With less than a month until the 2023 medals are doled out, there is major drama happening among committee members and voters for the James Beard Awards. It’s a bit convoluted so stick with me: Restaurant and Chef Committee member Todd Price has resigned. Judge and Oxford, Mississippi-based chef Vishwesh Bhatt has resigned. Fellow Oxford, Mississippi-based chef John Currence has broken his framed award with a brick. Drama.
First, some definitions: The Restaurant and Chef Committee is responsible for creating the list of semifinalists which then gets voted on through to finalists and then winners. The committee is mostly composed of food journalists. Judges taste and vote on the semifinalist list, with each restaurant receiving at least three visits. The judging body comprises chefs and journalists, and includes the committee members. To select a winner, judges score restaurants based on visits (not every judge makes it to every restaurant; you can only submit scores for restaurants you’ve visited). Following virtual meetings with discussions of each restaurant, judges then submit rankings within each awards category. Those dining scores along with the rankings determine which chef or restaurant wins the category. (It’s okay if you’re confused; plenty of food-world folks are, too.)
So, back to Todd Price. Price, who covers food for the American South by the USA Today Network and previously covered food at the Times-Picayune and NOLA.com, has officially resigned from his position on the Restaurant and Chef Committee (though as of publishing is still listed on the Foundation website). Reporter Hanna Raskin broke the news of Price’s departure in her newsletter, the Food Section, on Friday May 12.
Price’s resignation follows reporting from AL.com earlier this week that Birmingham-based chef and 2023 Best Chef: South finalist Timothy Hontzas had been disqualified. According to AL.com, Hontzas reportedly received an email from the Foundation letting him know that after investigating alleged instances of yelling at employees and guests, the Ethics Committee had found it “more likely than not that [Hontzas] violated the Code of Ethics” and thus had been deemed “ineligible for an award this year.”
Price’s decision to resign was less about the results of this investigation and more about the way the Foundation handled communicating the results. Price told Eater: “I didn’t know in advance that there was an investigation going on, which is fine, but I wasn’t informed that a conclusion had been reached with a nominee in my region. And I learned about it from a reporter calling me Wednesday. As the committee member from the South, I felt like the face of this, and I was placed in the position of having to answer questions from judges and the media without having the information necessary to answer those questions and without confidence that I could defend the process without having been told more about it.” Price notes that while he is supportive of the Foundation’s policy that keeps his own committee out of investigations, the issue is communication and transparency. “My concern was that it’s a regional award, and as a regional representative, I was in the position of being asked questions without being prepared.”
A representative for the James Beard Foundation sent the following comment to Eater: “In fairness to all participants, we generally do not comment on particular cases. More broadly, we are proud of our ethics process...At a high level, in reviewing allegations, the Ethics Committee considers a host of available information, such as public records and interviews of relevant individuals. Prior to making any adverse finding, the Ethics Committee directs outside counsel to make every effort to contact the subject of an allegation and provide an opportunity for the subject to discuss their response to the allegation. The Ethics Committee reports and makes recommendations to the Governance Committee of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees.”
In terms of his resignation’s impact on the awards, Price doesn’t know for sure, but suspects it will be minimal. Scores for restaurants have already been submitted; the only voting element yet to be tallied are the rankings, which were due on Friday May 12. Price is not submitting his rankings. He was coming to the end of his two-year commitment anyway, and had previously decided not to seek another term on the committee. “I don’t think my not casting rankings will have an effect on the outcome, and it wasn’t part of my consideration. I could be wrong, who knows, but that wasn’t my thinking,” Price told Eater.
For chefs John Currence and Vishwesh Bhatt, the public critiques of the Foundation and the Awards are more about distrust in how the Foundation treated the Hontzas allegations. When news of Hontzas’s disqualification broke, Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi posted a photo of his own framed Beard Foundation Award certificate smashed with a brick. He wrote: “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,” while also slamming the Foundation for its “bullshit woke reasoning and fake virtue-signaling.”
Speaking with Eater, Currence said his frustrations with the Foundation go further back than just a disagreement with how the decision to remove Hontzas from contention went down. “I realize there’s no way to really discuss this and avoid the, ‘You’re a bitter old white guy mad that white guys aren’t being considered.’ My issue isn’t that. My issue is that this is a symptom of historic corruption and a misuse of influence that only seems to get worse the more significant these awards seem to get. But it’s also very clear that now there’s nothing fair about how people are being considered for awards or how they can be removed through a random anonymous complaint.” Currence cited longstanding concerns about the Foundation’s events programming. Currence sees the events — which he characterized as “taking advantage” of chefs, who don’t always get compensated for their time, travel, or food expenses — as evidence of “corruption,” and speculates that the Media Awards programming might disincentivize journalists from reporting on problems within the Foundation and its awards programming. The Media Awards cover journalism, cookbooks, and broadcast media.
Yesterday, Oxford, Mississippi chef Vishwhesh Bhatt of Snackbar posted an empty wall on Instagram, saying that he took his own Beard Award down. In the caption, Bhatt wrote: “Unfortunately the current iteration of the foundation only sees me as a person of color that fills their new diversity and inclusion initiative and has no use for or trust in my ability to contribute or my ideas. Under these circumstances I cannot continue to do the work I was tasked with nor can I support the foundation until they make REAL AND MEANINGFUL changes from the top down. If those changes don’t happen in the immediate future the Beard Foundation will become irrelevant to majority of us who do not live and work in the two or three major cities that they think define our industry.” Bhatt has also resigned as a voter, according to Raskin’s reporting.
