One of the things I admire most about French culture is its preservation of traditional métiers. Walk down a street in Paris and chances are you’ll find a family-owned bakery, run by a boulangère proud to carry her name above the door. There are independent pastry shops, fromageries, charcuteries and butchers. Or even boot-makers, or hat designers, or wood-workers. And if you look closely, you’ll sometimes see four special words on the awning or window, printed above or below the shop’s name: Meilleur ouvrier de France, or best craftsman of France.
The first time I saw it, I laughed. Best worker in France? Those who criticize the French work ethic would almost certainly call that an oxymoron. But then I had the chance to meet un des meilleurs ouvriers — Pierre Gay, a fromager in Annecy who helped me with research for my book — and as I learned more about the title, I became fascinated by the path of endurance and excellence required to attain it.
This weekend, I’m thrilled to interview five MOFs — as they’re affectionately nicknamed — for an article in the New York Times. There is a baker, a florist, a corset-maker (his atelier is pictured above), a fromager, and a chocolatier, each of them the owner of an independent, Paris-based boutique.
It was fascinating to talk to these men — and, yes, in this article, they’re all men — about their backgrounds and paths to success, and to learn a little more about the challenges they face as small business owners. Others may disagree, but I think France is one of the hardest climates in which to own a small shop. Along with universal worries like cost-cutting chains and consumers who prefer the convenience of the supermarché, French employers also face concerns like the 35-hour workweek and hefty payroll taxes.
A lot of them also complained about the lack of motivation among today’s youth. “I don’t understand how they could want to play video games rather than work on this!” a charcutier once said to me, this referring to the preparation of blood sausage. But I think that’s probably a complaint as old as the métier itself.
Related links from the internets:
In Paris, Five Shops Where Artisanship becomes Art (New York Times)
Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (official site)
Kings of Pastry documentary on the MOF pâtisserie competition (trailer)
A Visit to Patrick Roger — Chocolatier, MOF (David Lebovitz)
Franck Kestener comes to Paris (David Lebovitz)