Within the wet night gloom, a person’s loud sobs echoed off the glass and concrete surfaces exterior the Lycée Hotelier du Touquet, in northern France. For those who didn’t know higher, you’ll have thought that this faceless sufferer, hidden away in an internal courtyard, had simply endured a heartrending breakup or the dying of a beloved one, so full and uninhibited was his anguish. However no, this was a chef who had simply realized that regardless of months of coaching, sleepless nights, a whole lot of euros spent on tools and provides, and weekends of not seeing pals or household, he had not made the grade. He was not a MOF (pronounced in French like “moff”).
Although the title shouldn’t be well-known within the U.S., changing into l’Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (“among the best craftsmen in France”), shorthanded because the acronym MOF, is taken into account by French cooks to be one of many highest — if not the very best — honor. Begun in 1925, the MOF competitors is actually not only one competitors, however encompasses dozens of contests in additional than 200 professions, from taxidermy to piano tuning to graphic design to — probably the most well-known — these within the culinary fields: cooking (cuisine-gastronomie), patisserie, and chocolaterie. Below the aegis of the French Nationwide Training Ministry, the COET (le Comité d’organisation des expositions du travail) organizes MOF competitions each three or 4 years. The grueling cuisine-gastronomie competitors is judged by a panel of greater than 40 famend cooks with exacting requirements. Solely about 200 cooks have been honored with the title because the competitors’s debut.
“A chef hopes for 2 issues: to earn three Michelin stars and to turn into a Meilleur Ouvrier de France,” defined the 78-year-old MOF Man Legay, accountable for the competitors’s cooking jury. The up to date MOFs most likely greatest recognized to People are the chocolatier Jacques Torres and Joël Robuchon, who died in August of this 12 months.
For this 12 months’s competitors, 500 hopefuls have been winnowed all the way down to 28. Final Thursday’s 14 candidates (14 different finalists had competed the day past) started coming into the resort college’s kitchens at 7:30 a.m., one after the other, each 15 minutes. Their activity was to cook dinner three technically difficult dishes inside 5 hours, dishes they’d had 15 days to study, from exact directions despatched by the organizers. 4 hours after starting, they needed to ship a brand new dish to the judges each half hour, with a margin of error of three minutes. In the event that they despatched a dish between three and 5 minutes late, they have been penalized. Later than 5 minutes, and the dish was not graded by the tasting jury. Whereas cooking, they have been aided by two commis, younger college students from the highschool, with whom they’d by no means labored earlier than. They subsequently needed to instruct their helpers, whereas remaining calm, and cook dinner whereas being always circled and judged by clipboard-carrying jury members.
By that afternoon, the morning’s cool laboratoires had changed into scorching, tense arenas, the place the odor of cooking meat, vaporizing liqueur, and burning sauces stuffed the air.

For cooks who earn the title, and the accompanying proper to put on the blue-white-red collar on their cooks’ jacket, the rewards could also be appreciable. They could be extra more likely to nab prestigious jobs or lure extra clients to their eating places or shops. Many cooks, although, appear to launch their pursuit of the MOF title as a kind of private Holy Grail, as a solution to show their advantage to themselves above all, typically trying the competitors a number of occasions.
Stéphanie Le Quellec, a Michelin-starred chef and winner of 2011’s High Chef: France, had been a finalist on the final competitors, 4 years in the past, when she was “not capable of submit excellence [to the jury].” She tried her probabilities once more this 12 months. As a chef who’s already well-known, in some respects, she had extra to lose than some unknown cuistot. “I labored with Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, in order that makes you wish to deal with the problem your self,” she mentioned by the use of rationalization for her bid.
Virginie Basselot, a contest decide this 12 months, is certainly one of solely two feminine cooks to have gained the title. She too mentioned she was impressed by working with MOFs, and by the values of “excellence, transmission, humility” that it promotes. It’s a distinctive competitors, she famous, as there is no such thing as a first, second, or third place. Theoretically at the least, all or not one of the candidates might win the title. (Certainly, in 2015, not one of the chocolatier finalists have been deemed worthy to be named a MOF.) And it’s a title, with a diploma bestowed by the Nationwide Training Ministry, that cooks carry for all their lives. It isn’t an honor that shall be stripped from them when the subsequent competitors comes up in a couple of years’ time. And in contrast to, say, incomes a Michelin star or being named as one of many World’s 50 Greatest, it’s a contest that particular person cooks knowingly enter, and over which they’ve some management.
“You’re competing in opposition to your self, to present the very best of your self,” Basselot mentioned.
This 12 months, the 2 most well-known MOF cooks lately, Paul Bocuse and Robuchon, died. To honor them, two of the three dishes candidates ready through the competitors drew inspiration from them: The fish starter needed to be accompanied by lobster mashed potatoes, an homage to Robuchon’s well-known purée; and the principle dish was a hare cooked 3 ways, in reminiscence of Bocuse’s lièvre à la royale. (The dessert was a Pavlova with aspic of recent fruit and lemon cream.)
Seventy-something Jacques Maximin, one of many four-member presiding committee, underneath the president, Alain Ducasse, described to 2 reporters for greater than 40 minutes — with fiendish pleasure — the complexity of the dishes that he had imagined to check the technical expertise of the MOF candidates. He begins with fundamental methods and fashions them into three dishes that usually require years of expertise and unerring exactitude to hold off. For instance, he described how the pollack within the first dish needed to be pierced in 4 locations (indicated in a drawing that accompanied the candidates’ directions) by herring lardons. To a non-chef, piercing a fish with one other fish appears nearly bodily inconceivable, however then, Maximin identified, cooks should additionally take into consideration, when salting the dish, the truth that the lardons would impart their saltiness to the pollack. And the desired “pavés” (slabs) of pollack (80 grams with out pores and skin) might certainly not be “slices” of fish — an error that one chef had made.
But in a culinary world that always values flash over approach, you possibly can’t assist however surprise, is the MOF’s degree of nerdiness out of step? “I’ve nothing in opposition to modernity,” Maximin retorted. “However I say, ‘Wait, youngsters, let’s begin first with the fundamentals…’ Once I conceive of the themes, [it’s because] I don’t need French methods to vanish.” He continued, “French gastronomy, with its worldwide fame, is constructed round an edifice. We constructed it over centuries. These cooks who wish to turn into stars, first they should show their savoir faire.”

