The chef Sam Fore received an ominous voice mail message this month from an unknown number. The caller identified himself as a private investigator working for the James Beard Foundation. Later that day, Ms. Fore found herself on a Zoom call, answering questions from him and another man.
“They said to me, ‘We have an anonymous complaint we have to ask you about,’” she said.
Ms. Fore is a finalist in the James Beard awards, which for nearly three decades have been considered the most prestigious culinary honors in the United States, the so-called “Oscars of the food world.” As the #MeToo movement led to high-profile revelations of misbehavior and workplace abuse in the restaurant world in recent years, the Beard foundation overhauled its processes to make the awards more equitable and diverse, and to ensure that chefs with troubling histories are not honored.
Ms. Fore is among the first subjects of an investigatory process created in 2021 as part of that overhaul. But in many ways she is the kind of chef the retooled awards are meant to recognize more fully. Early indications suggest that the new process is vulnerable to failure in several ways.
While the awards have historically honored mostly white chefs serving European-derived food in expensive urban restaurants — in fact, the other four finalists in the Best Chef: Southeast category with Ms. Fore are white men — her business, Tuk Tuk, is a pop-up that serves cuisine inspired by what she grew up eating in Lexington, Ky., as the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants.
In what she called “an interrogation,” the investigators asked her about social media posts she had made on both private and public accounts. Someone had sent them to the foundation through an anonymous tip line on its website. The men told Ms. Fore that the posts potentially violated the organization’s code of ethics — specifically that they amounted to “targeted harassment” and “bullying.”
They included an Instagram post, she said, that was part of a domestic-violence awareness campaign, and others related to her advocacy for victims of sexual violence, including “vague tweets” about people the posts did not name.
She said she told the investigators: “We’ve been talking for 90 minutes about these tweets, and you don’t know who I’m ‘targeting’ with them. How is that targeted harassment?”
Ms. Fore is still waiting to hear whether she has been disqualified from the awards, which will be given out at a ceremony in Chicago on June 5. But she now believes that what was supposed to be the honor of a lifetime could actually do her more harm than good.
“I realize that my presence is a good look for Beard, but I cooked my way across the country to get to this level,” she said. “Now all I’ve done can be dismissed because someone on the internet called me a bully?”
Started in 1985 to honor the food writer James Beard, the foundation established its chef and restaurant awards in 1991.
The foundation has identified itself more and more closely with chefs and restaurants over the years, riding the rise in popularity of chef culture starting in the 1990s. As the American public became increasingly fascinated by restaurants and the people who run them, the profile of the awards grew, the events became more glamorous, the brand partnerships more lucrative. (According to I.R.S. filings, the foundation’s revenues jumped from $5 million in 2010 to $18 million in 2020.)
By making itself the chief arbiter of restaurant excellence, however, the foundation also made many of the restaurant world’s most pernicious problems — inequality, lack of diversity in leadership, workplace abuse of many kinds — its own.
Established in the early 1990s, the James Beard chef and restaurant awards very quickly became known as the “Oscars of the food world.”Credit…G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times
To address those problems, the foundation established an ethics committee before the 2022 awards, along with the tip line and the pursuant investigations, to ensure that the awards would not celebrate chefs who failed to meet its standards. (Brett Anderson, who co-wrote this article, was on the restaurant awards committee from 2002 to 2012.)
“The James Beard awards are known as the standard bearers of excellence in the industry. We take that very seriously,” said Clare Reichenbach, the foundation’s chief executive. “We’ve built a process with great intentionality, that we think has rigor, that reflects our values and our mission, and we stand by it.”
But it is unclear whether the foundation is up to the task of vetting the finalists.
Katie Button, last year’s winner of Best Chef: Southeast, said the awards have a tremendous effect on restaurants, from reservations to staff morale to social media followers.
“They are effectively deciding that they will be delivering the judgment and the sentence,” she said. “They need to think about the gravity of their decisions.”
Since the awards began in 1991, chefs have questioned their fairness and the foundation’s transparency and integrity. A scandal in 2004, in which the organization’s longtime president was convicted of embezzlement and the trustees resigned en masse, did not help matters.
In August 2020, as the culinary world struggled through the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests unfolded across the country, the foundation stumbled again. Although the voting for the awards was already complete, it decided to cancel the entire awards program for that year.
The foundation attributed the move to the ravages of Covid-19, but it soon leaked out the awards had been canceled for other reasons: None of the winners were people of color, and some finalists stood accused of verbal and physical abuse.
Foundation leaders quietly proposed a revote, which outraged some awards judges, who publicly accused the foundation of manipulating the results. Ultimately, no awards were given in the major restaurant and chef categories.
The foundation then canceled the 2021 awards and embarked on an internal audit, which resulted in a sweeping overhaul of its board, mission and processes. For 2022, the awards were rebuilt to consider not just culinary excellence, but also equity, leadership, sustainability, diversity and other values aligned with the group’s new mission.
“We are watching an institution self-correct in real time,” said Erick Williams, the chef-owner of the Chicago restaurant Virtue and last year’s winner for Best Chef: Great Lakes. “The ceiling had to be cracked, the mold had to be reshaped.”
