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Alabama chef disqualified from 2023 James Beard Awards for yelling at employee, restaurant guests 5/12/2023 Bob Carlton,

Alabama chef Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood has been disqualified from this year’s James Beard Awards, has learned.

Hontzas, who had been a finalist for best chef in the South, confirmed this afternoon that the James Beard Foundation notified him by email Wednesday that he had been disqualified for violating the foundation’s code of ethics.

The disqualification follows an independent investigation into an anonymous report that Hontzas had yelled at an employee and at guests in his restaurant, he said.

“As you are aware, the Ethics Committee of the James Beard Foundation received an allegation that you violated the Foundation’s Awards Code of Ethics,” the email read, in part. “The Foundation takes such matters very seriously. . . .

“Based on the review conducted, the Ethics Committee found it more likely than not that you violated the Code of Ethics. Following consideration by the Board’s Governance Committee of the Ethics Committee’s recommendation, you were deemed ineligible for an award this year.

“Additionally, you are prohibited from using the seal, logo or image of the James Beard Awards, and from claiming any recognition from the Foundation in connection with the 2023 Awards.”

The email went on to say that Hontzas “may be eligible for an award in a future year.” reached out to the James Beard Foundation on Thursday for comment and was told via email that the foundation does not comment on specific allegations.

The code of ethics section on the foundation’s website lists “inhumane, exploitative, or unlawful workplace practices” and “violent or abusive behavior” as some of the practices that are in violation of the code of ethics.

Hontzas was still listed as one of the best chef in the South finalists on the James Beard Foundation’s website as of Thursday night.

According to the website, though, “the Foundation may disqualify or take other action against an Entrant, Semifinalist, Nominee, or Winner without publicly announcing the Foundation’s decision or making changes to any previously announced list of Semifinalists, Nominees, or Winners to reflect disqualification.”

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Hontzas said he was made aware of the allegations against him “about a month ago,” and that he had a Zoom interview with an independent investigator in early April to follow up on them.

The 2023 James Beard Award finalists were announced on March 29.

“I had a Zoom call with (the investigator) where they asked me about raising my voice and yelling at an employee . . . and about yelling (at customers) about shutting the front door,” he said.

Hontzas said he explained that his customers know that it is a rule to shut the front door and that “we playfully talk about it.”

He said he was also asked about yelling at an employee for not keeping the ice machine filled.

“At one point, in the interview, I just started laughing,” Hontzas said. “And the guy was like, ‘You think this is funny?’ And I said, ‘No, I think it’s absurd.”

Hontzas said that many of his employees have worked with him for years.

“Why has my sous chef been with me over seven and a half years?” he said.

“Why has my dishwasher been with me over two and a half years? Why have two of the food runners out front been with me over five years? Why have two employees that used to work for me for two years come back to me in the past four months and asked me if they could have their jobs back?

“It doesn’t sound like too awful of a place to work, does it?” he added.

Hontzas said Thursday that he has not yet told his staff that he has been disqualified from the James Beard Awards.

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Another one of the complaints against him, Hontzas said, stemmed from a quote from Oxford, Miss., chef John Currence, a friend and mentor to him, that appeared in a 2022 profile of Hontzas.

In it, Currence joked about how ironic it was that Hontzas’ restaurant had been a 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist for outstanding hospitality.

“We all let out a collective guffaw,” Currence said in that story. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in there, and he’s screaming at people that don’t close the door, screaming at people about sitting at tables before they’ve ordered.”

Currence, a 2009 James Beard Award winner himself, told today that his comment was spoken “in jest,” and that no one from the James Beard Foundation followed up with him to ask him about it. He called the foundation “spineless” and “cowards.”

Upon hearing the news that Hontzas had been disqualified, Currence took his James Beard Award off the dining room wall of his Oxford restaurant City Grocery and smashed it with a brick.

He shared a photo of his shattered award on Instagram and said he took it home and threw it in the trash.

“I am sickened today in a way I can’t even begin to explain, but it is way past time to stop this cycle of insane blame and shame through arbitrary accusations and NOTHING approaching due-process and stripping people of credit they deserve based on nothing other than the opinion of one,” Currence wrote, in part.

“I love you, brother,” he said, referring to Hontzas.

In a lengthy follow-up Instagram post Thursday night, Currence was even more adamant in his defense of his friend.

“He has sacrificed everything he has in this world, to create this space in his community and nurture the souls of the folks who help bring it to life every day,” Currence wrote. “He is beloved by team members and guests to no end and yes, he is demanding of both as well. The end result is a walk-up meat and three, run by a man who visualizes perfection every day, both worthy of the highest recognition in our industry.

“So, I ask you this: if we removed everyone from consideration for a chef’s award who ever stood accused of being an a**hole in their restaurant, would a single Beard award have ever been handed out or would there have ever been a soul to bestow one in the first place? The simple answer is ‘no.’

“It is so far past time for this to have stopped,” Currence continued. “Kitchens are military order where battle is waged on daily meal periods. Chefs are exacting, conditions are usually uncomfortable and tensions high. Battle implies momentary chaos and in the heat of battle sometimes leaders have to make themselves heard to maintain that order. It doesn’t mean that the leader is an a**hole, sometimes it just means he/she is a leader, like Tim Hontzas.”

Hontzas cooked alongside Currence at City Grocery for several years prior to moving to Birmingham and opening Johnny’s Restaurant, which he named in honor of his grandfather’s Jackson, Miss., restaurant of the same name.

Since opening Johnny’s in 2012, Hontzas was featured in the premiere episode of the SEC Network’s Southern food and culture series “True South” and has been written about numerous times in such magazines as Southern Living and Garden & Gun.

This year was the second in a row that Hontzas was chosen one of the five finalists for the James Beard Foundation’s best chef in the South award.

The remaining finalists are chefs Ana Castro of Lengua Madre in New Orleans; Alex Perry and Kumi Omori of Vestige in Ocean Springs, Miss.; Henry Moso of Kabooki Sushi in Orlando; and Natalia Vallejo of Cocina al Fondo in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Hontzas had been the only repeat nominee from last year.

“Obviously, it’s a huge honor, but that list is not to be taken lightly,” he told after the finalists were announced this year. “I know people who have been nominated six, seven years, and, poof, they’re just gone. It’s not to be taken for granted. You never know.”

Last year, fellow Birmingham chef Adam Evans of Automatic Seafood and Oysters won the best chef in the South award.

Prior to being named a finalist for the first time in 2022, Hontzas was also a semifinalist for four consecutive years, from 2017 to 2020.

The winners of the 2023 James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards will be announced June 5 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Birmingham’s Bottega restaurant, owned and operated by Frank and Pardis Stitt, is one of the finalists for outstanding hospitality.


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