It’s not hyperbole to say that Tim Hontzas is transforming Southern cuisine. From the music he listens to while he cooks (Bob Marley from his Lee “Scratch” Perry years of reggae and gospel, Byzantine chanting, and “if I’ve had too much coffee,” Rage Against the Machine) to the food that appears on the plate, which is local, thoughtful, sustainably sourced, and ever-changing, his “Greek & three” restaurant, Johnny’s, presents plates loaded with Southern-style comfort food seamlessly melded with Greek recipes Tim learned from his grandfather.
In spring of 2017, Tim was named a semifinalist for Best Chef: South by the James Beard Foundation. Often referred to as the Oscars of the food world, the James Beard Awards honor the best of the industry, ranging from cookbook authors to restaurant designers, to chefs, and food critics. This year, the Foundation looked beyond the white tablecloth restaurants and found a local gem in Johnny’s Restaurant.
“This is something I’ve pushed for for a long time, just the acknowledgement,” Tim says of the nomination. “It’s the World Cup of cooking, so it’s always been a goal. I wasn’t sure I’d get the recognition with this type of cuisine, but they looked and saw that we source our olive oil from Greece. Our dolmades grow from my grandfather’s original vines. We’re the real deal on Greek food—our souvlaki has a 36-hour marinade, our chipotle barbecue sauce has 26 ingredients.” To date, he’s never repeated the fish sauce on the Thursday special in over five years.
Johnny’s Restaurant is the real deal on Southern food, too. His menu boasts flaky potpies, bulging yeast rolls, and a meatloaf that has its own cult following. Tim works upwards of 85 hours a week to serve one meal a day, lunch, which might seem excessive until you sit with him during the lunch rush.
“I’m Greek, I don’t sit with my back to the door,” he says as he settles into a corner table, greeting at least every other customer by name as they walk in the door. He does everything, even hospitality, as though he’s had four cups of coffee by noon, which, in fact, on the day of this interview, he had.
While Tim didn’t advance to the finals for the James Beard Foundation Awards this year, the nomination has stoked the already flaming coals within the chef. “Now,” he says, “it’s time to raise the bar to the next level. I have to continue to grow and mine my creative side.” This spring, that meant spying Girl Scouts selling cookies outside the Homewood Piggly Wiggly and dreaming up a torte, now selling out on the menu. “I went up to the girl and said, ‘Give me six cases.’ She handed me six boxes, and I started laughing. ‘No, hon, six cases.’ She had tears in her eyes when she looked up at her mom to see if I was kidding. I wasn’t!”
For Tim, every ingredient, every menu item and every new hire is strategic and intentional. “We put a twist on everything we create,” he says, pointing to his Moon Pie Banana Pudding as an example, one of many seemingly standard items on his menu that turns out to be a complete surprise when you taste it. “Everything we do, we’re going to push it to be the best of anything,” he says. “Even if it’s chicken tenders. You try ours—they’re the best you’ll ever taste.”
While Tim wasn’t lacking for motivation before, the Beard nomination certainly inspired him to continue the diligence in his daily routine. “You never know who you’re serving, so every plate is as important as the next,” he says. “I tell my staff all the time, ‘You’re only as good as the last plate you sent out.’” Tim certainly has the neighborhood, and the James Beard Foundation, wondering what he’ll come up with next.
Meet the Chef
Favorite Place to Eat in Birmingham: “My mom’s, specifically her spaghetti and meat sauce and her dolmades.”
Cooking Playlist: “Byzantine chanting, Jimmy Smith, killer jazz, and Lou Donaldson, an unprecedented sax player.”
Favorite Dish Your Wife Makes: “Cincinnati chili with cinnamon in it or her southwester chili in crockpot. Of course it’s my favorite, it has PBR in it!”
How You Met Your Wife: “Beth was working at a photography studio in the dark room where I went to pick up two prints. I went back for the prints the next day and asked her out.”
Kids: “Athena Grace. We’d already picked her name out. Then, the day my wife went into labor, I picked up the Greek Orthodox newspaper from the porch and the headline read, ‘Our Need for Grace.’”