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The manager directs me to a table in the main dining room, near a window looking out onto the patio at L’Auberge Chez François. The view from this ground-floor perch is spectacular, particularly on this mild, mid-October afternoon as the Japanese maples start to burn crimson right outside the window. Still, I can’t help but think the manager has given me a bum steer. This table is littered with papers. One of the chairs has a worn cushion on it, like a booster chair. Someone is clearly working here.
But I dutifully take my seat and, within seconds, am approached by this diminutive man in a brown sweater, checkered pants, and comfortable shoes. He walks with a wood cane. His shoulders appear to be locked permanently in the shrugged position. His eyes, set deep behind bifocals, are blue and cloudy. His hair is whitish-gray, and it stands straight up in tiny rows at the crown of his head. I stand up, introduce myself, and shake his hand. He tells me to sit back down, and he takes a seat on the chair with the worn cushion.
“Would you like something to drink?” he asks. “Coffee?”
“No, thank you. I’m fine,” I tell him.
“Tea?” I decline the offer again.
“Whiskey?” he asks.
I’m not sure he’s kidding, but I am sure that I’ve come face-to-face with the intimidating François Haeringer, the 90-year-old founder of the Great Falls restaurant that bears his given name. The country inn, patterned after those in Haeringer’s native Alsace, carries more history within its walls than meets the eye. Yes, there are the decorative plates and bed-warmers and pans from the old country, and there are even piercing, sepia-toned portraits of Haeringer’s parents framing that window looking onto the garden. But the most compelling piece of history in this historic restaurant, whose roots date back to 1954, is the founding chef himself.
In October 1969, William Rice, still several years away from being appointed the food editor for the Washington Post, wrote a profile on Haeringer in the Washingtonian. Buried within Rice’s story were these telling sentences about Haeringer: “Still, what he has is enough to qualify him as one of the most successful native sons of Obernai, the Alsatian town (population 4,851) whose local wine still finds a place on his list. He was the first male baby born there after Alsace became French at the end of World War I. Hence François.”
As I sit across the paper-strewn table from Haeringer, I can’t help but think of that fact. Here is a man whose parents were so thrilled to push away the jackboot of the German Empire that they, in a fit of patriotic zeal, decided their infant son would announce his citizenship every time he spoke his name. I imagine the signatures on the armistice treaty weren’t even dry when Haeringer was officially proclaimed “François.”
But if I’m thinking about the past, Haeringer is far more preoccupied with the present. That table, it turns out, is the owner’s makeshift office, where he keeps tabs on everything that occurs within his field of vision. Or within earshot. He repeatedly barks at two employees working the telephones at some dining-room tables behind him. He pointedly reminds them to call and confirm every reservation for Friday—and call them again if necessary. “You have to call them back,” he says. “For God’s sake!” The employees always respond the same: “Yes, sir.”
At one point, a waiter in a bright red vest appears at our table. A cook needs Haeringer’s assistance, the waiter says. I follow the owner into the kitchen and watch as Haeringer reviews a composed plate of choucroute garnie, the classic Alsatian dish of sauerkraut, sausages, smoked pork shoulder, bacon, and potatoes. He says something to the cook that I can’t hear over the din in the kitchen, but I notice that the plate has not been altered an inch. Seconds later, the plate is presented again for Haeringer’s inspection, and he takes his crooked index finger and moves a frankfurter a couple of millimeters to the left. I’m getting the feeling that this has been staged for my benefit.
After spending the afternoon with a restaurant full of competent employees, I also get the feeling that L’Auberge could operate fine without its founding chef running interference from his dining-room office. But that’s not how Haeringer sees it. To his mind, he has been setting aside retirement for decades to stand guard against today’s youth—which, from his perspective, could be anyone under 70—who may want to drag his venerable institution into the modern dining world.
“The young generation, like you, and I must include you,” he tells me, as if he sees right through me, “they don’t think the same.…All you young people have different opinions. You want to change everything.”
If change comes to L’Auberge, it only comes through this drill sergeant of a senior. Over the years, Haeringer has introduced small compromises into his self-contained, Alsatian snow-globe of a restaurant. It can be as odd as mixing garlic bread with slices of baguette in the opening bread service or as generous as tossing extra meats, like medallions of goose and duck, onto the choucroute plate. But whatever the change, it is clearly Haeringer’s call. He likes to say he does things “his way,” a statement of mission that everyone around him will confirm.
“It’s difficult,” Haeringer admits. “I keep the old system. I don’t put the Eiffel Tower on the plate. I make it simple.”
Maybe François Haeringer is right to fight for classic French cuisine. Before I drove up to Great Falls, I was on the phone with Robert Wiedmaier, who knows something about French cooking. The Marcel’s chef/owner and I were talking about the cultural shift away from French food, and I asked him why he thought it was happening. Has the American public really lost its taste for demi-glace and butter sauce or is that just an excuse for cheaper restaurants? Wiedmaier was blunt.
“It’s a lot of labor. It’s a lot of technique, and it’s a lot of work” to run a French restaurant, he says. It’s also cheaper, he adds, to pan-sear a piece of fish, slap it on puréed potatoes, sprinkle micro-greens over the top, and drizzle it with a balsamic reduction. It takes more time and labor to produce veal stock or fish fumet.
I all but admitted to Wiedmaier that I was seduced by L’Auberge’s Old World charm during my first visit, which was just a few days before I met Haeringer in his dining room. Maybe a good bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin makes me easy, but I fell for the place, from its heavy wood beams and still-life paintings to its Dover sole meuniere and Grand Marnier soufflé. My dining companion and I knocked back course after course, duxelles crepes and country pâté, choucroute garnie and Alsatian plum tart, as if the entire world had reverted to a more relaxed time. A time before we were so certain everything would kill us. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it was one of the most sensual experiences I’ve had in a restaurant in a long time.
Sure, there was a price to pay that night. For me, it was more than $350. But as I’m talking to Marie-Antoinette, Haeringer’s wife of 60 years, I realize that her husband may be paying an even higher price for doing things his way. When he moved his original restaurant, Chez François on Connecticut Avenue NW, to Great Falls in 1976, he envisioned the place as a true auberge, a country inn run by a chef-owner and members of his family. That vision came to pass three years later when his son, Paul, joined the other two at L’Auberge.
I ask Marie-Antoinette how many of their sons still work at L’Auberge, and she indicates that only the youngest, Paul, is left. Robert has gone back to school while Jacques, the eldest who has devoted most of his adult life to serving as chef de cuisine at L’Auberge, is not there, which is no surprise given the reported conflicts between father and son. So where is Jacques? “I don’t know where he is. He changed,” Marie-Antoinette tells me, as François busies himself thanking diners. “He has an easy life. But what can you do?”
She then suggests I should talk to her husband about all this. (I talked to Jacques on the phone about this, too, but he declined to answer questions on his whereabouts for the record. “It only hurts the brand,” he says. “Papa wants to do his own thing, and he should be able to do it.”)
When Haeringer returns from glad-handing his departing customers, I ask about Jacques, who is almost 60. “He has a bad foot. He can’t cook right now,” Papa says, and it’s clear he’d prefer to talk about almost anything else (Jacques tells me later that he’s in fine shape to cook). I don’t say anything for a second or two. François Haeringer decides to fill the empty space with one more comment about his eldest son:
“He’s not like me,” he says, almost to no one in particular. “That’s for sure.”
L’Auberge Chez François, 332 Springvale Road, Great Falls, Va., (703) 759-3800.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221. twitter.com/timcarman.