What does it take to create an award-willing cookbook?

What does it take to create an award-willing cookbook?

This past summer I had the honor of participating as an IACP Cookbook Award judge and it was a surprising, enlightening, and rewarding experience.  While I can't tell you what category I judged, I can give you a little insight into the process, what it takes to write an award-winning cookbook, and why IACP finalists and award-winning cookbooks deserve space on your bookshelf.

1.  IACP cookbook judges must be qualified and the process truly supports independent evaluation.

From the selection of judges to the cookbook evaluation process itself, the process is actually very robust.  I applied to be a judge because, as a cookbook shop owner, I am always curious about the criteria that folks use to determine what makes a cookbook great.  I also wanted to jump into the discussion myself since I have a pretty good understanding of what I and my customers find interesting on the market.

IACP judges must be qualified and not significantly involved with the current year's entries to avoid any conflict of interest.  In my specific case, I am a current member of IACP, have a degree in English Literature (minor in Art History), used to be a professional baker, and currently own a cookbook shop.  This all means that I am accustomed to conducting both literary and visual critiques understanding recipes and cooking processes, and am familiar with engaging with a wide variety of cookbooks and cuisines.

To further aid the integrity of the process, IACP Cookbook Awards Program judges participate in a "blind" process, which means that generally we do not know who the other judges in our category are. so judging is free from things like groupthink or influences from the strong preferences and opinions of others.  Pretty cool.

2.  The evaluation process involves both a thoughtful written and visual critique and thorough recipe testing, both of which serve different purposes within the competition.

If you have ever listened to the podcast Everything Cookbooks, you will quickly learn that there are three major criteria in cookbook publishing: Having an audience and a distinct voice, having a compelling idea, and being able to execute your idea well. IACP Cookbooks Awards judges evaluate cookbooks evaluation is largely based on these criteria as well.

IACP's Cookbook Awards isn't judging the idea or topic of the book as much as how well the author's idea is conveyed via words, design, and flavor.  Is the premise valid and communicated clearly?  Is the writing and editing high quality?  Does the author's voice carry well from the page through the text, recipe selection, and book design?  Is the "story" evocative and authentic to the author's experience?  Are the recipes well-tested and reliable?  Does the book move a certain topic forward or take a fresh look at an established procedure or method?  And most crucial to any cookbook, does the food actually taste good?  

It's a lot to consider and, don't get me wrong, publishing houses tend to release very high-level work but some cookbooks do a better job telling a story than providing reliable recipes and some cookbooks have the most incredible recipes with a weaker connection to their stated premise.  Cookbooks that excel in both areas have a certain magic that makes them stand out.

3.  IACP Cookbook Award Finalists are are a whole package, written and designed incredibly well.

As I said above, the general quality of all of the cookbooks I judged were...well, excellent.  And, because the pandemic presented a time where authors could focus on their craft, it almost felt like an overabundance of excellence.  So, how did I separate the merely excellent cookbooks from the uber-excellent cookbooks?

I spent a significant amount of time performing a "literary review" of each cookbook, looking at the details closely so that I could understand the theme, quality of editing, and overall design of the book.  At this point, I'm really looking at the text and details of the book and understanding whether a book is pulling me in or moving me along.  And I am evaluating the page design, the food photography, illustrations, and the design and composition of the book as a single package.  The top-tier books had a compelling narrative that pulled me in, excellent and often unique food photography, illustrations that work well for the theme of the book and adequately supports it's intended purpose, and cover art that was well composed and evocative.  Getting all of these elements right in a way that feels authentic to the author's vision requires a tremendous amount of thought, creativity, and hard work.

From there I created three basic categories: cookbooks that really stood out with almost zero technical flaws (or at least ones that I could find), cookbooks that stood out for one reason or another but had a few technical flaws, and those presented technical flaws and/or didn't offer anything new or compelling to the discussion of their topic area.  Once all of my reviews were completed and I had a comfortable understanding of the general feel of the submissions as a group, I took a new critical look at the first two piles and re-ranked them with an eye towards the very specific criteria provided by IACP.

4.  Rigorous recipe testing is required.

After the literary review portion was completed, we were assigned a sampling of recipes from each top-tier cookbook for true recipe testing.  Judges were assigned certain recipes by our team leader, which was so interesting in itself because our leader clearly had a sophisticated eye for identifying recipes that would either challenge the premise of the book or test out a new method or process.  Judges also had the opportunity to chose additional recipes to test - I chose recipes that were either core to the premise of the book itself or ones that I felt confident in evaluating because I had a history of cooking similar dishes.

One additional note, true recipe testing means that judges must follow every recipe step exactly and use exact ingredients, if specified in the recipe.  This means that, if a recipe tells me to bake a slice of Wonder bread at 450* for 20 minutes...well, that recipe is going to have some burnt toast in it and I'm going to be waving a magazine at my smoke detector.  It's how the judging honors the cookbook author's vision and keeps the competition fair.  We also had to document the time estimate to complete the dish and the final product against any photos provided in the book.  Finally, we taste tested the recipes and were encouraged to pull others into the tasting experience so that we are getting a wide variety of palates to provide feedback. 

Yes, it took a lot of time and effort.  Yes, it's worth it for fairness.

When the recipe testing was completed, we submitted our results and recipe testing photos based on predefined criteria outlined by IACP.  And then we waited to hear who the list of finalists would be, just like everyone else.  Gladly, the list of finalists in my category roughly aligned with the books I thought were uber-excellent so it felt like I was pretty on point with my assessments.

5.  My advice for would-be cookbook authors, based on my own judging experience.

Don't release your cookbook after a time when everyone was sheltering-in-place.  Really, I'm kidding, but I was a cookbook collector far before I ever opened a shop and I've rarely seen a single year where so many amazing cookbooks were released like I did in 2022.  It made the work of being an award judge that much more difficult.  But, the other takeaway is that we got to see a wide-variety of amazing cookbooks for future cookbook authors to study and learn from.  So, spend some time looking at books and evaluating what it is about books that you love and then pull that into your writing and your development of your voice.

Test, test, test those recipes...and, if you are able, test with multiple cooks and multiple models of kitchen equipment to ensure that your methods and procedures are solid in a variety of skillsets and kitchens.  And also be purposeful as to when you specify specific measurements and when your audience can be more spontaneous.  There is room for both approaches and times when each are valid.

Once your first draft is done, edit; edit; edit with a fine tooth comb.  I'm not suggesting that folks pull out their old style manuals from college or that your text needs to read like Walter Cronkite wrote your book - in fact, some of the most engaging cookbooks are written in the author's informal, local dialect.  But, great developmental editing and detailed proofreading to typos and grammar go a long way in separating the great cookbooks from the very good cookbooks.

6.  Write cookbooks because you love cookbooks and have something to say, not because you want to win awards.

Lastly, my biggest advice is to avoid writing a cookbook merely to win awards.  Focus on putting a good message, a good voice and story, and incredible recipes that are a reflection of your experience out there in the world.  The rest will follow - remind yourself that it is totally possible to write an amazing and successful cookbook that wins zero awards.

 So, with that - now we wait for the final winners.