Speaking to Eater on Monday, May 15, Bhatt explained that his resignation, like Price’s, was about a “lack of communication and a lack of respect for the people doing the job” of traveling, dining at, and assessing restaurants (on their own dime) for the Foundation’s awards. “If people are being investigated, and yet, the committee has no knowledge of it, we’re spending our time, money, and resources to do work that we shouldn’t have to do,” he said. “I want to make very clear is that, in this particular case, if it turns out that the allegations against Timothy Hontzas are serious, I’ll be the first in line to castigate. But there has to be some communication; we don’t need to know everything. If you’ve given us this task, you need to have enough respect and confidence in us to do it properly. If that doesn’t change, people will keep questioning the validity of the awards, whether they’re fair.”
Bhatt also voiced concerns about changes to the voting body that removed some previous winners. In the past, winning a Beard Award automatically put a chef into the voting body. That’s not the case anymore. “Removing voices from previous chef-winners is a big disservice. Generally, we are the ones who are seeing talent in these towns rather than many of the journalists who either don’t travel as much, and haven’t cooked with these folks. Taking away voice from the chefs, who have real knowledge of how this works, is a real disservice to the industry. They could have capped [certain demographics], or rotated people out of voting, but still keep previous winners involved.” Bhatt says the changes left him feeling tokenized. “I won a Beard medal in 2019 under the previous system. If you look at that slate of nominees who won, it was by far one of the most diverse years. There were so many different faces; and this was under the system that had been “biased.” Maybe it was? I was nominated every year since 2014. When you tell me the system is wacky, but is producing me as a winner; but then you’re changing the system… are you telling me I won but I shouldn’t have?”
Eater asked the Foundation representative about the impact of resignations on this years awards, and received the following comment: “We appreciate the time and expertise that Todd Price and Vishwesh Bhatt lent to our awards process. Toward the end of our cycle, which is where we are now, we begin recruiting new members and judges who will be invited to apply for the next awards season. It is part of our annual process.” The representative also sent Eater the following in response to a question about cultivating trust among judges and committee members: “We work with a voting body of 600+ members, and we seek to ensure that they feel good about our purpose and our work. We celebrate excellence and efforts to create a more sustainable independent industry for all. We communicate with our voting body throughout the Awards cycle, and ensure they feel supported in doing the work for which they volunteer their time and expertise.”
When asked how many resignations there’d been this year, the Foundation representative said: “A limited number of judges have resigned due to unforeseen personal and professional matters, as these are volunteer roles. There was no impact on demographics.” Per the representative, “in some cases” new voters were drafted to refill headcount.
Hontzas is not the first chef to be disqualified from the Awards process in recent years. After #MeToo allegations of sexual misconduct rocked the restaurant industry beginning in 2017 with extensive reporting on Beard Award winners John Besh, Mario Batali, and Johnny Iuzzini, the Foundation made policy changes that would allow for a chef’s behavior to change their eligibility. For the 2018 awards, the Foundation advised the Restaurant and Chef Committee to consider chefs’ behavior when creating their semifinalist list. The industry and the Foundation have been reckoning with how, exactly, to handle bad behavior among nominees since. This latest flashpoint moment shows that there’s still a long way to go.
More formal policy changes were implemented in the wake of the 2020 Beard Awards drama that led to the awards being canceled that year. At first it seemed like the cancellation was tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. But then, a New York Times investigation found that the Foundation also decided to cancel because there was not a single Black chef slated to win across the 23 categories. Some chefs withdrew their names from consideration prior to the cancellation; the Foundation said chefs withdrew due to personal reasons but according to New York Times reporting, the Foundation had asked some chefs to withdraw due to controversies that, according to that year’s rules of eligibility, could disqualify them from the awards. The Restaurant and Chef Committee members sent a strongly worded letter to the Foundation. The whole ordeal damaged the credibility of the organization and the awards.
In lieu of a 2021 awards ceremony, the Foundation conducted a major audit. One of the changes to follow was the creation of an Ethics Committee that operated independently from the awards committee. The Ethics Committee is tasked with reviewing and vetting allegations of misconduct and upholding the Code of Ethics. “A credible allegation of violating the Code of Ethics may disqualify an Entrant, Semifinalist, or Nominee from consideration for a JBF Award,” it says on the Foundation website; and violations can include wage theft, retaliation against whistleblowers, sexism, racism, bullying, threats of violence, and more.
The Foundation representative sent the following comment: “Following the audit we conducted in 2021, we prioritized the creation of a process to address alleged violations of our Awards Code of Ethics. We worked with deeply experienced professionals to develop our process. This involved very careful consideration and significant resources, as we take these matters very seriously. The Foundation established an independent Ethics Committee, which includes members with highly relevant professional expertise, to review independently alleged breaches. This is an essential part of our process and reflects the seriousness and fairness of our approach.”
This year’s restaurant and chef awards are slated to be announced at a gala ceremony in Chicago on Monday, June 5.
Update May 15, 1:25 pm: This story has been updated to include comment from Vishwesh Bhatt and to clarify comments from John Currence.
Update May 12, 8:20 pm: This story has been updated to include comment from the James Beard Foundation.
Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Awards. Eater is partnering with the James Beard Foundation to livestream the awards in 2023. All editorial content, including this post, is produced independently of the James Beard Foundation.