Jun 4, 2023 - Economy

Ethics investigations steal some spotlight at the James Beard Awards

Five rows of people sit in front of the stage at the James Beard Media Awards.

The James Beard Foundation Media Awards on Saturday was well-attended amid the controversy over ethics investigations. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

The James Beard Foundation's Restaurant and Chef Awards will kick off Monday night in Chicago amid a whiff of controversy over the enforcement of ethics policies.

Driving the news: Recent stories in the New York Times and Eater have spotlighted at least two nominated chefs who were investigated after the foundation received reports of ethics violations, including yelling at staff and patrons.

  • One of the chefs, Timothy Hontzas of Johnny's in Homewood, Alabama, says he was disqualified after an ethics review. The foundation declined to comment on specific investigations, which they say are kept confidential for privacy reasons.

Why it matters: The events raise novel questions about what responsibility an awards institution has for the behavior of its recipients and even nominees.

  • Should an award for great art be withheld because the person who makes it has been unkind? What is the burden of proof?
  • And how transparent should that institution be about its findings?

Flashback: This isn't the foundation's first controversy. Its board president left after accusations of financial impropriety in 2004, and it scrapped the ceremonies in 2020 and 2021 after officials realized none of the 2020 winners were Black. Some chefs also faced accusations of ethical violations.

How it works: As part of the awards process, nominees must agree to follow an ethics code or face disqualification.

  • If reports of alleged violations arise, an ethics committee directs investigators to gather information, including witness interviews and documents, according to the foundation.
  • If, based on that information, the committee decides to take action, investigators talk to subjects and give them a chance to respond.
  • The committee then decides if the allegations against the subjects are "more likely than not true" and disqualifies those in that category.

Yes, but: Even if the nominee is disqualified, the foundation does not make the decision public — not even to the judges in the nominees region, which led three to resign over being left in the dark.

What they're saying: "We believe this approach allows us to protect the integrity of the awards, while being fair to those it seeks to celebrate," foundation representative Valerie Wilson told Axios.

  • Wilson explains the foundation's ethics process as "evolving to inspire and push for a better industry standard that includes equity, sustainability, and conditions where all can thrive."

The intrigue: Chef Sam Fore of TukTuk in Lexington, Kentucky, was dismayed to come under investigation this year — ultimately for naught. Fore told the Times she was questioned about her social media posts, including ones advocating for survivors of domestic abuse, and whether they potentially violated the ethics code.

  • But Fore told Axios she doesn't oppose all investigations.
  • "It does behoove them to investigate allegations that have been brought to their attention," she said, "but [accusations] need to be looked at through a lens of credibility, veracity and common sense."

Zoom in: Beard nominees, presenters and judges shared a range of opinions about the issue with Axios this weekend.

  • Some found the foundation's process too weak. Others thought it was too strict and an "overcorrection" of its past blind spots on race and behavior.
Food personality host Monti Carlo smiles wearing thick black glasses and a Tina Turner T-shirt.
Food personality Monti Carlo is presenting at the James Beard Foundation's Restaurant and Chef Awards. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

Between the lines: Most agreed with food personality host Monti Carlo, who is presenting the award for Best Chef, South on Monday.

  • "These are growing pains," she told Axios. "How do you turn a ship 180 degrees without making a few missteps? It's not going to be perfect but it's better than not doing anything at all."

The bottom line: In trying to vet nominees for bad behavior, the Beards have ventured into tricky new territory — territory other organizations will be watching with interest and caution.

Disclosure: Monica Eng has been nominated for six James Beard Awards for food writing over the last two decades, including one this year.

Editor's note: This piece was corrected to show Valerie Wilson's role is foundation representative, not foundation vice president.

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