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The Kings Of Pastry: Inside the Legendary Meilleur Ouvrier de France, Pâtissier Competition (PHOTOS)

Posted: 09/13/10 06:17 PM ET

The M.O.F., Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman of France), is a title that was created in France at the turn of the century when the country realized that their artisans and the work that they were producing was lagging behind that of other countries. Some reaction was needed, an impetus for progress, so that craftsmanship in France would excel and prevail in the future for all trades. Since that time, a competition takes place every three or four years for more than 250 professions in France including florists, carpenters, butchers, jewelry makers, and of course pastry chefs, to name just a few. The elected M.O.F.s become ambassadors for their trade and take on the duty to share their knowledge and train new craftsmen to become the M.O.F.s of the future. The documentary film, Kings of Pastry, shows the finals of the M.O.F. pâtissier competition in 2008. This was a historical occasion as it was the first time that cameras were allowed to witness this event.

Prior to reaching the final, the competitors in the M.O.F. pâtissier enter a semifinal round which takes place about six months to a year before the final. Seventy to eighty candidates compete in a grueling two-day try-out in different culinary schools throughout France. This battle before the war concludes with the selection of about 16 candidates who will be allowed to compete in the finals.

The topics of the semifinals are known by the candidates six months to a year beforehand, which means that the M.O.F. process from beginning to end is a two-year venture, but the preparation for this competition involves a lifetime of development. Before I decided to begin this journey, I knew that my family and I needed to be on the same page, and the sacrifices on everyone's part would be huge. The time needed to prepare was tremendous: I practiced in every spare second I could find and was often not home. It was also a great financial commitment as there are no cash prizes for the candidates, making it a very expensive sport. I could not have done it without my wife and children who were such a huge help by being so supportive, loving and tolerant.

So why do it? For the quest of excellence in your profession, of course. What could be nobler? No matter what the outcome of this intense competition, you are never the same. You can't possibly remain unchanged. You have to push yourself, more than you thought possible, and whatever the outcome, you will come back a better professional.

The M.O.F. is a French competition for French citizens; most candidates reside in France and for me, competing from abroad was a very challenging task, a colossal feat of organization where everything had to be planned and foreseen. Before anything else, I had to select a coach, and who else would be better than Sébastien Canonne, co-founder of The French Pastry School (and my business partner for many years) and Stéphane Glacier, a longtime colleague and friend. Both are M.O.F.s in pastry.

Next, you need to find an assistant who wants to sacrifice two years of his or her life for such a challenge. I was lucky enough to have Kurt Fogle as my right hand; he had just graduated from L'Art de la Pâtisserie, The French Pastry School's 24-week pastry program. He was unconditionally dedicated to my crazy quest. Throughout this ordeal, he did a tremendous job at keeping me sane and had the organizational qualities needed for such an enterprise. He worked so hard and was there for me during the very difficult moments.

Once you have an assistant, you need to find your support system in the country where you are competing. In 1980, I was lucky enough to work in a pastry shop in Strasbourg, France where I met an apprentice named Pierre Zimmermann. We became friends but lost contact until 1995 when I competed in the Finals of the World Chocolate Masters. At the same time, Pierre was representing France in the finals of the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (World Cup of Baking), where he became a World Champion, and we had a chance to reconnect. Later on, he came to Chicago to teach continuing education classes at my school. He has been coming to The French Pastry School for the last 12 years. When I mentioned my M.O.F. plans to Pierre, he and his family welcomed me to their home and pastry shop in a small village called Schnersheim near Strasbourg just like I was part of their family. They allowed me to set up my "headquarters" above their family business for six weeks before the competition. Their support was beyond the call of duty, from feeding Kurt and me, washing, drying and ironing our clothes to helping us in the multiple logistical details that such an undertaking requires. The contribution they provided was invaluable, and I will be forever grateful for their friendship and for what they have done for me.

Pierre and his wife Michelle

Six weeks before the competition, it was time for us to leave work and our families. After our arrival in France, the countdown started, and it was time to unpack, get situated and readjust each of the recipes with the French ingredients that would react differently.

Once you receive the topics of the final competition, you have to carefully study the required items. The theme was "Marriage," and the candidates needed to create a wedding buffet from the wedding cake to the sweet table to the breakfast tray for the couple's "day after." For the taste component, the items required were five types of miniature pâte à choux items (pastry puffs, 12 pieces of each); one three-tiered wedding cake to serve 30 people; three types of chocolate candies (20 each); one type of a plated dessert (four of each); one brioche for two to be served on a tray for the bride's and groom's breakfast together with 1500 grams of jam made with a summer fruit and associated with a flower; three types of mini afternoon tea creations (12 each); and one surprise item that would be unveiled to the candidates only on the first day of the competition. For the artistic part: one chocolate sculpture that would be used to display the chocolate candies; one sugar showpiece that would become the centerpiece of the buffet; and one small masterpiece called a bijou that would be presented in a small display case. Except for the bijou, all items had to be produced from scratch in front of the judges in 24 hours, spread out over three days.

When all of the artistic items were decided; it was time to make all of the elements for the bijou as well as putting in as many dry runs of the practice competition as possible. Then it was time to pack. Everything ended up in a large crate that was shipped to France with the hope that nothing gets broken, lost or just stuck at customs. The goal was to leave the US with every single piece of equipment so that all we had to purchase in France were the ingredients and the small electric equipment (since the voltage is different in Europe).

I had to first work on the taste part of it. Each required taste item could have many components which would become the secondary recipes. Each recipe had to be dissected to make it at the same time delicious yet also foolproof in its preparation. The making of each recipe had to be fast and easy to execute; one failed recipe during the competition can make you fall far behind, and elevate your stress level to the degree that you might not recover. This is when the question is asked about each recipe: is it good? Better question: is it good enough? Even better question: are the judges going to like it?

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In the photograph above, Sébastien Canonne, co-founder of The French Pastry School and my business coach and I ask ourselves those very questions about the wedding cake.
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No matter what the outcome, all of the 16 candidates came out bigger and better after such an amazing adventure. The effort put in was colossal and the human experience unforgettable.

For Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, this was their M.O.F.; they believed in following me throughout this adventure not knowing exactly what was in store. The more time we spent together, the more we understood each other's ideas, and we became excellent friends. I am proud to know them. All pastry chefs and I thank them for documenting this quest of excellence.

I hope that after seeing the film, Kings of Pastry, all will have a newfound appreciation of the hard work of all artisans and their continual pursuit of excellence.