In Paris, Five Shops Where Artisanship Becomes Art

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ANY search for Parisian chic leads almost inescapably to the glossy boutiques that line the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré or to the Michelin-starred temples of gastronomy that anchor the capital's grand avenues.

But such addresses are only part of what makes Paris so elegant. The city's true lifeblood of luxury can be found in the small neighborhood shops -- some of them virtually unknown even among Parisians -- owned by members of an elite group of professionals called the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, or Best Craftsmen of France.

These artisans represent more than 200 professions throughout the country, including those devoted to food, like fromagers, chocolatiers and butchers; others that deal with the decorative, like hairdressers, florists and corset-makers; and even fields like Web design and taxidermy.

Each member of the group has passed a rigorous competition to obtain the lifelong title of Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, which the Ministry of Labor awards to about 2 percent of applicants every three to four years. Created in 1924, the group has as its goal the recognition of exceptional French craftsmanship, and ensuring the survival of traditional know-how. Recipients become ambassadors of their métier, and must pledge to pass along their knowledge to members of the next generation. The group has about 4,000 members, about 200 of them based in Paris.

"We must protect these métiers. If we lose all the brains in our country, we are lost," said Jean-François Girardin, former chef de cuisine at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, Meilleur Ouvrier de France, and the vice president and treasurer of the Société Nationale des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, a professional organization.

Some members of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France are famous, like the chef Joël Robuchon and the New York chocolatier Jacques Torres, but most of them are artisan-merchants little known outside their profession or neighborhood. Market competition means that most of their exquisitely created products are affordable, putting small everyday luxuries within the reach of most consumers.

I recently visited the Parisian shops of five members of the group, and found the timeless craftsmanship that is a hallmark of French life on full display.

The Baker

Shelves of bread are stacked up along the walls of the Boulangerie Morieux: dense, dark loaves of rye; rustic sourdough rounds made with whole wheat and spelt; butter-rich, yeast-puffed croissants; golden-crusted baguettes with a honeycombed interior. In 2011, the shop's owner, Mickaël Morieux, was among six bakers awarded the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France, chosen from a field of more than 100 finalists. For the competition, he produced more than 200 baked goods in 13 hours (baguettes, whole wheat loaves, croissants and small cakes among them) with each piece meeting precise standards of size, weight and quality.

His final project was a towering edible sculpture of bread devoted to the theme of Blaise Pascal. It depicted key elements in the life of the French mathematician and philosopher, including a Pascaline calculator and a prie-dieu prayer desk. "The judges require perfection," Mr. Morieux said. "I strive to replicate this level."

At his bakery in Boulogne-Billancourt, a Paris suburb, Mr. Morieux selects all ingredients himself, visiting artisanal mills to create his own blends of flours. "The ingredients of a baguette are not expensive," he said. "What's expensive is the transformation. The savoir faire is priceless."

Boulangerie Morieux, 35, rue d'Aguesseau; Boulogne-Billancourt; (33-1) 41-10-94-36. A baguette is 1.22 euros, or $1.55 at $1.26 to the euro; bread from 5.65 euros per kilogram.

The Florist

After more than two decades of entering a range of professional florist competitions, Jacques Castagné was finally awarded the distinction of Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2004. "All those other competitions gave me the time to establish my own style," he said. While many Parisian flower shops bring in blooms from across Europe, Mr. Castagné stocks his store, Art et Végétal, with flowers grown by local producers.

He considers color, life span and geographic origin when composing his mixed bouquets. "Each flower has an identity, an association," Mr. Castagné said. "I make sure my arrangements emphasize each bloom. Every time you glance at the bouquet, it should be a discovery."

Art et Végétal, 192, rue de Tolbiac, 13th Arrondissement; (33-1) 45-81-27-22; art-vegetal-fleuriste.fr. A medium-size bouquet is 30 euros.

The Chocolatier

Descended from four generations of bakers and pastry chefs, Franck Kestener began a patisserie apprenticeship at age 16 with his father, Robert, and discovered the allure of chocolate. "It's a very simple product, completely natural," he said. "But artistically it's very complex. You can do many things: mold it, melt it, form it."

In Mr. Kestener's boutique near the Luxembourg Gardens, his creations combine intense flavors -- caramelized pear and saffron, for example, or a chocolate bar embedded with passion fruit praline and candied orange peel -- combinations he develops at his workshop in Sarreguemines, in Lorraine.

"When I create, I visualize the taste in my head. I have a mental library of flavors of chocolate and spices," he said. This attention to detail, along with his technical savvy, helped Mr. Kestener attain the title of best craftsman in 2004, at the age of 28. (According to Mr. Girardin from the group's professional organization, most successful candidates are between 30 and 40.)

"My shop doesn't offer everything I prepared for the competition -- it's not practical," he said. "But my approach remains the same."

Franck Kestener, 7, rue Gay-Lussac, Fifth Arrondissement; (33-1) 43-26-40-91. An 18-piece box of chocolates is 14.95 euros, chocolate bars from 5 euros.

The Corset-Maker

François Tamarin became a corset-maker because he wanted to discover a forgotten art. "I love belle époque glamour," he said. His atelier bursts with swaths of fabric and scraps of lace, clothing racks lined with corsets, and dress forms clad in low-bodiced gowns that could have been worn in another century. "Corsets are like an umbrella: very structured and rigid," Mr. Tamarin said. "They sculpt the silhouette and design the body."

His creations, which include ball gowns, period costumes, the occasional wedding dress, as well as "corsets de l'amour," as he discreetly called them, are made to measure, with the prices to match. Mr. Tamarin (who is "90 percent self-taught," he said) attained the distinction of best craftsman in 2004 with his final project of a short pink and black dress structured by a velvet-ribbed corset as exquisitely detailed on the interior as on the exterior. "Corsets are not instruments of torture," he said. "They are tools to play with."

François Tamarin, 1, rue Marcel Sembat, 18th Arrondissement; (33-6) 72-77-92-41; corset-paris.fr. Corsets start at 800 euros and take two to four weeks, depending on the level of complexity.

The Fromager

An excellent cheese begins with its producer, which is why Michel Fouchereau, fromager and owner of La Fromagerie d'Auteuil, maintains weekly contact with cheesemakers across France. "They call to take my order and we chat. I support and advise them. Several times a year, I make trips to visit them. The bond between fromager and producer is very traditional," said Mr. Fouchereau, who earned the title of best craftsman in 2004.

At his gleaming boutique, glass cases display cheeses that are lighted from above like jewels, each at the peak of ripeness. They are aged in a basement-level cave d'affinage, or aging chamber, where Mr. Fouchereau carefully monitors their exposure to mold. "Each fromager has his own personal taste," he said, citing several variables of ripening, like temperature and time. "The affinage of his cheeses represents his palate. Our job is to develop each product until it becomes sublime."

La Fromagerie d'Auteuil, 58, rue d'Auteuil, 16th Arrondissement; (33-1) 45-25-07-10; lafromageriedauteuil.fr. Three approximately half-pound cheeses cost about 20 euros, depending on the cheese.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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