Philippe Urraca, President of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France Pâtissier demystifies the institution

Philippe Urraca, himself a the Meilleurs ouvriers de France, has been the President of competition in the pastry category since 2005. Of Spanish origin, he began his career early and opened his first boutique at the age 19. By 2010, his business had expanded to 5 boutiques. In January 2011, for personal reasons, he sold his business and became the Technical Director for La Compagnie des Desserts, a high-end supplier of ready-made desert based in Lézignan-Corbières.

How does one become a President of Meilleurs ouvriers de France?

The title-holders of Meilleurs ouvriers de France elect a President in their respective category, and the Ministry of National Education recognizes the selection. I have resided as the President for the last 2 competitions. The competition takes place every 3 to 3 ½ years so it’s been 7 years.

How many juries were there for the last competition?

I had 46 jury members for the pastry category. There are three types of juries during the 3 days of the competition: those assigned to the workstations, those assigned to the degustation (tasting), and those who judge the buffets.

Aside from organizing the 3 days of the final round, what are your responsibilities?

Organization of the qualification trials, the subjects for the qualifications and for the finals, grading the candidates, everything! I have people who help me, of course. It’s a lot of work, but it’s interesting.

How come the Meilleurs ouvriers de France competition exists only in France? There seems to be no national competitions for artisans in other countries.

In France, we have a very strong artisanal culture in every category of manual work. Professional organizations are well structured in France. Here, if you are, say, a painter, a hairdresser or a pastry maker, there is a structure that is tied to the National Education, which gives you a nationally recognized diploma. The competition in the system propels the desire to excel.

France is the only country in which manual work is tied to the Ministry of National Education. In Spain, it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist in other countries either.  We are lucky to have this structure in France. And it was the Ministry that set up the competition for the Meilleurs ouvriers de France. It’s a State diploma that is conferred by the President of the Republic. It’s something beautiful for both the craftsmanship and an image in general of France. Today there are 200 categories of craftsmanship that are recognized by the competition.

The people who participate in the competition don’t suffer just for the sake of suffering. They suffer in order to express themselves through their work, to be part of the best. They tell me that samurai is a good parallel to understand what Meilleurs ouvriers de France is. They suffer in order to achieve their goal.  When a Meilleur ouvrier de France says he will do something, he will have to go all the way to the end to achieve it. It’s part of the mentality and the way of working. We are not superficial. They do what they say they will, and they will teach others.

Do you think that working for excellence through so much suffering is in the mentality and the character of the French people?

Yes, it’s a certain French character. Look at the Meilleurs ouvriers de France today. There are many title-holders with whom I’ve reconnected through the competition, and I notice that many have stories that are a bit similar to mine. I am a son of Spanish refugees. We have the need to prove something, to know who we are, and to prove who we are.

I find the same spirit in Japan. A Japanese who comes to study in France want to go back home and show what they learnt and the skills they’ve acquired. For us the spirit of Meilleurs ouvriers de France is also that. Even if you are an unknown patissier at first, he can become recognized by other patissiers. If I were a plumber, I would certainly enter the Meilleurs ouvriers de France competition in the plumbing category. It’s in the mind rather than in the hands.

Today, some cooks are living proofs that being a great chef is better than being a bank manager. Alain Ducasse is almost as famous as the President of the Republic of France, and he is just a cook! It’s been proven that with manual labor, we can achieve our goals, we can get paid, and it makes us happy. Recognition is important! Above all it allows us to continue to grow, because when there is no recognition, after 10 or 15 years, people will say, “I’m going to stop what I’m doing. It doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t thrill me.”

Do you think that the competition exists in France only because of the government support?

No, that is not the only reason. In addition to the formal structure, there is the camaraderie. If you decide to open the window one day to pursue excellence, there will be someone there for you. In Spain, for example, if you decide to obtain higher education, you are completely alone. No one will tell you which doors you need to open or help you open them. You have to do everything by yourself. In France, on the contrary, there are always people there to lend hands.

The second thing is that in France there are a lot of communications. People have a chance to develop their interests early in their lives because a lot of information is readily available about the training and the work.

For me there is a slight paradox between the co-existence of something as demanding as Meilleurs ouvriers de France where artisans work thousands of hours for free and the 35 work-hour regulations in France.

I don’t stop talking about this subject! We are crazy in France. On one side, we tell the people don’t work too much, and we the people who want to pass the Meilleurs ouvriers de France competition that they have to work an enormous amount. You are right, it’s a paradox. This is the reason why there are a fewer people who apply for the competition compared to before. However, the quality is still there because the people who enter are motivated.

(Interview by Eri Ikezi, 30 May 2012, Lezignan-Corbieres)

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