Restaurant Scene: Why the James Beard awards for Opa! in Chattanooga are no longer on its website

Staff Photo by Andre James / Greek restaurant Opa! near Coolidge Park has until recently claimed on its website to be a winner of several James Beard awards. The restaurant is pictured here Thursday.

Type in "Rebecca Barron" on the James Beard Foundation website, and the amazingly talented chef's name immediately pops up. In 2019, she was nominated for the prestigious culinary awards commonly known as "the Oscars of food" in the Southeast region as Outstanding Chef for the work she'd done making St. John's the epitome of fine dining in Chattanooga.

If you type "Erik Niel " into that same search bar, you'll find that in 2016 and 2017, he was nominated for the James Beard Award in the same category right around the time he was pairing fried soft-shell blue crabs from the Gulf with apple and shishito relish at his restaurant, Easy Bistro.

Search for "Daniel Lindley," and you'll discover that he was Chattanooga's first James Beard nominated chef starting in 2009, with a string of other nominations in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and in 2015, when he departed St. John's to put Italian food on a pedestal with Alleia.

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Now, if you type in "Michael Borodimos" there are absolutely, positively no results found.

Borodimos of Opa! Greek Restaurant, 249 River St., claims to have won Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic Region in 2011, but in reality Cathal Armstrong won that year for his restaurant, Eve, in Alexandria, Virginia. Borodimos also claims to have won the award in 2016 in "Book Of The Year" category for "A World of Greek Cooking," almost exactly the same title as the book that actually won, "Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking" by Michael Solomonov.

Borodimos made these claims on the "Who We Are" section of his website, That section also said he won the award in 2017 for Outstanding Chef and in 2019 for Outstanding Restaurant, Opa! He did not win either, according to the website for the James Beard awards.

Thinking that he might have fallen through the cracks, I emailed the James Beard Foundation to inquire about Borodimos, and foundation officials responded within an hour with this message: "We just searched within our database, and a Michael Borodimos was not found."

I have personal relationships with several James Beard Award nominees and winners, including Jacques Larson of the Obstinate Daughter on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. Cynthia Wong mailed me a care package of her famous "Not Fried Chicken" ice cream when she heard I broke my ankle. During my time in Charleston, South Carolina, I was under the tutelage of restaurateur Michael Shemtov, whose Butcher & Bee was nominated for Outstanding Restaurant in 2022. I've worked at Fig, which won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Program in 2019, nominated for Outstanding Restaurant that same year and in 2020 under Mike Lata, who was awarded Outstanding Chef in the Southeast region in 2009 and was nominated for Outstanding Chef in 2017 and 2018.

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In May, I concluded my duties as a judge for both Outstanding Restaurateur and Outstanding Hospitality in the Southeast region for the 2023 James Beard Awards. This is why it struck a nerve when I heard that Borodimos claims to have won the award, several times.

Hands with santoku cuts and forearms with scars from splattering grease and scorching hot griddles are visible proof that I've spent the majority of my adult life cooking for a living. I've labored in hot, hectic kitchens trying to saute, fry and grill my way out of "the weeds." I've been in the trenches long enough to witness the hard work, the intense (sometimes psychotic) dedication, the proverbial "blood, sweat and tears" required to even be remotely considered for a James Beard Award. So for Borodimos to claim that he has won this award is a slap in the face to the chefs, dishwashers, line cooks, waiters, sommeliers, busboys and others who have contributed to winning one.

To be clear, a James Beard Award does not make or break a chef or restaurant, the same way a Tony Award does not validate a thespian's success. Many of my favorite places to eat like Provision Co. in Southport, North Carolina, will likely never win the award. There are also some phenomenal chefs like Thai Phi in Charleston, South Carolina, who'll probably never get a chance to break out his tuxedo and walk the red carpet no matter how much of a cult following his garlic noodles have.

However, having a James Beard Award can definitely boost a chef or restaurant's status, exponentially. I think Borodimos understands the power, prestige and clout of having a James Beard Award, but his actions remind me of when the German R&B duo Milli Vanilli graciously accepted the 1989 Grammy for Best New Artist, knowing they didn't actually sing any of the songs on their debut album.

According to CNBC, approximately 60% of restaurants fail within the first year, and nearly 80% won't be opened long enough to celebrate their five-year anniversary. So, if Borodimos has been running Opa! for over a decade, he's obviously doing something right. To his credit, his itty bitty cottage is very charming, and I'd love to smash plates in the courtyard, take shots of ouzo and pretend to be vacationing in Santorini. However, I can't allow him to bamboozle the dining public.

During our seven-minute phone conversation, Borodimos repeatedly and passionately reiterated to me that he had indeed won multiple James Beard awards. Every time I hoped integrity would prevail and he'd come clean, he'd shout, "Yes, I am the winner! I have the medals to prove it!" A request to see photo proof of the medals seemed to irritate him even more until he finally hung up the phone.

Thirty minutes later, I received a text message from Borodimos.

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"I have all the statements from the 2011-2017 James Beard Awards," he texted. "Thank you so much, have a nice day."

I asked him to share the documentation and never heard back. The next day, I noticed that his website had been scrubbed clean of mention of him winning any James Beard awards. I texted him again, to ask him about the changes, but received no response.

Even if Borodimos and Opa! bake the most delicious moussaka Chattanooga will ever have the privilege of tasting, it will never match his brazen audacity.

Contact Andre James at 423-757-6327 or [email protected].

  photo  Andre James