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It's Beard Award season. There will be drama.

A chef in the South says he's been disqualified, and the resulting controversy has raised a debate, once again, about fairness of the awards process.
James Beard Awards ceremony 2022
Last year's ceremony for the Restaurant and Chef awards was the first return after a two-year break./Photo courtesy of the James Beard Foundation.

Less than a month before the curtain is scheduled to rise on this year’s James Beard Awards ceremony in Chicago, the annual event is once again embroiled in controversy.

Last week, Homewood, Ala.-based chef Timothy Hontzas said he had been disqualified as a finalist for the Best Chef: South award. The chef told AL.com that he had received a letter from the Beard Foundation saying he had violated the code of ethics. He was told the decision was based on an independent investigation looking into an anonymous report that he had yelled at an employee and at a guest in the restaurant.

Beard Foundation officials declined to confirm whether Hontzas was disqualified. But three judges for the awards have resigned as a result of the dispute, and one former Beard award winner and friend of Hontzas—John Currence of City Grocery Restaurant Group in Oxford, Miss.—posted a photo of his own 2009 award smashed with a brick in protest.

The imbroglio stems in part from an ongoing evolution of the James Beard Foundation, an organization that celebrates excellence in the culinary world. Winning a James Beard Award is often described as akin to winning an Oscar or a Tony. The Restaurant and Chef awards ceremony, scheduled for June 5 at the Lyric Theater in Chicago, is traditionally a glamorous dress-up affair.

But, over the past few years, the awards process has become somewhat of a political minefield.

Changes at the Beard organization began in part as a result of the #MeToo movement, after Beard-award-winning chefs like Mario Batali and John Besh were later accused of sexual harassment and worse.

Facing mounting criticism, in 2018, the foundation began an overhaul of the entire awards process in an effort to communicate a commitment to social justice and racial equity and increase diversity among winners—as well as improving transparency.

The awards were cancelled in 2020 and 2021, in part because of the pandemic. A  New York Times investigation, however, found there were no Black chefs slated to win in 2020 and a number of chefs were reportedly dropped as contenders because of bad behavior, while others removed themselves from consideration, raising questions again about transparency.

But this year, the awards process started smoothly, with many celebrating the more diverse mix of nominees representing a broader spectrum of the industry.

The latest incident, however, has riled critics who argue the attempt to open the Beard awards to underrepresented restaurateurs has gone too far.

In the post, Currence decries the “bullshit, skewed reasoning and fake virtue-signaling by the spineless, rudderless, consciousnessless” Beard foundation, saying the organization is “over-performing industry averages” on awards for female and minority talent while discrediting and ignoring those of a “single ‘wrong’ demographic.”

Hontzas, who is white and of Greek heritage, is known for Johnny’s Restaurant, a meat-and-three Southern concept with Greek influences launched by his father and uncle. Before taking over Johnny’s, Hontzas had worked for Currence, who in a second post in Hontzas’ defense, described the chef affectionately as a “high-strung, Greek, tornado of passion,” who might be prone to yell at times.

In a letter to Beard award judges on Monday, Tanya Holland, chair of the Beard award committee and Dawn Padmore, vice president of awards for the foundation, said the three judges who resigned felt they should have been informed about the reported disqualification, which has been making headlines in recent days.

The letter included a summary of the code of ethics and the process for potential violations. The rules note that an ethics committee review would likely focus on the year preceding the awards, but earlier behavior may warrant consideration. The foundation also states that it could disqualify someone or take other action without public disclosure.

In the letter, the foundation officials argued that keeping ethics investigations under wraps would prevent judges from making decisions based on complicated and sensitive allegations without a full review, and it would protect the anonymity of those reporting allegations.

Also, potential violations had to have been reported to the ethics committee by May 1, and the process may not have been timed to the cadence of the final vote to determine winners, the letter said.

“The James Beard Foundation has invested significant time, resources and consideration into creating an independent Ethics Committee, a Code of Ethics, and a robust ethics process,” the foundation said in a statement. “Our ethics process was created to protect the integrity of the Awards and its mission, while being fair to those it seeks to celebrate. We are proud of this process and believe it reflects our values and the overall mission of the Foundation: to celebrate, support and elevate the people behind America’s food culture and champion a standard of good food anchored in talent, equity and sustainability. This is what we call ‘Good Food for Good.’”

Hontzas, meanwhile, appears to be enjoying an expression of support from the Birmingham community. The restaurant’s Instagram showed a long line of people waiting for the restaurant to open on Sunday morning for brunch.

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