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With Topaz’s Michelin Star events, we have enjoyed the privilege of being able to bring so many exceptional talents to Phnom Penh to share their gifts with our diners and with team. Everyone will of course recognise the primary distinction that they have earned in the course of their illustrious careers: their Michelin stars. But what about those, such as Guy Lassausaie, Benoit Vidal and Philippe Girardon, who have also been recognised as “Meilleur Ouvrier de France”. For the non-French among us, what exactly is that, and why is it so important? 

“The best craftsman (or craftswoman) of France” is the closest translation for this unique accolade which was created in the 1920s in order to address the fact that France’s artisans were falling behind their peers in other countries. So the government decided to create a national competition that today encompasses more than 230 trades, from sculpture to furniture making, hairdressing and photography and, of course, the different elements of hospitality. 

The requirements for the competition are pretty simple. All you have to do is create a masterpiece and it has to be better than the other masterpieces created by the most accomplished artisans in your field. Easy. 

Indeed, the competition is incredibly democratic. Held every three or four years, it is open to anyone over the age of 23 whether they are professionals or not. All they have to do is pay the €60 fee. In reality, the stratospheric standards expected, demanding many months, if not years, of preparation, mean that the competition attracts only the most dedicated of France’s artisans. And they are artisans more than artists. Aesthetics are vital, but the competition is above all a test of technical excellence and savoir faire

And yet, notwithstanding the truly punishing demands that competing imposes, the hundreds of hours that must be spent researching and perfecting, then perfecting even more, the gastronomic section alone for the last contest drew more than 430 competitors. Held in 2015, it also gave us the second only woman to win in this group. Virginie Basselot joins Andrée Rosier (a former patron for Sala Baï, Siem Reap’s Hotel & Restaurant School) within the ranks of those entitled to sport the tricolour on the collars of their chef’s whites. 

Other notable winners include Joël Robuchon, Paul Bocuse (two legends who both left us this year) and Michel Roux, a mentor for our next Michelin star, Philippe Girardon

But winning as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France is not just about gaining a prize and accompanying recognition. It also carries a responsibility; each “MOF” is expected to contribute to the growth of their profession, guiding the next generation and never ceasing in their own quest to learn and expand their own professional repertoire. Becoming a Meilleur Ouvrier de France may take years, but it is only the start of a journey.