This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
At 11pm on March 14 I witnessed an unlikely scene in the restaurant of one of the oldest hotel and chefs' schools in France at Thonon-les-Bains on the banks of Lake Geneva.
As its young, eager-to please waiters and waitresses stood expectantly round the tables, 34 of France's top chefs, including Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Ducasse, Jacques Maximin, Régis Marcon, Michel Roth from the Ritz Hotel, Jean Sabine, (chef at the Quai d'Orsay in Paris, one of the capital's still-great classic kitchens, I am reliably informed) walked in and sat down to plates of ham, cornichons, bowls of bubbling cheese fondue and glasses of the local Savoie wine. At midnight Ducasse rose to thank them all for their hard work in maintaining the standards of their demanding profession.
As one of the few journalists who had watched these chefs at work throughout the day that had started at 6am, these thanks were the least they deserved, particularly as they were to start all over again early the following morning. Each of them had given up a minimum of 48 hours to judge the finals of the chef's division of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a very particular and demanding examination which takes place only every three years.
MOF, as those intimately involved call it, was created in 1923 by the French Education Ministry to raise the profile of apprenticeships and skills across the country. It covers more than 200 disciplines today of which a dozen fall under the category of 'food': those involved in cheese, butchery, patisserie, chocolate, wine and restaurant service all have their separate categories but as Guy Etechegainberry, representing MOF with its distinctive red, white and blue badge in his jacket, explained 'it is the cooking category which brings MOF the most publicity.'
This is a notoriously difficult accolade to achieve as less than 10,000 individuals have gained the right to put the initials MOF after their surname in all disciplines since it began. Michel Roux of the Waterside Inn at Bray, who passed both in cookery and patisserie, still talks of his twin achievements as two of the crowning moments of his career while remembering with less pleasure the pressure these culinary exams induced.
Last week's finals brought together 33 chefs from across France, a number significantly reduced from the 500 who had sat the initial, extremely difficult 'semi-final' at the Sorbonne in Paris in late 2006. There each had to produce over five hours three technically demanding dishes: six cannelloni of squid, each precisely 10 cms long, stuffed with their own ink; a three rib rack of veal next to a charlotte of sweetbreads on a disc of macaroni, and finally pineapple 'Victoria Créole', roasted with rum, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and butter but where success depended on the quality of the syrup and the precise time it was allowed to cook.
What distinguishes the MOF from other culinary examinations is that the contestants are given very precise instructions about the dishes they are asked to cook and more seem to fail because they try to be distinctive or, as in the case of so many contestants in any exam, fail to read the question closely enough. This was certainly the case with many of the 33 finalists, including one whose dessert was not even tasted because it was judged not to conform to the specification because he had sweetened the zest of the clementines on his crepes.
If the contestants felt that having passed the 'semi-final' they were due a slightly easier ride they were in for a rude shock when before lunch in Paris in early February the judges drew from a hat one of five possible starters, main courses and desserts. If the latter, 18 small clementines crepes with six individual clementine pannacottas, sounded relatively straightforward, there was a sting in the tail as most of the contestants failed to read that the pannacotta must include clementines and instead produced pale versions of what was demanded.
The main course - a young rabbit stuffed as though the dish were the classic 'hare à la royale' with its liver, heart and kidneys, then truffles, foie gras and blood before being braised - was there to test the chefs' abilities to prepare such an intricate dish. They had to braise it for precisely the right period and then present it attractively. Once the dish had been cooked it had to be sliced into six pieces and served on a large silver tray alongside six artichoke bottoms stuffed with red cabbage, a plate of gnocchi made by hand but without eggs, as the rules stipulated on pain of elimination, and a sauce from the braising liquid. Here it was the quality of the stuffing that was crucial and one chef was disqualified for adding cabbage which is not in the original recipe.
If the finalists' hearts had not been in their clogs by the time they had digested the descriptions of these two dishes then they certainly would have been by the time they had tried to comprehend the complexity of the first course they would have to produce. It sounded straightforward - 'a tart of fresh scallops with a sauce Nantaise' for six - but after the precise instructions on the diameter and height of the pastry case came instructions that were to break the hearts of many. Firstly, the base was to include cooked endives, spinach and a combination of scrambled eggs and sea urchins. This was to covered by a soufflé mixture of 2 cm thickness (before cooking) made from the coral of the scallops on top of which the chef then had to place 24 thin slices from the white of the scallops. With the tart held in place by baking paper, the instructions to the chef then read, 'put in the oven and cook rapidly'.
