- Associated Press - Sunday, February 19, 2017

HOMEWOOD, Ala. (AP) - Tim Hontzas, the loquacious chef and owner of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, had a rare moment when he was at a loss for words.

Hontzas, who opened his popular meat-and-three restaurant in 2012, found out this morning that he is among the semifinalists for best chef in the South from the prestigious James Beard Foundation.

It’s an honor typically reserved for chefs at fine-dining restaurants, not usually meat-and-threes.

“I have goosebumps,” Hontzas told AL.com this morning. “I think for once in my angry Greek life, I’m almost speechless. I never thought something like this would happen on collard greens and field peas, but it makes working 90 hours a week worthwhile, my friend.”

Other Alabama chefs who made the list of 20 semifinalists for best chef in the South are Rob McDaniel of SpringHouse in Alexander City, David Bancroft of Acre in Auburn and Bill Briand of Fisher’s Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach.

All three of those chefs have been James Beard Foundation semifinalists before, but it’s the first time for Hontzas.

“It’s totally out of the blue,” he said. “We’ve worked our (behinds) off at this restaurant. I knew if we kept dropping the hammer and grinding the gears, to quote Jason Isbell, we would persevere in some fashion.”

The semifinalists will be narrowed to five finalists on March 15, and the overall winners in all the categories will be announced on May 1 in Chicago.

Semifinalists from Alabama in the other categories are Highlands Bar and Grill, which is again up for outstanding restaurant, and Highlands’ pastry chef Dolester Miles, who is again up for best pastry chef.

The Beard voters likely recognized something Hontzas’ customers have known all along - Johnny’s Restaurant is not your average meat-and-three.

In addition to such Southern favorites as turnip greens, fried green tomatoes, purple hull peas, catfish and chicken pot pie, the menu includes such Greek specialties as chicken souvlaki, rolo kima (Greek meatloaf with lamb), keftedes (Greek meatballs) and yiaourti (Greek yogurt) cheesecake.

“With our attention to detail, the way we treat the product and know who the farmers are and where the food comes from - for a meat and three, I don’t think there is any other that does it the way we do it,” Hontzas said.

Johnny’s Restaurant, which Hontzas affectionately refers to as “Your favorite Greek and three,” is named after the original Johnny’s Restaurant that his Greek grandfather, father and uncle opened in Jackson, Miss., in 1954.

Last year, AL.com included Johnny’s on its list of 50 Essential Birmingham Restaurants. It has also been featured in the Wall Street Journal.

Hontzas, whose restaurant is open for lunch Sundays through Fridays, won’t celebrate his James Beard recognition long.

“I’ll have a whiskey with my wife, and then we will get up at 4 in the morning and start all over again,” he said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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