As the chef and owner of meat-and-three restaurant Johnny’s in Homewood, Timothy Hontzas is all about choices.
But he was surprised to learn he is among the choices for “Best Chef: South” in the James Beard Foundation Awards.
Hontzas scanned the list when the semifinalists were announced last month but didn’t see his name.
His name was there, he just didn’t scan far enough to see it. The text messages started buzzing and beeping his phone with congratulations, sending him back to the list.
“So I go back and there I was towards the end, and I went, ‘Oh my gosh!’,” Hontzas said. “It’s unbelievable.”
The James Beard Foundation Awards are the top prizes for those in the culinary world, or, as Hontzas, a long-time soccer player, prefers: the World Cup of cooking.
“It’s been a goal of mine since 1995 when I first saw some chefs that I apprenticed and worked under. … I saw them win and get the recognition for their hard work,” Hontzas said.
You might call it a life-long journey. Hontzas has been in a commercial kitchen since he was 7 years old – having grown up alongside his father working in his grandfather’s kitchen in Jackson, Miss.
That restaurant was also named “Johnny’s” with the same font and signage. Hontzas took the name and much of the atmosphere from that restaurant to create Johnny’s in Homewood.
“I wanted to do everything in homage to him,” he said.
He believes that history and heritage all goes into the James Beard nomination. He also knows that even though he is named as an individual, the “World Cup of food” is all about teamwork.
“I’m not here without my staff,” Hontzas said. “I thought I could do it by myself, but you need a team. Just like in soccer, you have to do it together as a team.”
Like his mentors he saw get rewarded for their hard work with James Beard recognition, Hontzas said he knows now what it means to be the boss.
“You need to be a lot more than just a chef to own and run your own business,” he said. “You wear many kapélos, as they say in Greece – many hats.”