These seven words proved incredibly difficult to execute to the judges' satisfaction. If the chef did not keep the tart in the oven long enough then as soon as it was cut into six pieces for each of the judges to sniff, dissect and finally to eat, it ran all over the plate. If, however, the chef kept the tart in the oven too long then the scrambled eggs in the bottom turned solid and effectively became an omelette. Those who did what I believe many talented amateurs might consider and cooked it initially in the oven and then finished it under the salamander to ensure that they could judge its texture more precisely promptly lost marks from the judges because the top was consequently browner than it should have been.
For Ducasse, the newly appointed President of this section of the MOF, each dish represented a different challenge. "This first course is terribly difficult. It is very demanding and sophisticated and requires an enormous amount of knowledge on the chef's part to execute properly," he explained. Walking with him into the room where six chefs spent three hours on three separate occasions (the 33 finalists were divided into three different sessions of 11 over two days), I was handed a small plate from one of the more successful candidates to sample while the judges marked. The flavours of the dish were so intense they almost came as a shock and were certainly not the kind one encounters too often on restaurant menus today. It reminded me of meals in restaurants in France twenty years ago or at The Connaught when Michel Bourdin was still in charge.
Ducasse went on to say that these finalists would be mentally and physically exhausted when they had finished as though, he added 'they had run the marathon'. He has made their challenge even more demanding by tightening up the marking so that it is more mathematically based, calling in an extraordinary array of judges and including for the first time a dessert course in both examinations. Not a dessert, he added, that clashes with the patisserie section of the MOF but one that realises that in today's modern kitchen the pressure on staff costs and space means invariably that there are not the separate, clearly defined roles that they once were. Today's chef/proprietor, he explained, has to be a master of all trades.
When I mentioned that he had succeeded without the MOF initials, he laughed and explained that while being a successful chef today was the result of a cocktail of factors including luck, even those who did not pass would benefit from the discipline of taking the exam. This point was confirmed by his fellow judge and fellow three Michelin star chef Régis Marcon of Le Clos des Cimes in St Bonnet-le-Froid who failed his MOF on three separate occasions but maintains that each attempt proved an invaluable lesson for running his own kitchen.
These 33 chefs must share the same desire to succeed not only because they have to pay for and bring all the ingredients for the exam themselves but because they then have to cook for five hours not just in view of each other but also of a vast array of judges (34 in total), television cameras, photographers and the odd nosey journalist. Their only assistance they have were two young commis chefs from the school apiece whom they have never met before.
Once the five hour period was over, the first course was taken into a room of six judges who have not been allowed in the kitchen and at fifteen minute intervals the contestants then have to deliver their rabbit dish and finally their crepes. In these judging rooms, where top chefs sit at desks far too small for them in complete silence, the same ritual is followed: a waiter takes the dish from the first to the last judge to view its appearance and then to a teacher doubling as a maître d' who carves or serves the dish with the sauce on a separate plate. Then the judges, each in their own particular style, smell, sniff, dissect, taste and mark. The competitors, meanwhile, clean their stoves and pack away their equipment, hoping that they have not let themselves down.
Two hours after the last contestant has finished and with all the results collated the judges gathered in private session and went through the results.
After what I heard was a heated debate between the representatives of MOF who wanted the results announced to the contestants privately as happens in most exams and Ducasse and his colleagues who wanted it announced with the media present for the sake of complete transparency, Ducasse's view prevailed and he announced the nine winners in public in alphabetical order. Each successful contestant was greeted with rapturous applause and even the toughtest-looking successful candidate succumbed to tears of joy when their name was announced. And even more emotion followed when Ducasse announced that his all-male jury had passed Andrée Rosier, the first female chef ever to become a MOF.
2007 MOF CHEFS
François Adamski, Abbaye Saint Ambroix, Bourges,
Vincent Arnould, Le Vieux Logis, Trémolat,
Sébastien Chambru, La Plage, Lyons,
Johan Leclerre, La Maison des Mouettes, Aytres,
Olivier Nasti, Le Chambard, Kaysersberg
Jean-Denis Rieubland, Domaine de Terre Blanche, Tourrettes,
Jean-Luc Rocha Serralheiro, Château Cordeillan-Bages, Pauillac,
Andrée Rosier, Hotel de Palais, Biarritz
Christophe Roure, Le Neuvième Art, Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert.
NOT TO BE MISSEDFromagerie Boujon, a wonderful cheese shop, 7, rue Sebastian, Thonon-lès-Bains, 04.50.71.07.68
To stay and eat: Chateau de Coudrée, Sciez-Sur-Leman, www.coudree.fr 10 kilometres away on Lake Geneva.