Tim Hontzas has experience contending for a James Beard Award, which many chefs and restaurateurs equate to soccer’s World Cup or college football’s National Championship.
But this year’s contest is extra-special for the chef/owner of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, who is a finalist for Best Chef in the South after four consecutive years making the semifinals.
For starters, the Beard Awards are back, after being called off in 2020 days after finalists were announced, and cancelled altogether in 2021 due to the pandemic. And not only did Hontzas’ “Greek-and-three” survive the resulting economic calamity when so many other restaurants did not, the Beard Foundation continued to consider him worthy of consideration for one of the top honors in American food.
“After no awards for two years, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “Then to see your name and your restaurant and your restaurant family be acknowledged, I’m hyper-excited.”
Hontzas plans a four-day trip to Chicago for the June 13 ceremony, which would mark the longest he’s been away from Johnny’s since it opened in August 2012. The main awards program, which starts at 6 p.m. local time, will be streamed live on Twitter.
Two of the five Beard finalists for Best Chef: South are from Alabama: Hontzas and Adam Evans, the chef/co-owner of Automatic Seafood and Oysters in Birmingham.
If victorious, that chef will join the ranks of past winners from Birmingham including Frank Stitt, his flagship restaurant Highlands Bar and Grill, Stitt’s recently retired pastry chef Dolester Miles, and Chris Hastings, the co-owner and executive chef of Hot and Hot Fish Club and OvenBird.
A third-generation restaurateur, Hontzas is a member of Birmingham’s restaurant royal family. In the 1950s, his great aunt, Margaret, co-founded iconic restaurants Niki’s Downtown (now closed) and Niki’s West. Both specialized in farm-to-table long before it became trendy.
Tim’s grandfather, Johnny, emigrated from Greece in 1921 at age 17, later settling in Mississippi and running successful restaurants there. Both Tim’s father and his Uncle Gus worked for Johnny before Gus was dispatched to Birmingham to run Niki’s West when it opened in 1957.
Gus’ sons, Teddy and Pete, are in charge at Niki’s now. Relatives also own the 62-year-old Smokehouse Restaurant and have run other popular Birmingham eateries over the years.
“For a lot of Greeks, my grandfather’s restaurant was a starting point on their way to Birmingham,” Tim says. “It was planned how Gus came from Greece, and lived and worked with my father, his first cousin. My grandfather taught him the business then shipped him out to Birmingham, to Niki’s.”
Tim, who grew up in Mississippi, honed his high-end cooking skills working a total of 16 years for Beard award-winning chef/restauranteur John Currence, best known for his flagship eatery City Grocery in Oxford. (Currence and another longtime colleague and Beard winner, Vishwesh Bhatt, are traveling to Chicago to celebrate with their friend at the Beard Awards.)
Johnny’s in Homewood, which Tim named after his grandfather, showcases all of his culinary influences.
“When I first opened, the core menu was a meat and three,” he says. “Gradually as the years went by you started seeing Greek food segue onto the menu. You started seeing pasticcio (baked pasta) and you started seeing keftedes (meatballs) and souvlaki (grilled meat). Then my fine dining side started to come out—sashimi tuna stack marinated in sesame oil and chiles de arbol, and tri-tip steak with mint chimichurri from my backyard.
But when COVID hit, Hontzas had to go back to the basics. Johnny’s remaining staff pivoted to selling family-sized meal packs, setting up for sales outside on the street level, a floor below the then-empty restaurant.
The restaurant steadily rebounded, switching to a condensed menu when indoor dining resumed and gradually adding dishes back to the lineup. Hontzas knew full recovery was in reach when he resurrected more complex preparations like Johnny’s famous meatloaf and Greek meatballs, both of which take three days to make.
Finally in late April, 25 months after the bottom fell out, Hontzas found out he was a Beard Award finalist.
“We’re back,” he says. “For sure.”
Asked about the significance of this award to him, Hontzas points to the goose bumps that suddenly pop up on his arms.
It’s always been a career goal, he says. But the last two years have broadened his perspective.
The people he works with—those who have bought into the sometimes-cantankerous chef’s system—are a blessing. So, too, are the people in Homewood and nearby communities who went out of their way to support Johnny’s during COVID, and sometimes even slipped cash to Hontzas to pass on to his staff.
“It’s super-important to me,” he says of the Beard honors. “But it’s not just about me. It’s for the community, for the state, and for my staff. This is for all of us.”