Name: Chef Tim Hontzas
Restaurant: Johnny’s in Homewood, AL
Where were you born and raised?
What inspired you to become a chef?
I grew up in the restaurant business and I was always around. I was inspired by my Greek culture, and I was washing dishes in my grandfather’s restaurant when I was eight years old. My mom’s the best chef I know. I’ve worked under some killer chefs, but my mom is unprecedented. She had the luxury of being Southern, but also tutored by my grandfather, so she had the best of both worlds. Both of them were inspiring and led me down this path.
Where did you train to become a chef?
I have a Psychology degree with a minor in German and English, so I’m self-taught. I cut my teeth at City Grocery in Oxford, MS. I was the second sous chef under John Currence. I’ve worked in other places like Shreveport, LA and Savannah, GA but I’ve worked with John off-and-on for many years. I was constantly bringing ideas back, but John was constantly teaching me as I continued down this path. That’s how I learned, and I think that’s the best way to learn.
What does a typical work day involve at your restaurant?
Well, you’ve got to multitask to survive in this kitchen. I’m here 80 hours a week for one meal. First thing we do usually is come in and get the bread going, pitch the yeast in the correct water temperature, watch it bloom, etc. Then we can start moving forward with cooking vegetables—collards, turnips, field peas. We’re always cooking vegetables. We get those going, then whatever else the day requires. These things are a very lengthy process. Some of these sides are a two-day process.
What do you do to try and make your restaurant one of the best in the state?
We source everything out locally. It’s a way of life for us, it’s what we do. My molasses comes from Scottsboro, AL, my eggs come from Gillsville, GA, all of my vegetables come from Hanceville, AL or Cullman, AL. All of our seafood comes from Bayou La Batre, AL, Bon Secour, AL, or Apalachicola, FL. It’s all Gulf Seafood. Period. That’s how we try to be the best.
What are your professional goals?
One of my biggest goals is to make people happy through food. I saw it when I was young, and it hit me like a ton of bricks when I realized this is what I want to do. I knew that food was a passkey to open doors for people and to make them happy. And I want to teach people in my kitchen; I don’t want them to be average or complacent. And of course, I strive to win a James Beard Award. That’s the highest accolade in the culinary field that you can get.
What are your favorite hobbies?
I don’t have any because I cook 80 hours a week! But I love to work in my yard, and I love rock climbing and rappelling. I used to do a lot of that before I opened my restaurant. And cooking with my daughter, Athena.
If you could cook for any celebrity or historical figure, who would it be?
What is your favorite seafood dish to serve up for you and your family?
I can go as crazy as grilled red onion guacamole on top of my Triggerfish with blistered serrano avocado or something. But if you have a beautiful piece of Flounder, or Triggerfish, or Sheepshead—it’s not just Snapper and Grouper anymore—if you just treat that fish with care, add salt and pepper, it doesn’t need anything else. Don’t mask a great product. In my house, our favorite is to take a piece of fish, add a little bit of extra virgin olive oil, maybe a little bit of Greek seasoning, that’s it. If it’s fresh Gulf seafood, it’s so good, and you want to taste it.
What makes Alabama Gulf Seafood special?
Atlantic Seafood is fantastic, but there’s just nothing like Gulf Seafood. It’s just a wonderful thing. It’s like a hug. It’s like cooking with your mom. As a chef, I’ve cooked in so many areas, and I’ve been able to experience different types of seafood, so I know.