On Sunday night, at the IACP cookbook awards in New York, Martha Holmberg, Chief Executive Officer of IACP, won the association’s highest honor, for Cookbook of the Year. She co-wrote Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables with chef Joshua McFadden.
She wrote the book on the side, as a freelance writer. Let’s not forget that Martha was the editor-in-chief of Fine Cooking and has written many cookbooks since. But that is not the issue. When the head of the organization won, it created a conflict of interest and cast aspersions on the credibility of IACP and its judging process.
When it happened that night, I turned to a colleague sitting behind me in the New York Hilton’s auditorium and asked, “Do you think it’s fixed?”
I was joking. I’ve been a cookbook judge for the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), where independent judges nominate the books. Then the cookbook executive committee (also volunteers) chooses the Cookbook of the Year from among the winner in each category.
But how it works isn’t the issue. The point is that people in charge weren’t thinking about the problem correctly and made a big mistake.
Reactions on Twitter and elsewhere were swift and savage, including against a tweet of mine. I said it looked funny, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t rigged. Amy Sherman (and others who were less polite) set me straight:
Yep. That’s not the issue, just as IACP didn’t get the issue either.
As a former judge and someone who serves on boards, I can tell you what should have happened: The full board would be consulted, discuss the issue and vote no. It would also vote to write a new rule that the CEO, board and staff may not submit books to the awards because it looks bad.
But now there’s a shitstorm, and IACP had to strip the CEO of her award. IACP has since admitted on its website that “Several industry members have raised concerns that this is a conflict of interest and an example of self-dealing.”
Here is the full statement from IACP on its website, which includes:
“We’re extremely concerned by what we see now as an appearance of impropriety, and we are taking steps to address this. We regret the shadow it has cast on our awards, the book, and IACP itself. We are so sorry that we let this happen and apologize to all for our lapse in judgment. We are therefore removing the Best Cookbook Award in our General Category and Cookbook of the Year from the book.”
The sad thing is that Six Seasons is no doubt an excellent cookbook. And that the runner up will probably not receive the Cookbook of the Year award. But as I keep repeating, that’s not the issue.
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The Washington Post also covered this story, but you can’t read it unless you are a subscriber and pay $1 word.
Amy Sherman says
Kudos to IACP Board Chair Adam Salomone for his thoughtful response today on the IACP website. He admitted the mistake and it seems the organization is taking steps to remedy the situation.
I agree. Good damage control.
Agree they did the right thing now. And agree it’s a great book. And I also initially tweeted similarly to you and got some blowback. But what still mags at me is that the Post reported that judges raised this issue to the board at an earlier date and the board decided to go forward with the award.
Ugh…nags at me! I shouldn’t type while on a treadmill!
Barbara Gibbs Ostmann says
We had this same issue several years ago when I was on the cookbook executive committee and at that time, the book in question was removed from consideration. If I recall correctly, the rules were rewritten to prevent this from being a possibility. I haven’t served on the cookbook awards for a few years now, but apparently the rules were revised and led to this unfortunate situation.
Rick Jaworski says
The only reason they are backing down now is because they are looking bad. They clearly don’t have a problem with the ethics or this would never have happened in the first place. Don’t get me started on the IACP. We lasted 1 year before we told them to stuff their membership! Clearly nothing has changed and maybe it’s worse!
I don’t agree. I had an off-the-record conversation with the board president today so I could understand how the mistake happened. If you read his statement you can see that he is clearly concerned with ethics. The main thing is to take ownership and make changes, which is what he did. He can’t undo the error, but he can put things in place to prevent it from happening again.
Rick Jaworski says
As someone who has experienced first hand IACP ethics in the past we’ll have to agree to disagree Dianne. He’s concerned about the optics, not the ethics. If it was ethics it never would have happened in the first place.
Ken Albala says
Well look, its a great book, but Martha should have withdrawn submission. Years on various awards committees has prevented me from submitting books. My noodle soup book was submitted to an award this year and Im on the committee, but of course i will say no way.
Yes, that is a good point. She should not have allowed it to be entered. Sorry your books have not been entered also!
It’s a wonderful book, probably my favourite of 2017, and I’m sorry that McFadden missed out. But, real bad optics and it’s gratifying that IACP responded promptly to protests.
Still, IACP (and Beard) could do with a little transparency vis a vis awards. Perhaps do as Art of Eating does with its annual prize — a few comments from the committee on the merits of the shortlisted cookbooks (i.e. nominees), and then a longer comment from judges about the merits of the winner.
I’m not familiar with the process but I hope that judges are required to do more than just assign a number to nominees when they vote.
I have been a cookbook judge and tried to describe the process above. The books that win in each category are ranked by judges in several categories, and who also comment. Then the executive committee picks the winner from the winners in each category. There is no time to read each winning book, so it’s a question of becoming familiar with them somehow and then picking a winner. Beard has a similar system, except that there is a second round of ranking to determine the winner in each category.
So the winner in each category is chosen by an executive committee whose members have not read the books but must become ‘familiar with them somehow’ and base their choice on that, plus the comments of judges who *have* read the books?
This doesn’t make any sense. Why not just let the judges who have actually read — and are familiar with — the books, and who have ranked them based on that familiarity, choose the winner in each category?
Why add that extra layer, which adds to the opacity of the awards?
Unless I am misunderstanding your explanation of the process (certainly possible!).
The judges select the winners in their respective categories. Then a subset of those judges (the executive committee) selects the overall winner from among the category winners. They probably don’t read every winning book in its entirety, but are expected to educated themselves about each of them. I expect it’s because the timeframe is compressed. I believe the system is the very similar for the Beards and AFJ.
