Two well-known Birmingham-area chefs have become finalists for the James Beard Foundation’s coveted Best Chef: South award.
The foundation on Wednesday announced that Adam Evans, chef of Automatic Seafood and Oysters in Birmingham, and Timothy Hontzas, chef of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, have advanced to the finals, along with chefs from three New Orleans restaurants.
Two of Alabama’s other Beard semifinalists this year, Johnny’s Restaurant for Outstanding Hospitality and Mountain Brook’s Golden Age for Outstanding Wine Program, did not advance.
Hontzas’ food at Johnny’s is “Greek and three” meets Southern cuisine, while the Automatic’s Evans often takes an adventurous approach to fine dining. The Automatic was a finalist for Best New Restaurant in 2020 (when the Beard Foundation canceled the awards due to the pandemic), but this is Evans’ first time to be a semifinalist, much less a finalist, in the Best Chef: South category.
Evans said he and his staff feel honored by the announcement. “We’re all pretty excited about the whole thing. Just making the list. Any restaurant takes a lot of hard work from a lot of people, so when it’s recognized on that level, it’s exciting and it’s quite an honor. I’m kind of speechless about the whole thing.”
Hontzas has gotten the semifinalist nod five times in the Best Chef: South category, but this is his first time as a finalist.
“I’m hyperexcited. That’s kind of like my personality, you know, but I’m almost a-tingle, if you will,” he said. “I just, I have goosebumps. I don’t know of a better word to describe it.
“It just means so much more coming out of COVID,” Hontzas said. “It’s already the World Cup of cooking, as far as the accolade itself. It’s just so much more special, obviously, pushing through to the finals — finally — and plugging away and doing what we do and surviving COVID and now this.”
Having two chefs in Birmingham named as Best Chef: South finalists is sure to bring additional culinary tourism to the area — a place already known around the country for its award-winning restaurants.
“Birmingham has a great food scene with a lot of unique and amazing restaurants, so I think it just kind of further solidifies that,” Evans said. “It builds on what’s already going on here. We’re just really excited to be a part of it.”
Hontzas said having two finalists from Birmingham in this highly competitive category says a lot about the area’s culinary scene.
“I was thinking about this earlier,” he said. “You see that the rest of the people in that category are all New Orleans. I mean, that just makes it even so much more special to me, because of the category that we’re in. It’s hard. That just means that we have to work harder. We have to push harder. And to be in there with Melissa (Martin) from Mosquito Supper Club and Isaac Toups of Toups’ Meatery and Trey Smith and Blake (Aguillard) from Saint-Germain, it’s huge for Birmingham. I think it puts us, or I hope it puts us, right there on the map with the culinary scene in New Orleans, because that’s a massive culinary scene.”
Evans is a fan of Hontzas and his Greek-Southern restaurant. “He’s a great guy. I love his restaurant. I love going in and eating his food, so I’m super happy for Tim as well.”
Hontzas, in turn, enjoys Evans’ restaurant. “I’m just so happy for Adam and I love his restaurant and his wife, his wonderful bride, and their newborn and … their staff. I’m just so proud to be standing next to them and to be included in the same category.”
Best Chefs are those “who set high standards in their culinary skills and leadership abilities, and who are making efforts to help create a sustainable work culture in their respective regions” and who have worked in the region for at least three years. The Beard Foundation will celebrate winners at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony June 13 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Susan Swagler contributed to this report.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)