The James Beard Foundation’s Ongoing Drama, Explained
The James Beard Foundation is no stranger to drama, but the organization managed to avoid major debacles over the past year. Many people heralded its most recent Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony in 2022—the first since a two-year hiatus—as an era of change for JBF, with a rocky two years in the rearview.
That is until May 11, when Alabama chef Timothy Hontzas was removed from consideration for this year’s prestigious awards. His quiet disqualification, which was not communicated to committee members before it became public knowledge through local reporting, resurfaced familiar criticism of JBF’s opaque and generally confusing procedures.
Hontzas was a finalist this year in the Best Chef: South category before allegedly violating JBF’s code of ethics by yelling at employees and patrons. In response to Hontzas’s removal, one outspoken chef denounced his disqualification as “fake virtue-signaling” and another removed himself as a judge in protest. Meanwhile, a member of the Restaurant and Chef Committee that evaluates candidates in Hontzas’s region took issue with the foundation’s lack of transparency and communication and resigned from his volunteer position.
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Then on May 31, with the award announcement ceremony less than a week out, Kentucky chef Sam Fore, a finalist in the Best Chef: Southeast category, told the New York Times that she’d also been questioned by investigators. An anonymous tip into posts on her private and public social media accounts—several of them purportedly speaking out against domestic violence and sexual violence—had put her at risk for disqualification. Fore, who owns the Sri Lankan–Southern pop-up Tuk Tuk in Lexington, Kentucky, said there was little credence to the tipster’s allegation that her posts were evidence of “targeted harassment” or “bullying,” as the investigators had allegedly suggested. The fact that one person’s anonymous account imperiled her standing—with minimal opportunity to defend herself—is evidence of a flawed vetting system, she told the Times.
Despite the controversy, the awards are widely regarded as one of the most prestigious in the restaurant world. In a black-tie ceremony, JBF deems a number of chefs, restaurateurs, and bar owners across the country the best in their craft each year, per the organization’s criteria. It’s a highly coveted accolade that can fundamentally change a chef’s career. For diners, it’s a road map of some of the best restaurants across the country.
But over the years, the foundation has found itself at the center of myriad dramas. From issues of diversity in its pool of winners to internal and external critiques of disciplinary procedures, it’s been a rough few years for the Beards. From internal demands for more diversity to criticism for a lack of transparency in judging methods, here’s a timeline of Beard-related drama over the past three years.
A group of James Beard Foundation staff send a letter to the organization demanding more diversity and better pay (July 24, 2020)
In a letter to JBF, which was leaked to Eater, an anonymous group of employees called upon senior leadership to rectify “pay disparity, inadequate benefits, long hours, and challenging working conditions.” Specifically, they demanded that JBF diversify its senior leadership team and board of trustees, bring a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens to its programming, institute salary transparency, and hire a human resources representative that “focuses on community culture.” The group of employees also invoked the Black Lives Matter protests swelling around the country that summer, asking that JBF back up their statements of solidarity with material change.
JBF cancels its 2020 and 2021 ceremonies, chalking up the decision to the pandemic (August 20, 2020)
As the pandemic rocked restaurants in 2020, JBF shared in an August press release that continuing with its award ceremonies would “do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle.” Not only would JBF cancel that year’s ceremony, slated to be held on September 25, 2020, but the following year’s too. “The Awards recognize work done during the previous calendar year, so any intent to hold a ceremony in 2021 based on 2020 work would be unfair and misguided,” it wrote in the release.
In place of a traditional awards ceremony, the foundation planned to host a live broadcast announcing winners in the categories of America’s Classics, Lifetime Achievement, Humanitarian of the Year, Design Icon, and Leadership Awards. They instead paused the awards altogether in 2021. Fair enough.
But the foundation’s rationale for canceling the awards was allegedly inaccurate (August 21–25, 2020)
A blistering New York Times report published just five days after JBF’s public statement painted a very different—and extremely chaotic—picture of the days leading up to the decision to put the awards on pause. As it turned out, not one Black chef was set to win in any of the 23 categories. According to named and anonymous committee members quoted in the story, the tenor of conversations around racial equity and diversity in restaurants at the time was concerning for the foundation. “The message came through that they knew who the winners were, and the winners didn’t look like they want them to look,” one anonymous committee member told the Times.
Because the awards had been called off, 2020’s finalists never found out whether they might have won. But while the awards were canceled, the drama wasn’t over. Eater reported in late August that the list of nominees for 2020 was suddenly and mysteriously appended, with a cryptic qualifier: “Several nominees have withdrawn their nominations for personal reasons.”
While some chefs said they pulled out to prioritize the survival of small businesses and the needs of their workers, others turned out to be the subjects of controversy and allegations of wrongdoing. Milwaukee chef Paul Bartolotta told Eater on August 21, 2020 that he’d withdrawn after being charged with “anonymous accusations”—and said he was offered no more information as to the substance of those accusations. Other chefs also told the Times that they had accusations levied against them and had been strongly urged by the foundation to withdraw from the running in the face of undisclosed allegations. Chefs and committee members alike found the standards for disqualification unclear.
After announcing an audit of its procedures, the foundation releases results and next steps (September, 2021)
Needless to say, 2020 was an absolute mess for the James Beard Foundation, which wasn’t lost on leadership. So in the same August 20 press release, the foundation announced that it planned to use the 2020–2021 year as a period of reflection. The foundation would use that time to conduct an audit of how things are run and overhaul its flawed procedures, with an additional focus on “equity and sustainability,” according to its website. The audit was conducted by a “range of stakeholders, including subcommittee members, the Awards committee, James Beard Foundation staff, and consulting firms.”
