This post has been updated.
Martha Holmberg is a respected food editor, cookbook author, consultant and teacher. She’s also chief executive of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, a group launched four decades ago by a handful of influential cooking school owners and instructors.
Holmberg’s time as CEO has been generally unmarked by controversy. Until Sunday, that is, when the association handed out its IACP Awards during its 40th annual conference in New York City. (Disclosure: The awards event was co-emceed by Joe Yonan, food and dining editor of The Washington Post, which won Publication of the Year in the 300,000-or-more circulation category.) The ceremonies culminated in the presentation of the coveted Cookbook of the Year award, which was given to Joshua McFadden for his well-received “Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables.”
But McFadden is not a writer by profession. He’s chef and owner of Ava Gene’s, a rustic, Roman-inspired restaurant in Portland, Ore. To help produce “Six Seasons,” he turned to, yes, Holmberg, the CEO of the very association that passed out the awards.
Outrage ensued on — where else? — Twitter.
Members of the food and cookbook writing community — including Samin Nosrat, who won the IACP Julia Child First Book Award this year for “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” — immediately jumped into the conversation, either to defend “Six Seasons” or wonder why it was nominated in the first place.
In a phone call last month, Holmberg defended the integrity of the confidential voting process, while acknowledging that the optics of her shared victory in the Cookbook of the Year category were bad. It didn’t help that McFadden couldn’t make it to New York for the ceremony and that Holmberg accepted the award by herself.
“The board and everyone believes in the system and the process, that it could be completely impartial,” Holmberg said. “But as we know, perception is just important as reality.”
As a result, the association’s board issued a statement that promised to change its nominations policy. The new directive will prohibit the IACP’s four staff members and the board’s seven members from being eligible for any award. It will also create an advisory committee, composed in part of administrators of other awards programs, to compare best practices, Holmberg said.
“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,” wrote Adam Salomone, the chair of IACP’s Board of Directors.
Added Holmberg about “Six Seasons,” which also won the General category: “It’s very clear to me that the book got where it got on its merits . . . But it should never have been put in competition.”
“Six Seasons,” Holmberg said, was submitted for nomination by its publisher, Artisan Books, an imprint of Workman Publishing. It was one of dozens of cookbooks nominated in various IACP categories. Three judges are assigned to each category, Holmberg said, and they evaluate all the submitted books in their area. They then send scores to an online program, which tabulates the totals.
“There’s no judge adding up the scores,” Holmberg noted. Nor is IACP staff involved in tabulating scores.
From there, the top five cookbooks are re-evaluated by the same three judges in each category. This time around, the judges test two recipes from each cookbook and submit their new scores via the same online program. The winner and the other finalists in each category are selected from those final scores.
In the case of “Six Seasons,” judges flagged the cookbook once it was named among the top five in two categories and brought the matter to the attention of the executive committee and the association’s board of directors. The board, Holmberg said, made the final decision to move forward and allow “Six Seasons” among the finalists.
“I knew that I was nominated, obviously,” Holmberg said about the publisher’s submission. “But I did not know that I was going to be a winner . . . The first time that I learned that I was a winner was when I picked up the certificate.”
The board decided to rescind the awards given to “Six Seasons.” On Monday, the association announced new winners in both categories: “Dinner: Changing the Game,” by Melissa Clark, now rises to the top in the General category, while Nosrat assumes top honors as Cookbook of the Year for “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.” Nosrat took home three IACP awards this year with her debut cookbook, including one in the American category.
Holmberg said she mostly feels for McFadden and Artisan Books, both now stripped of their awards for “Six Seasons.” “They produced a terrific book,” she said. The CEO said the board continues to support her and that her job is not in jeopardy over the incident.