ethics investigations turn into intense interrogations

Ironically enough, the ethics investigations and anonymous tip lines were created to revitalize the James Beard Foundation's reputation following a series of accusations and lack of diversity scandals that hit in 2020. The foundation suspended the awards from 2020 to 2021, originally citing the pandemic but much of that time was spent on rehauling its code of ethics and incorporating diversity into its ranks. The 2022 awards seemed an improvement, celebrating diverse and ethically sound chefs.

It's been a decidedly bumpier ride in 2023. This is the second time that the 2023 James Beard Awards have come under fire for their handling of ethics violations. The first was in regard to the disqualification of Timothy Hontzas following an ethics investigation into claims that Hontzas had yelled at staff and customers. 

Like Fore, Hontzas was called out by an anonymous tip, and though he didn't dispute that he had yelled at staff and customers in the past, he claimed he was not the aggressor and all were resolved peacefully. Allegations aside, several judges within the foundation were frustrated by the lack of notice or explanation of the disqualification, with a few resigning in protest. 

The James Beard Foundation has yet to make a change in regard to Fore's and Hontzas' criticism of the ethics reviews, although Tanya Holland, a member of the board of trustees, did respond to the controversy in The New York Times: "Next year we'll have to do better."