“Kings of Pastry,” France, America, and the Vocational Education Debate

Jacquy Pfeiffer & chocolate sculpture 

MOF finalist Jacquy Pfeiffer, cofounder of Chicago's French Pastry School, with sugar sculpture. Photo via "Kings of Pastry"

It's been awhile since I've had the chance to indulge my Francophilism on the blog, but last night I watched a fantastic documentary, "Kings of Pastry," that left me reflecting on the cultural differences between how Americans and the French think about intelligence, knowledge, and education. 

The film, which you can stream on Netflix, tells the story of the MOF–Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, or "best French craftsmen"–competition in pastry. Every four years, chefs, bakers, cheesemongers, florists, jewelers, weavers, woodworkers, and dozens of other French artisans compete to win this designation. It is considered one of France's highest civilian honors. 

The 16 pastry chef finalists–all of them male, a fact the film ignores–bring an absolute, overwhelming intensity to the MOF competition. Their wives and girlfriends speak of normal family life being on hold for years while their partners pursue the MOF doggedly, testing elaborate recipes and decoration techniques, usually at night after working a full day in a restaurant or shop. Some competitors devote decades to the process, competing every four years until they finally acquire a coveted MOF medal. 

The film shows President Nicolas Sarkozy speaking at a MOF award ceremony for chefs. I was really struck by how coherent his support is for what might be termed "vocationalism," and how out of step this would sound in an American context. Sarkozy said:

"Worker, artisan, apprentice. I affirm: There are not two forms of intelligence, two kinds of knowledge. Manual skill doesn't fall from the sky any more than intellectual skills. I don't want any more of that concept in our country. Because this idea is morally scandalous, and is insufficient economically."

The French education system is structured around such ideas. In the last three years of high school, or lycee, French teenagers choose to focus on the hard sciences, social sciences, or literature, or from among eight career-oriented "technical" courses of study, including the food sciences, health sciences, and hospitality. 

Americans are–and probably should be–skeptical of efforts to "track" 15-year olds into specific careers, especially given the vast inequities in children's educational and social opportunities before they ever enter high school. But some of the most thoughtful education reformers I've talked to in my reporting are Americans who are trying to seed workforce-relevancy into our own school system, by introducing young adults to possible professions in an intellectually rigorous way. This is important work, because we know one of the primary causes of dropping-out is that low-income students don't see how their education will help them land a job or build a satisfying, remunerative career in the future. 

I profiled two high schools that embody workforce-relevancy and academic rigor in my July Nation feature, but I'd say this remains a real minority movement in American education circles. So many of us–and I'd include myself–feel a real attachment to a romantic idea of the liberal arts, and of "college" in general.

"Kings of Pastry," however, romanticizes vocationalism in a way that is both enchanting and very foreign seeming. It's a delightful film — but also also very relevant to the education debate.

2 thoughts on ““Kings of Pastry,” France, America, and the Vocational Education Debate

  1. Cedar Riener

    Mike Rose has written well about the Mind at Work: the cognitive value of “manual” skill.
    I am a college professor, but I worked summer with my dad when he was a plumbing/electrical contractor.
    Both jobs can be cognitively demanding but also remunerative and rewarding.

    We can feel romantically attached to the liberal arts (I teach at a liberal arts school) but also devoted to the value of the trades, and it doesn’t have to be to enforce current class stratification.

    College is great, but the same kind of college is not great for everybody, and we shouldn’t all be college professors. Accepting the value of a college education doesn’t have to mean denigrating everything else, but too often in today’s education debate it does.

    Reply
  2. Arieswym

    This made me think of the documentary “Pressure Cooker” that highlighted a cooking class in a Philadelphia high school that leads to students competing in the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, which provides scholarships to culinary programs for HS seniors.

    Reply

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