Alpha males aren't end of the story
Beard controversy obscured Greek contributions to Birmingham dining
Put aside, for a moment, the question of whether Birmingham restaurateur Timothy Hontzas spoke too harshly to his employees and guests. Put aside the debate over whether The James Beard Foundation had any business policing Hontzas’ behavior or stripping the chef’s award eligibility following an ethics investigation sparked by an anonymous tip.
Instead, let’s linger on an aspect of the controversy that’s gone mostly undiscussed in the wake of Hontzas’ disqualification on May 10, a decision so fraught that it was dissected on the front page of the New York Times.
After Hontzas chose to publicize his censure, his colleagues and fans leapt to his defense. They praised his willingness to work hard and saluted him for running a restaurant hospitable to people with sophisticated palates and very young children. They also dismissed concerns that he barked at customers who failed to close the front door, implying that he couldn’t help being loud.
“He is an extraordinarily dramatic, vocal, passionate Greek,” close friend and chef John Currence told the Washington Post.
“[Hontzas is] terminally Greek,” another supporter told the paper.
Those quotes and others like them struck me as strange on two levels. First, ascribing potentially offensive behavior to someone’s ethnic or racial background is so far outside the realm of what now counts as acceptable discourse that I can’t come up with another historically marginalized identity I’m comfortable swapping into the above sentences, even in the service of my own point. But I will say that if I was accused of doing something at odds with professional standards, I’d rather my side didn’t resort to, “Well, she’s a Jew.”
Second, it’s important to acknowledge that Hontzas himself is a big proponent of the screaming Greek stereotype. At his counter-service restaurant, Johnny’s, in Homewood, Alabama, a coffee mug placed permanently alongside the cash register reads, “I’m Not Yelling: I’m Greek.”
So, if we buy that Hontzas’ leadership style is cultural, his backers are saying that the Beard Foundation’s efforts to celebrate diversity backfired spectacularly. Amid all the chatter about transparency, the important claim that the foundation has carved out a definition of excellence that doesn’t accommodate cultural difference has somehow been lost in the awards critique.
That oversight is odd too. Additionally, the situation is unfortunate since Greek immigrants and their descendants have contributed more to Birmingham food culture than raised voices. Wanting a deeper sense of their legacy, I booked a trip to Alabama.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Food Section to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.