England has the Order of the British Empire with its knights and dames; peace builders have the Nobel Prize; even Hollywood has its Oscar. Recognizing the best of the best in their fields is a way to celebrate, distinguish, and highlight top-quality work. In France, there is only one token of acknowledgment that matters – the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF), or best craftspeople of France.
This prestigious competition is only held every few years, and the award is reserved for those who have gone above and beyond in 17 crafts like glassmaking, textiles, hospitality, and, for our purposes, the 10 categories of food: pastry, butchery, charcuterie, bread making, ice cream, chocolate, cheese, fish, grocery, and roasting.
In the food industry, in particular, the MOF title has become and remained the ultimate label of a star artisan. During a visit to Paris, seeking out the fruits of their labor is destined to be a delicious endeavor.
While some MOFs have opted for celebrity – like renowned restaurateur Joël Robuchon and celebrated chocolatier Jacques Torres –others, like neighborhood butchers, fishmongers, and cheese mongers, are often hiding in plain sight.
There’s no database to guide you to finding MOFs in Paris, but the winners respectfully brag about their prestigious title by giving us two clues: their collar and their awning.
MOF chefs wear a recognizable tri-colored collar in the hues of the French flag on their chef coats, a very obvious representation of their all-star status. If you have the chance to peek into a bustling French kitchen or watch Top Chef, the French edition, you may catch a glimpse of this prestigious accessory.
Some experts aren’t shy about boasting their success on their storefronts to attract a passerby like yourself. If you’d like to go on a MOF treasure hunt, we recommend heading to the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, where many awnings are decorated with insignia. Even so, you’d be surprised to find them sprinkled throughout all of Paris’s arrondisements, so keep your eyes peeled!
While these winners use the collar and awning to be rightfully celebrated, the accolade of MOF doesn’t necessarily bring about mainstream commercial success. Some artisans prefer to stay incognito, taking jobs on-staff in restaurants instead of having their own stores. Some may say they’re bashful, others may insist their title doesn’t change the fact that they’re passionate about their craft. Nonetheless, these celebrated artisans continue to develop their skills and pave the way for future food innovators in France.
Since its founding in 1924, the MOF competition has been an effort to revive the number of craftsmen in France and recognize those who have excelled in their trades, in order to serve as a model for the next generation of craftsmen. But even with a high concentration of MOFs in the Ile-de-France, becoming recognized as a MOF is no easy feat, as portrayed in the film Kings of Pastry.
What distinguishes MOF from other certifications is that it is peer-reviewed – the jury is made up entirely of professionals in the same trade. This not only restricts the competition to those who truly know the ins-and-outs, but it also guarantees a track record of success and value throughout the competitions.
Any artisan who is 23 years old or older can enter the competition, but only those with the endurance, innovation, and ability will receive a serious bid. Lead up to judgment day can require years of preparation to refine technical skills and innovation to ensure the candidate can be effective and quick in front of the jury.
During the competition, each candidate is given an amount of time and basic materials to create a perfected masterpiece. More than just the final result, the jury examines the potential MOF’s method, organization, act, speed, knowhow, and respect for the rules.
The jury isn’t limited to doling out first second and third prizes; there is no quota of winners for judges to meet, which means, in theory, no one or everyone could be granted the MOF title. Competitors are judged individually rather than against each other. If they earn the necessary number of points during the competition, they will be rewarded the lifelong title, presented to them by the French President at the Sorbonne in Paris followed by a ceremony at President’s home, the Élysée Palace.
For competitors who don’t make the cut, they’ll have time to refine their skills before having the chance to be considered again – the competition only happens years 3-4 years. In fact, fewer than 10,000 people have ever received the MOF recognition, so it’s quite common that the same candidate will partake in the competition multiple times before earning their title.