Level taken, but it could possibly be argued that, like different culinary awards and competitions as we speak, its protestations of excessive requirements might masks its exclusion of girls and folks of coloration. Cooks on the competitors, nevertheless, when requested concerning the lack of range amongst candidates and winners, defended the MOF’s conventional methods. Each Basselot and Le Quellec — who was certainly one of solely two ladies to make it to the finals this 12 months (amongst 23 authentic feminine candidates) — famous that there are few ladies cooks in haute-cuisine. “Usually ladies are chef-owners and it’s not straightforward to say, ‘I’m going to take per week off and practice,’” Basselot mentioned. Basselot herself works for a resort and has assistants to again her up — plus, she remarked with a smile, “I’m single.”
Le Quellec, however, has three youngsters. Coaching for the competitors is “pretty violent,” she mentioned. “There’s numerous work. I don’t know if that’s an funding that ladies are prepared to place in. [For me] it signifies that through the week I don’t see my youngsters. I don’t assume the MOF committee can do a lot; it’s the fact of the career.” (As for racial range, there was one Japanese chef among the many finalists this 12 months.)
Tall, pale Christophe Quantin is certainly one of three vice presidents of the MOF cuisine-gastronomie part together with Maximin and one other MOF, Michel Roth. When initially requested concerning the candidates’ range, the misunderstanding was such that he started commenting on the contestants’ totally different kinds of constructing lemon cream. As soon as the topic was clarified, and he was requested if the MOF committee might encourage extra gender and cultural range, he mentioned, “We will’t affect that. We take the candidates that enroll voluntarily… Even when there are increasingly more ladies within the career, they actually should have a aggressive spirit [to attempt the MOF competition]. It’s not at all times in ladies’s characters to compete — as well as, it’s competing in opposition to males, which could possibly be an extra obstacle.”
Positive sufficient, on the finish of the day, roughly 12 hours after the primary candidate had begun his mise en place, Ducasse named seven males l’Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France for this 12 months.
Nonetheless, a small, gentle breeze of change could also be within the air. The COET, the physique that oversees the entire MOF competitions in dozens of fields, has begun to query its personal methods. “Ought to [candidates] spend 1,500 hours making ready for the competitors? I don’t know,” Jean-Luc Chabanne, secretary basic of the COET, instructed the journal Lyon Capitale. “That’s what we now have to work on. We even have to take a look at the price of the competition for the candidates. Some say it’s 1,000 or 2,000 [euros], however typically it’s 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 euros” — accounting for the truth that opponents should carry their very own tools and provides to the competitors, in addition to related prices for coaching, journey, and, in some instances, hiring consultants to assist enhance their probabilities. “It’s not acceptable,” Chabanne mentioned, “as a result of it means you need to be wealthy to turn into a MOF.”
These inklings of change are small consolation to those that weren’t on the record of winners final week. Shortly after Ducasse learn off the names on the modest ceremony, Stéphanie Le Quellec walked towards the again of the room, clutching her child boy, her face streaked with tears. Although that child definitely doesn’t care about it proper now, maybe by the point he grows up, the MOF competitors will current a special face to the world.
Sono Motoyama is a journalist who lives within the Paris space.Editor: Erin DeJesus

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