PARIS -- Cheesemonger Marie Quatrehomme – the food trade’s very first female Meilleur Ouvrier de France – is elated. This Parisian is no longer alone. At the recent awards ceremony for the “best workers in France ‘’ in the cheese category, Marie hugged the newest female MOF, Josiane Deal of the cheese shop Lou Canestéou in the Provençal village of Vaison-la-Romaine. And this is no small matter.
In a day when the French 35-hour-work week continues to take slams, one rarely talks about the hordes of manual workers – the majority of them self-employed -- for whom that number of hours would be considered a laughable, half-time job.
The MOF story really begins at the end of the 19th century, when the French state realized that easily one third of its population – skilled manual workers in all trades – was being cheated of reaching for or attaining honors for their excellence. In a country that has always given greater credence to intellectual endeavors and thus honors, all the stone-masons and chefs, carpenters and bakers, tile experts and butchers were left to complete their careers – no matter how excellent – without a word of praise or recognition from the state.
As an attempt to correct the imbalance – and give manual workers a serious goal and official recognition – les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France was created. It is not an easy honor to attain, and is not – as many assume – a cushy rubber stamp or a pat on the back from the government for a nice job done. Today, some 180 manual trades -- from rare specialties such as glyptique (an expertise in the jewelry-making trade) and on to team efforts in the aeronautics industry -- undergo separate competitions every several years in France.
In Josiane’s case, the road to MOF began two years ago, when a application and months of study led her to her final goal. In order to be selected as a finalist – some 35 presented themselves as candidates, 12 where chosen as finalists, 6 were selected as laureates – Josiane and her fellow cheese shop owners from all corners of France were subjected to intensive written and oral examinations on the history of cheese, cheesemaking and cheese aging and presented an extensive array of no less that 30 cheeses to judges who tasted and commented on each and every cheese, examining aesthetics, aging quality, flavor. They even underwent exams in English as judges appeared as customers eager to sample a series of cheese, with advice on accompanying wines. Once chosen as a finalist, Josiane, along with her husband, Christian, spent every off hour for a year devoted to creating a “chef d’ouevre,” a complex cheese display designed to best present dozens of their very finest cheeses in their very best state. (MOF director Jean-Pierre Boisivon and his staff estimate that on the average a candidate devotes 1,700 hours to creating his work of art.) The final days also included rigorous written and oral exams.
Perhaps one of the best-know MOF in France is chef Paul Bocuse, who along with chef Joël Robuchon have supported the MOF chef category for years, tutoring and encouraging young chefs to reach for the stars. Today, the competition in the chef category is the largest in the MOF firmament, with some 500 candidates, 48 finalists and 24 winners in the latest competition. In recent years, the food trade category of MOF has expanded greatly, and now along with pastry chefs and butchers, chocolate makers and sommeliers, also includes maitre d’hotel. Except for the cheese category, there are no female MOF laureates in any of the other food trades.
As Boisivon points out, the entire program is about much more than just “giving away medals.” Along with acknowledging the excellent work of manual tradesmen, the program is there to transmit knowledge and expertise within the trade itself.
“When you have done something so very exceptional in your life, you are transformed. It is very important for a society to honor discipline and excellence. The route of the MOF is a great human adventure,” adds the MOF chief.
“There are some specialties – such as very specific styles of lace-making – that may have only five candidates. But if we kill the MOF competitions in that area, we could kill the tradition itself,” he notes.
Once the MOF award is given, laureates find their lives are changed forever. While devotion to a trade may be geographically limited to a village or a city, laureates find that requests to share their passions quickly cover the country. When I invited Marie Quatrehomme to lunch after the ceremonies, she declined, noting that she had an appearance at the French senate nearby, to give awards to young students. Meanwhile, Josiane and Christian hopped on the TGV south, arriving in Avignon to a soccer star’s welcome from friends and family.
“Her life will never be the same.” says Boisivon, who personally encouraged Josiane to go for the magic ring. Now she is preparing to take her chef d’ouevre around France, first to the Agriculture Fair in Paris, later to a major MOF event in Poitiers. As she awaits the arrival of her official white chef’s jacket with the bright red and blue MOF stripes around the collar, she’s there behind the counter at Lou Canesteou, advising, suggesting, and, yes, smiling just a little bit.
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