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Inside the French Culinary Competition That Drives Chefs to Tears

Only about 200 hopefuls have received France’s Meilleur Ouvrier de France designation since the 1920s

In the rainy evening gloom, a man’s loud sobs echoed off the glass and concrete surfaces outside the Lycée Hotelier du Touquet, in northern France. If you didn’t know better, you would have thought that this faceless sufferer, hidden away in an inner courtyard, had just endured a heartrending breakup or the death of a loved one, so complete and uninhibited was his anguish. But no, this was a chef who had just learned that despite months of training, sleepless nights, hundreds of euros spent on equipment and supplies, and weekends of not seeing friends or family, he had not made the grade. He was not a MOF (pronounced “moff”).

Though the title is not well known in the U.S., becoming l’Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (“one of the best craftsmen in France”), shorthanded as the acronym MOF, is considered by French chefs to be one of the highest — if not the highest — honor. Begun in 1925, the MOF competition is in fact not just one competition, but encompasses dozens of contests in more than 200 professions, from taxidermy to piano tuning to graphic design to — the most well-known — those in the culinary fields: cooking (cuisine-gastronomie), patisserie, and chocolaterie. Under the aegis of the French National Education Ministry, the COET (le Comité d’organisation des expositions du travail) organizes MOF competitions every three or four years. The grueling cuisine-gastronomie competition is judged by a panel of more than 40 renowned chefs with exacting standards. Only about 200 chefs have been honored with the title since the competition’s debut.

“A chef hopes for two things: to earn three Michelin stars and to become a Meilleur Ouvrier de France,” explained the 78-year-old MOF Guy Legay, in charge of the competition’s cooking jury. The contemporary MOFs probably best known to Americans are the chocolatier Jacques Torres and Joël Robuchon, who died in August of this year.

For this year’s competition, 500 hopefuls were winnowed down to 28. Last Thursday’s 14 candidates (14 other finalists had competed the previous day) began entering the hotel school’s kitchens at 7:30 a.m., one by one, every 15 minutes. Their task was to cook three technically challenging dishes within five hours, dishes they’d had 15 days to learn, from precise instructions sent by the organizers. Four hours after beginning, they had to send a new dish to the judges every half hour, with a margin of error of three minutes. If they sent a dish between three and five minutes late, they were penalized. Later than five minutes, and the dish was not graded by the tasting jury. While cooking, they were aided by two commis, young students from the high school, with whom they had never worked before. They therefore had to instruct their helpers, while remaining calm, and cook while being constantly circled and judged by clipboard-carrying jury members.

By that afternoon, the morning’s cool laboratoires had turned into hot, tense arenas, where the smell of cooking meat, vaporizing liqueur, and burning sauces filled the air.

For chefs who earn the title, and the accompanying right to wear the blue-white-red collar on their chefs’ jacket, the rewards may be considerable. They may be more likely to nab prestigious jobs or lure more customers to their restaurants or stores. Many chefs, though, seem to launch their pursuit of the MOF title as a sort of personal Holy Grail, as a way to prove their merit to themselves above all, sometimes attempting the competition several times.

Stéphanie Le Quellec, a Michelin-starred chef and winner of 2011’s Top Chef: France, had been a finalist at the last competition, four years ago, when she was “not able to submit excellence [to the jury].” She tried her chances again this year. As a chef who is already well known, in some respects, she had more to lose than some unknown cuistot. “I worked with Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, so that makes you want to tackle the challenge yourself,” she said by way of explanation for her bid.

Virginie Basselot, a competition judge this year, is one of only two female chefs to have won the title. She too said she was inspired by working with MOFs, and by the values of “excellence, transmission, humility” that it promotes. It is a unique competition, she noted, as there is no first, second, or third place. Theoretically at least, all or none of the candidates could win the title. (Indeed, in 2015, none of the chocolatier finalists were deemed worthy to be named a MOF.) And it is a title, with a diploma bestowed by the National Education Ministry, that chefs carry for all their lives. It is not an honor that will be stripped from them when the next competition comes up in a few years’ time. And unlike, say, earning a Michelin star or being named as one of the World’s 50 Best, it is a contest that individual chefs knowingly enter, and over which they have some control.

“You’re competing against yourself, to give the best of yourself,” Basselot said.

