In Seeking Scandals, the 'Oscars of Food' Creates One

Chefs complain of secretive investigations of James Beard Award nominees
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 31, 2023 9:34 AM CDT
In Seeking Scandals, the 'Oscars of Food' Creates One
A scene from The JBF Gala: A Night of Award Winners at the Rainbow Room in New York on Nov. 10, 2017.   (Photo by Mark Von Holden/Invision for James Beard Foundation/AP Images)

The James Beard Awards are known as "the Oscars of the food world," where a win can catapult a chef's career. That's why Sam Fore, owner of pop-up restaurant Tuk Tuk in Lexington, Kentucky, was delighted to be named as a 2023 finalist for the "best chef: Southeast" honor—at least until the "interrogation." Per the New York Times, the James Beard Foundation is investigating chefs as part of a process created in 2021 "to make the awards more equitable and diverse, and to ensure that chefs with troubling histories are not honored." Yet "that process has troubles of its own." Anyone can accuse nominees of ethics violations using an anonymous tip line. A committee then investigates with complete secrecy. Not even judges know what happens behind those doors.

Fore says she was interrogated by private investigators after someone accused her of "targeted harassment" and "bullying" in social media posts associated with her advocacy for victims of sexual violence. Some of these were "vague tweets" about unnamed people, whom the investigators were unable to identify, yet they still seemed to think the posts amounted to "targeted harassment," Fore says. Less than a week before the June 5 awards ceremony, Fore doesn't know if she's still in the running. But at least one chef has been disqualified from the competition. Tim Hontzas of Johnny's in Homewood, Alabama, says JBF privately informed him on May 10 that he was out of the running for the best chef of the South, though his name remains on the ballot and gala program.

Hontzas says he was questioned about yelling at work. He didn't refute the claims but denied that they amounted to an ethics violation. A former employee disagrees, telling the Times that Hontzas threw plates at her head, but other chefs stand by Hontzas. John Currence criticized JBF's "skewed reasoning and fake virtue-signaling" while sharing a photo of his 2009 Beard Award smashed with a brick, per Bon Appetit. Vishwesh Bhatt, who won in the "best chef: South" category in 2019, showed off an empty wall where his award had hung. He was one of three judges to resign while questioning the foundation's sweeping confidentiality. According to Bon Appetit, the case has only "resurfaced familiar criticism of JBF's opaque and generally confusing procedures" following years of scandal. More on that here. (More James Beard Awards stories.)

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