Why can’t the two awards be re-awarded? Surely the IACP kept records of the results of their judging; if they didn’t those procedures need to be changed also.
I’m not sure what you mean. The book won in its category — that has not been removed. If you mean awarding the grand prize to the runner up, that would cause all kinds of bad press again, and the runner up would never feel like she or he won overall. Also the executive committee picks one book. There may not have been others.
Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny says
As a past judges for english cookbooks and french chair for the canadian cookbook awards for many years it was also not appropriate for me to submit a cookbook I had written. I do not understand such a thing can happen as there should be rules written for what can be done for such a situation. I even helped a friend reviewing a cookbook in exchange for her free reviews of 2 of my cookbooks and she chose to mention my name in her thanks and decided not to submit her cookbook to the award because I was a chair even if I told her not to mention my name so that she would be eligible to submit and prevent conflict of interest. We should be aware there is a thin line between what can and can’t be done. Rules prevail.
There is a huge discussion on my Facebook page about this. A member of the executive committee mentioned rules, actually. He said that because there was no rule barring the CEO from entering, the committee felt they could give the book the award. Now there will be a new rule.
Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny says
I am surprised there was no rule sometimes it needs a special situation to think a rule is needed. A good thing there will be a new one.
george geary says
And (I am that Judge with the Executive Committee) When we have the first place winners (which we did not select, an entirely different set of judges on a two tier system with testing of recipes did). All 7 of us judged the winning book as to which will be Book of the Year. None of us looked at the author or co authors when we were doing this. In fact many of the judges didn’t know who Martha was or her last name. When we selected the book and all agreed, It was brought up that she was the “with” (or co-author) of the book and the CEO of the IACP. We asked.. can she win? We knew none of us could enter. Finding out she did not enter the book the publisher did and as a publisher you read the rules and nothing stated that a paid employee or board of director could enter. So we gave her the award. Many thing have been said on the blog, twitter etc from those that know nothing. The blame I think lands on no one person, but the hurt is difficult. We all want fair awards and judges which we did. Some say that Martha knew all of the judges and picked them. Honestly, she had nothing to do with the process and only knew of the winning the night of the event. I am sure the board didn’t know all of the winners prior. 2019 will have the rule in place.
I have to agree, George, that it is troubling and hurtful to read all the comments on social media that call into question the ethics of the judges and the organization. In today’s climate, people are suspicious of instutions and people in power. I was attacked as well for saying on social media that the judging was not rigged. I’m not saying that IACP is perfect, but people say things on social media that I don’t think they would say in person.
Having said all that, though, it’s unfortunate — and troubling — that no one involved anticipated the inappropriateness of this decision, and the subsequent fallout. Martha could have removed her book from the competition. The judges in the first round could have removed it. The judges of the executive committee could have removed it. The board could have said no, the book can’t win. But it kept advancing, right up to the moment when Martha accepted the book on the stage.
Diane Morgan says
I am a day late to this conversation, but want to add my 2-cents worth. I was chair of the IACP cookbook awards two years ago and understand in great detail how the process works. I can see how Six Seasons won in it’s category. What I can’t see is how it won Cookbook of the Year when Samin’s book won in two categories, which, to my way of thinking, would have propelled it to the top. Winning in two categories means 6 judges voted and scored that book as the top book. That is a significant statement in and of itself.
It is sad to see IACP flounder like this–so disappointing.
Aha. That is a fascinating point. I thought Samin Nosrat would win as well. I forgot about that.
I suppose if they want to re-award the Cookbook of the Year, her book would be the winner, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.
george geary says
As far as the committees/judges removing a book we are not allowed to, also we can not move a book into another category.
That’s interesting. I judged a book for the Beards this year where I had to disregard half of it. And it might win. Because it was entered in that category. I know this sounds mysterious, but I can’t say any more.
george geary says
Diane, Just because of a book winning in two categories does not automatically mean they will win Cookbook of The Year, possibility in those categories the over all numbers are not as high as one book in another category. As I have said, out of the executive judges only 2 knew who Martha was and when it was brought up after the selection had been given in the group, we asked if she was eligible. Since she had nothing to do with judging whats so ever she was eligible. Now that has changed. As far as awarding a book now, it has been decided to not by the board.
Marcia Smart says
Great article, Dianne. It was disheartening to read all the tweets and negative comments. It’s a great book, Josh is a great chef, Martha is a talented writer, and it deserved to win on its own merits (even if it should never have been submitted because of potential cronyism). The whole thing is icky, for lack of a better word.
Icky is good! Yes, this is all true, and had she not been the CEO, it would have been fine. Thanks Marcia.
Robin Asbell says
What a shame for everyone involved. Maybe the up-side will be more interest in the book. (Looking hard for an up-side.)
Yes! I think about that too. And so many people have said how much they love the cookbook that now I want to read it.
Tommy C. Simmons says
Having served as a cookbook judge in the past, I can tell those honestly concerned about the initial judging, it is thorough and you test three to five recipes from each of your top cookbooks, if appropriate to the style of cookbook you are evaluating. I am a retired newspaper food editor from the South and seldom knew any of the cookbook authors or IACP leaders, either, for that matter. The award is about cookbook excellence and that is what you try to fairly ascertain.
Indeed, Tommy. That is how I got in trouble, by saying on social media that I didn’t think the judging was rigged. But as we know, that is not the issue.
And it is not the job of the judges to know who works for IACP etc. If there was a rule in place that employees etc. were automatically excluded, then it would be a safer environment in which to judge.
Jessica Simmons says
It is absolutely right to say that the book shouldn’t have been submitted for the award at all. It is certainly a great book and could have been given a special mention or something. The IACP rectified its mistake, but not before a huge ruckus was created.