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How Master Chefs Keep France's Brightest Culinary Flames Alive

On the television show MasterChef, amateur chefs compete for a title and go on to open their own restaurants, or ink TV deals. That's the Hollywood version of the master chef, anyway.

But to earn the title in France, chefs must be inducted into the prestigious — and very exclusive — society called Maître Cuisiniers de France. It's more than 60-years-old, and it's one of the highest honors in the country.

Think of these chefs as the field commanders in the war against fusion cooking: Their goal is preserve French traditions in the kitchen and ensure the next generation has the skills to keep them alive. They do it through apprenticeships and a strong mentoring system.

"What makes Maître Cuisiniers de France special is their focus on ensuring the continuity of French culinary tradition through the development of great chefs," says European food consultant David Read. "It's vital that food innovates, and we have seen some incredible new dishes created by fusing cooking techniques from different cultures, but it would be criminal to lose the roots of all the great cuisines of the world, particularly the French."

Every year, master chefs from around the world gather to initiate the next generation with a private ceremony, followed by a celebratory dinner of fine food prepared by local chefs. This year, 30 new chefs were inducted in the ceremony in Lyons, France. Six of the new inductees are based in the U.S.

Members are carefully chosen, but beyond some basic criteria, the selection process is a bit mysterious. Chefs must be French citizens, be at least 25 years old. They must also have 10 years of experience, two mentors, and the patience to wait until the elder master chefs decide you're ready for the "master" title.

Romuald Feger grew up in Alsace and now presides over the dining room at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco. He says that unlike most culinary honors – say, the Michelin star system or the Bocuse D'Or competition — it's more important for master chefs to be recognized by their peers than the public.

"It has nothing to do with Michelin stars, nothing to do with press, the movies or the TV show," he says. "It's all about the technical skill and your career path."

Serge Devesa, executive chef at New York's InterContinental Barclay Hotel, also just became a master chef. He says it's about utilizing fresh, local ingredients and resisting modern short cuts.

"It's about knowing the proper way to make a Bearnaise sauce or a Bourgignon, no mixes," Devesa says.

Veteran master chef Jean-Louis Dumonet heads the U.S. delegation and says management style matters, too. "You can be the best chef in the world," he says, "but if you don't have a nice ethic, treat your staff well, it doesn't matter."

Feger says that, unlike the master chefs on TV, his life probably won't change overnight now that he has the title. And, unlike the stereotype of so many accomplished chefs, he holds a humble view of his role.

"It's not like ... because you're a master chef you're gonna' get Michelin stars falling from the sky," Feger says, adding, "If we as chefs stop doing this, we lose 2,000 years of history, so it's something much bigger than just you as a chef in your little kitchen. I always heard that real success comes the day your mentee goes higher than you are. That's where the master chef actually succeeds."

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Amy Guttman