The ethics committee and the tip line were part of that reshaping.
If Ms. Fore’s case raises questions about whether the foundation should be investigating the anonymous accusations against her, the case of Tim Hontzas raises questions about what the foundation does once it concludes its investigation.
Mr. Hontzas, the chef and owner of Johnny’s, in Homewood, Ala., is a finalist for Best Chef: South, as he was last year. On May 10, he received an email saying he had been disqualified from this year’s awards.
“Based on the review conducted, the Ethics Committee found it more likely than not that you violated the Code of Ethics,” the email read. It went on: “You are prohibited from using the seal, logo or image of the James Beard Awards, and from claiming any recognition from the Foundation in connection with the 2023 Awards.”
News of his disqualification quickly spread on social media and in news reports.
Mr. Hontzas said that in a Zoom interview in April, a Beard investigator asked him about anonymous allegations that he had yelled at employees and customers.
In an interview with The New York Times, with his lawyer present, Mr. Hontzas said he didn’t deny the accusations to the investigators, but told them the incidents as he recalled them were not as severe as the accusers described. He also said that none of the incidents rose to the level of an ethics violation. (The disqualification email does not reference specific allegations.)
“I don’t understand how one call can completely ruin the possibility of winning the award,” Mr. Hontzas said.
But one of his former employees, Emily Heeter agreed with the disqualification, though she said she did not send the tip to the Beard foundation. Mr. Hontzas hired her to her first job out of high school, in 2016. In the five years she worked on and off at Johnny’s, she said he regularly yelled at customers and employees and even threw plates at her head. She said she quit three times because of his outbursts.
“I’m usually not a crier, but he’ll yell and yell and yell at you until you start crying, and he’ll yell some more,” Ms. Heeter said. On one such occasion, she said, “I looked out into the dining room and all of the customers were silent.”
Mr. Hontzas denied Ms. Heeter’s allegations in an email and said she was twice “terminated based on her performance” and “simply did not return to work” at the end of her final shift at Johnny’s.
The foundation does not comment on specific ethics investigations, in order to keep them confidential, but that confidentiality presents potential issues of its own. In order to maintain it, the organization does not remove the names of those disqualified from previously issued news releases, from the ballot or even from the program at the gala.
In other words, if Mr. Hontzas hadn’t gone public with his disqualification, he would have remained a Beard award finalist as far as the public knew, and could even have attended the June gala in Chicago — scenarios the foundation seems not to have considered.
“I think you have hit on one of the tougher issues in this process,” said Steve Koch, the chairman of the foundation’s governance committee. “We made a judgment that our goals and our mission are better served by coming out the way we did.”
It’s even possible that Mr. Hontzas could get the most votes in his category. In that event, the second-place finalist would be declared winner, the foundation later said. (The foundation confirmed that it conducted ethics investigations last year, but would not confirm whether any disqualifications were made.)
Ms. Fore and Mr. Hontzas said that the secrecy around ethics investigations also leaves the process vulnerable to being weaponized by candidates’ competitors or enemies, and that they weren’t given a full opportunity to respond to allegations.
“The Zoom call was the only chance I had to defend myself,” Ms. Fore said.
The ethics violations the foundation investigates range from yelling at employees to sexual assault. No matter what an investigation uncovers, the foundation said it would not publicize its findings or report them to law enforcement.
Ms. Reichenbach said that confidentiality is necessary to protect the anonymity of the accusers and the reputations of the accused. “We don’t want to be publicly shaming people,” she said. “We are here to celebrate those who are winning.”
The blanket confidentiality angered some judges and members of the chef and restaurant awards committee, who weren’t informed of the ethics committee’s decision to disqualify Mr. Hontzas. At least three judges resigned, including Vishwesh Bhatt.
Mr. Bhatt is the chef of Snackbar, in Oxford, Miss., a past Beard winner and a finalist this year. He was mystified that the foundation would keep information from judges that is germane to their duties as voters.
“You trust us to uphold these ethics, but then you won’t tell us when you find someone has violated them,” he said. “What is this, Yelp?”
Tanya Holland, a chef, restaurateur and writer who chairs Beard’s awards board, was asked about leaving the names of disqualified finalists on the ballots and among those announced at the gala.
“I think this is an unfortunate example where we have to say, ‘Now we’ve learned something,’” said Ms. Holland, who is also on the board of trustees. “Next year we’ll have to do better.”
Ms. Fore is still waiting to see what happens this year. She already bought flights to Chicago and a ticket for her husband to attend the gala — expenses she said her small business can’t afford, particularly not after hiring a public-relations representative to manage the media interest that followed her nomination.
In the meantime, she is overseeing construction on her first brick-and-mortar restaurant, which she plans to open in the fall — another project she’s been distracted from since the foundation’s investigation began.
“These people have no idea what it’s like to be a woman of color in this business,” Ms. Fore said. “What they don’t understand is that I exist despite them. Winning a Beard wasn’t even on my list of goals.”