Saturday, April 7, 2012


I am on a diet trying to shed a few of those extra pounds that so insidiously creep up on us as we age. I haven't had so much as a cookie in three weeks. Why, then, am I watching a documentary entitled, The Kings of Pastry (a 2009 film by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker)? Am I eating vicariously? Beyond the scrumptious-looking treats, the film raised an interesting question in my mind.

The premise of the film is the desire of French pastry chefs to earn the coveted title of "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" - or MOF, for short - that is the premiere achievement for French pastry chefs. Every four years, a competition takes place in France where the best pastry chefs are invited to spend three days in a peer-judged event.  The results will determine if they will be allowed to claim the appellation of MOF and wear the tricolors of France on their chef's jacket collar. It is considered to be the pinnacle of the profession and pastry chefs have been known to compete for decades to try to win entry into the select group.

The competition is grueling. Three days of entering the kitchen at the crack of dawn and being there for ten hours or more without a break, even for lunch. These chefs are not just producing little creme puffs or eclairs. Their efforts produce sculptural works of art in sugar. They might work for a day on one piece only to have it shatter into a million sweet fragments when they try to move the sculpture to the display area. The competition is intense.

The film got me to thinking about professionalism and pride in your work. I find it interesting that where these sorts of competitions exist to identify the "best-of-the-best", you can always find a sense of professional pride in whatever occupation is involved.  Recognition comes from an elite cadre of your peers who judge whether you are good enough to join them in the Inner Circle. You receive the appellation and you wear it as visible evidence that you are in this select group. Others outside the profession may have no idea what any of this means but your peers know and you are held in high regard. Most of all, you know yourself to be at the top of your game.

Are there similar sorts of recognition in science and technology? Yes and no. The most prestigious national groups in the U.S. for science and technology are the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Technology. These are mostly recognition for academic achievement. There is the Presidential National Medal of Technology and Innovation which is granted to individuals and groups that have made significant contributions to U.S. inventions and innovations. But none of these gets at the sort of thing I was thinking about. Is there ever a peer-reviewed competition to determine the best, say, airline pilots, truck drivers, bridge builders, or software programmers? My guess is that there is something in each of these fields. Do they get to claim a visible recognition of their stature? Are there names known to their peers? In France with such a strong culture surrounding food and wine, it seems natural to honor chefs and vintners. In our country, so based on commercial success, it seems that the salary or the position in the organization suffice as recognition.

What might happen if such recognition was started for occupations that don't provide recognition at the moment?  Would the whole occupational area rise in its performance if there was, say,  a Master of Postal Clerks or Master of Welding? (There is such a thing, by the way, as a Master of Wine for wine tasters and it has exactly the effect I am writing about).  I doubt that we will ever get a Master of Fast Food or a Master of Greeters at Walmart. But maybe this helps to separate what are jobs from those that can rightly be called professions.

Food for thought (sorry, I couldn't help the pun).