In September 2021, JBF publicly released the findings of the audit. Recommendations include setting a benchmark for 50% BIPOC membership of its committee members and judges, shortening committee terms from three years to two, broadening the criteria for committee membership to include a wider array of professions, and removing the default that previous winners automatically become voting members.
The audit also recommended that entrants provide a “statement of alignment” with JBF’s missions, and prove adherence to its code of ethics, enforced by a proposed ethics committee of five to six members.
The 2022 Restaurant and Chef Awards were largely seen as a success, with JBF doling out accolades to a diverse cohort of chefs.
A chef is disqualified from award consideration for allegedly yelling at employees and customers (May 11, 2023)
That 2021 audit was aimed at increasing the diversity of nominees, weeding out bad actors, and formalizing a vetting process when accusations were levied against chefs. That is, of course, a good thing. But the foundation’s approach to navigating accusations of bad behavior—and providing updates and transparency to members of the voting committee when such matters are under investigation—has recently come under fire.
AL.com reported on May 11 that Alabama chef Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant was disqualified from this year’s awards for allegedly deriding employees and yelling at customers for failing to shut the front door of the restaurant. He was a finalist in the Best Chef: South category, before an anonymous report prompted an investigation into his behavior. According to AL.com, Hontzas met with investigators over Zoom a month prior and was asked to explain the yelling incidents. “At one point, in the interview, I just started laughing,” Hontzas told AL.com. “And the guy was like, ‘You think this is funny?’ And I said, ‘No, I think it’s absurd.’” He raised the fact that several of his employees have stayed on staff for multiple years as evidence of good workplace culture, which he said stands in contrast to the allegations against him.
But in the Times report published May 31, one of Hontzas’ former employees disputed his version of events and expressed approval for his disqualification, saying Hontzas frequently yelled at guests and staff and went so far as to throw plates at her head. Hontzas contests this account.
Despite his disqualification, Hontzas remains on the foundation’s list of finalists. When asked if any other members have been removed since the list’s publication, a representative for JBF wrote in an email to Bon Appétit that “the Foundation does not publicly announce the outcome of ethics matters [and] may disqualify or take other action against a candidate without making changes to any previously announced list.”
Two chefs speak out in support of Hontzas and a committee member resigns (May, 2023)
Chef John Currence took to Instagram with a post framing Hontzas, his friend and mentee, as a victim of “arbitrary accusations.” Currence posted a photo of his own framed Beard award from 2009—smashed with a brick—with a caption critiquing the foundation’s “skewed reasoning and fake virtue-signaling” and a lack of due process. A day later, chef Vishwesh Bhatt, who won the title of Best Chef: South in 2019 and has known Hontzas for many years, posted a photo of a blank wall where he once hung his own Beard award, accusing JBF of tokenizing him for the sake of diversity. Though Bhatt remains in the running for his cookbook, according to Hanna Raskin’s newsletter, “The Food Section,” he’s asked to be removed as a judge and doesn’t plan to attend this year’s ceremony in Chicago.
One day after AL.com reported on Hontzas’s disqualification, Raskin broke the news through her newsletter that Todd Price, previously a member of the Restaurant & Chef awards committee, resigned. Price covers Southern food for the USA Today Network and has served on the committee for two years. He found out about Hontzas being disqualified alongside the rest of the public. “I personally was pretty surprised to start fielding calls and not have been given a heads-up, since I am the person in the position of being the face of this region,” Price told Raskin over the phone.
“The leadership has given us almost nothing,” another committee member told Raskin. “All we’re getting is ‘We’re not going to comment on this.’”
A few weeks later, the new vetting process draw more criticism (May, 2023)
The drama isn't over. Now, another chef has come forward with criticism of the foundation, saying that JBF’s vetting and disciplinary measures are unfair and poorly communicated. In a New York Times report published May 31, chef Sam Fore of Tuk Tuk said that she was questioned by two private investigators following an anonymous tip submitted through the foundation’s website. Over Zoom, they informed Fore that past posts on both her private and public Instagram and Twitter accounts had been flagged for “targeted harassment” and “bullying.”
One such Instagram post, she said, was part of a campaign against domestic violence, as were a number of other tweets called into question by investigators, none of which named anyone directly. “We’ve been talking for 90 minutes about these tweets, and you don’t know who I’m ‘targeting’ with them,” Fore tells the Times she said to investigators. “How is that targeted harassment?”
Fore’s finalist status still hangs in the balance, and as of publication she doesn’t know whether or not she’s been officially disqualified. Still, she tells the Times that she’s planning to attend the gala, and had already purchased plane tickets and a ticket to the gala for her husband. Like Hontzas, she feels stripped of due process, afforded little to no means of presenting her case in the face of allegations. “The Zoom call was the only chance I had to defend myself,” Fore told the Times.
Maintaining that the foundation doesn’t comment on or make matters of disciplinary procedures public, JBF reaffirmed to the Times that it wouldn’t remove disqualified contenders from public documentation, including the ballot and the gala’s program.
“We don’t want to be publicly shaming people,” Clare Reichenbach, the foundation’s CEO, told the Times. “We are here to celebrate those who are winning.” This means that disqualified chefs can still be voted upon by unknowing judges—In the case that they receive the most votes, the second-place nominee will take the award. And they can still attend the gala.
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit