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’ removal, one outspoken chef has 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’ region took issue with the foundation’s lack of transparency and communication, and resigned from his volunteer position.
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 roadmap 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 the decision up to the pandemic (August 20, 2020)
As the pandemic rocked restaurants in 2020, JBF shared in an August press release that continuing with their award ceremonies would “do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle.” Not only would they 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,” they 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 Times report published just five days after JBF’s public statement, paints 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.