This year, the two most famous MOF chefs in recent years, Paul Bocuse and Robuchon, died. To honor them, two of the three dishes candidates prepared during the competition drew inspiration from them: The fish starter had to be accompanied by lobster mashed potatoes, an homage to Robuchon’s famous purée; and the main dish was a hare cooked three ways, in memory of Bocuse’s lièvre à la royale. (The dessert was a Pavlova with aspic of fresh fruit and lemon cream.)

Seventy-something Jacques Maximin, one of the four-member presiding committee, under the president, Alain Ducasse, described to two reporters for more than 40 minutes — with fiendish pleasure — the complexity of the dishes that he had imagined to test the technical skills of the MOF candidates. He starts with basic techniques and fashions them into three dishes that generally require years of experience and unerring exactitude to carry off. For example, he described how the pollack in the first dish had to be pierced in four places (indicated in a drawing that accompanied the candidates’ instructions) by herring lardons. To a non-chef, piercing a fish with another fish seems almost physically impossible, but then, Maximin pointed out, chefs must also take into account, when salting the dish, the fact that the lardons would impart their saltiness to the pollack. And the specified “pavés” (slabs) of pollack (80 grams without skin) could by no means be “slices” of fish — an error that one chef had made.

Yet in a culinary world that often values flash over technique, you can’t help but wonder, is the MOF’s level of nerdiness out of step? “I have nothing against modernity,” Maximin retorted. “But I say, ‘Wait, children, let’s start first with the basics...’ When I conceive of the themes, [it’s because] I don’t want French techniques to disappear.” He continued, “French gastronomy, with its international reputation, is built around an edifice. We constructed it over centuries. These chefs who want to become stars, first they have to prove their savoir faire.”

Point taken, yet it could be argued that, like other culinary awards and competitions today, its protestations of high standards may mask its exclusion of women and people of color. Chefs at the competition, however, when asked about the lack of diversity among candidates and winners, defended the MOF’s traditional ways. Both Basselot and Le Quellec — who was one of only two women to make it to the finals this year (among 23 original female candidates) — noted that there are few women chefs in haute-cuisine. “Often women are chef-owners and it’s not easy to say, ‘I’m going to take a week off and train,’” Basselot said. Basselot herself works for a hotel and has assistants to back her up — plus, she remarked with a smile, “I’m single.”

Le Quellec, on the other hand, has three children. Training for the competition is “fairly violent,” she said. “There’s a lot of work. I don’t know if that’s an investment that women are willing to put in. [For me] it means that during the week I don’t see my children. I don’t think the MOF committee can do much; it’s the reality of the profession.” (As for racial diversity, there was one Japanese chef among the finalists this year.)

Tall, pale Christophe Quantin is one of three vice presidents of the MOF cuisine-gastronomie section along with Maximin and another MOF, Michel Roth. When initially asked about the candidates’ diversity, the misunderstanding was such that he began commenting on the contestants’ different styles of making lemon cream. Once the subject was clarified, and he was asked if the MOF committee could encourage more gender and cultural diversity, he said, “We can’t influence that. We take the candidates that sign up voluntarily… Even if there are more and more women in the profession, they really have to have a competitive spirit [to attempt the MOF competition]. It’s not always in women’s characters to compete — in addition, it’s competing against men, which could be an additional impediment.”

Sure enough, at the end of the day, roughly 12 hours after the first candidate had begun his mise en place, Ducasse named seven men l’Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France for this year.

Nevertheless, a small, light breeze of change may be in the air. The COET, the body that oversees all of the MOF competitions in dozens of fields, has begun to question its own ways. “Should [candidates] spend 1,500 hours preparing for the competition? I don’t know,” Jean-Luc Chabanne, secretary general of the COET, told the magazine Lyon Capitale. “That’s what we have to work on. We also have to look at the cost of the contest for the candidates. Some say it’s 1,000 or 2,000 [euros], but sometimes it’s 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 euros” — accounting for the fact that competitors must bring their own equipment and supplies to the competition, as well as associated costs for training, travel, and, in some cases, hiring consultants to help increase their chances. “It’s not acceptable,” Chabanne said, “because it means you have to be rich to become a MOF.”

These inklings of change are small comfort to those who were not on the list of winners last week. Shortly after Ducasse read off the names at the modest ceremony, Stéphanie Le Quellec walked toward the back of the room, clutching her baby boy, her face streaked with tears. Though that baby certainly doesn’t care about it right now, perhaps by the time he grows up, the MOF competition will present a different face to the world.

Sono Motoyama is a journalist who lives in the Paris area.
Editor: Erin DeJesus