Hontzas, executive chef and owner of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, Ala., was one of the five finalists 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 had potentially violated the code of ethics that the Beard organization had announced as part of a slew of changes in 2021 aimed at increasing its commitment to social justice and racial and gender equity.
The disqualification appears to be one of the first public examples of the code’s 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 found it more likely than not that you violated the Code of Ethics,” the committee wrote to Honztas, in a letter forwarded to The Washington Post. “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 in connection with the 2023 Awards.”
Hontzas, 51, told The Post that he sat down over Zoom in April with an independent investigator for about an hour. The investigator asked him about a number of alleged incidents: 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 Hontzas had an argument with an employee where “it got physical.”
At the time of the interview with the investigator, Hontzas said he couldn’t recall any details about the last accusation, but a couple of weeks later, he thought it might have been an incident in which a cook flipped out in the kitchen. “Maybe that’s what they were talking about? But it was the opposite of what they said,” Hontzas said.
“What happened was, one of my guys flipped out on me, and my sous chef and another guy walked him outside,” Hontzas added. “We all walked out there and just talked it out, and then the guy still worked for me for another year.” Hontzas said no one touched the cook, and he’s still friends with the guy.
As for the other accusations, Hontzas says 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 encroaching on the dining room) but something that’s closer in spirit to a shtick than a dressing down. As for yelling at his staff on occasion, Hontzas says, yes, he can get loud. He says he’s Greek.
Others who know Hontzas agree on this point.
“He is 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 says he has been friends with Hontzas for more than 30 years. Hontzas used to work for, and even live with, Currence for a time in Oxford.
“But he’s vocal,” Currence continued. “I’m not kidding when I say that 95 percent of his muscle mass is his diaphragm and his jaw muscles. I mean, that’s what it is. It is what endears him to everyone. He’s just loud.”
Currence’s response to his friend’s disqualification was just as loud and dramatic. He took his own James Beard Award — for Best Chef: South in 2009 — off the wall and smashed it with a brick. He then tossed it into the trash. He posted a photo on Instagram.
“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,” the chef said in the post.
Currence, 58, will be the first to tell you that he’s old school. He said 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 is also accused the foundation of being more concerned about its progressive image than actually caring to weed 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 different forms, and just because it comes in a form that might make you in some way, shape or form uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean that it’s toxic,” Currence said. “There is no universal definition.”
Currence said he’s never seen Hontzas “cross the line in my kitchen, at his kitchen or anywhere else that I’ve seen him work.”
A food writer who is a Beard committee judge for Southern chefs and restaurants and describes herself as a friend of Hontzas also acknowledged that the chef sometimes yells, calling him “terminally Greek.” But she said she thinks Hontzas is taking the fall for “behavior that absolutely is something that many people who are nominated in many other regions are guilty of.”
“That is really frustrating because it’s not an excuse for his behavior. He should absolutely not be yelling at anyone in his kitchen,” said the judge, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because her publication is up for several Beard awards this year and she didn’t want the nominees to be associated with her comments. “However, it feels like the South is having to take the fall for this.”
Todd Price is a food and culture reporter for the American South from the USA Today Network. He also a judge on the 2023 Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee. He resigned this week after learning about Hontzas’s disqualification.
Price said that as the sole committee member representing the South, he was “being asked questions about something I was not even made aware of and asked to defend something that hadn’t even been explained to me.” He said it put him in a “very uncomfortable position.” He said he had been told nothing about the investigation, nor given the results of it, even as the phone calls and texts started coming his way after Hontzas’s disqualification was revealed on AL.com.
“I felt it was better to just step away and make it clear that I wasn’t involved in this process that was completely opaque to me,” Price added.
Price said that all semifinalists for Beard Awards are vetted, but he wasn’t sure the depth of those inquiries given the sheer number of nominees at that level. He wasn’t sure if the finalists are scrutinized 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 might be under consideration.
“A credible allegation of violating the Code of Ethics may disqualify an Entrant, Semifinalist, or Nominee from consideration for a JBF Award,” the foundation notes on its website.
For his part, Hontzas says he was contacted only once during the process, from the investigator. He said he told the investigator that he could talk to anyone on his staff. The chef said he would provide the numbers. Hontzas said that none of his team was contacted for the investigation. The only other communication he received was the email from the foundation, disqualifying him.
As a matter of fact, Hontzas says, his staff has remained pretty loyal to him over the years. His sous chef has been with him for almost eight years. Two front-of-the-house staffers have been working for him for five years, a dishwasher for more than two years. People, in fact, have returned to work for Johnny’s, the chef said.
“It doesn’t sound like too horrible of a place, does it?” he asked.
The Beard restaurant and chef awards will be announced at a ceremony on June 5 in Chicago.