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UPDATED 3:50 p.m. 4/4

François Haeringer, the fearsomely proud Alsatian who gave the area a taste of his native cuisine for decades at L’Auberge Chez Francois, died yesterday afternoon at Reston Hospital Center after suffering a fall earlier in the week. He was 91 years old and still working daily in his restaurant.

“While doing some scans and x-rays, his heart just stopped,” says Trina Kaye, spokeswoman for L’Auberge. Haeringer was put on a ventilator, Kaye adds, but doctors learned that the chef had suffered brain damage. Per the chef’s and family’s wishes, Haeringer was taken off the ventilator. He died around 5 p.m. yesterday.

“It was very sudden,” Kaye says.

Haeringer had fallen at home late on Tuesday night, says eldest son, Jacques Haeringer, chef de cuisine at L’Auberge. Papa Haeringer, as the family knows François, “had been working that day,” his son adds. “He tasted the sauces before dinner around 5 p.m.”

When he heard about the fall, Jacques rushed over to his parents’ house and found his father lying on the floor. He helped put the elder Haeringer into bed. “Eventually he seemed to be complaining a lot,” says Jacques, who decided to call an ambulance.

Doctors  learned that François had fractured his hip. The following day, François Haeringer called his oldest son to inform him that doctors had also discovered a fractured vertebrae in his neck. It was inoperable, Jacques says.

On Thursday morning, François had difficulty breathing and was eventually put on a ventilator. By that point, there was brain damage, Jacques says. It was not his father’s wishes to remain alive artificially. So with the entire family surrounding the patriarch, including his four grandchildren, they decided to take François Haeringer off the ventilator.

“We’re so busy now getting things done,” says Jacques about the funeral arrangements. “The shock comes later.”

Haeringer’s death ends a run of more than 50 years in the local restaurant industry. He opened his first restaurant, Chez François, in downtown D.C. in 1954 but moved the property to its current location in Great Falls in 1976. He renamed it L’Auberge Chez François to reflect its more French country-inn style. Wherever the restaurant was located or named, the diminutive chef ran the place exactly as he wanted, not entertaining any ideas that might compromise his native cuisine or his vision of the business.

When I first met Haeringer last fall, he was still fighting the good fight. Here’s a passage from the article I wrote in October 2009:

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.”

Haeringer was born in the small Alsatian town of Obernai just after the end of World War I. In October 1969, William Rice, the future food editor for the Washington Post, wrote a profile on Haeringer in the Washingtonian. It included this great piece of information:

“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.”

Haeringer proudly carried the flag of Alsace throughout his life, right up to the day he died. He never considered retiring and rarely missed a day at work, unless sidelined briefly with an ailment in his old age. About 15 years ago, for example, François underwent quadruple bypass surgery.

As for his father’s legacy, the eldest son thinks that François Haeringer may have founded the “most popular restaurant in Washington history.”

“He was a pioneer in bringing French cuisine to Washington,” Jacques adds.

L’Auberge will remain open today and into the future, says spokeswoman Kaye.  Jacques told Kaye that “Papa would have it no other way.” The eldest son, in fact, plans to be in the kitchen tonight, carrying on his father’s tradition of working through even the most difficult of times.

Haeringer is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Marie-Antoinette, and three sons — Jacques, Robert, and Paul — and four grandchildren. The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, June 10,  at St. Catherine’s Church in Great Falls. The service is open to the public.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery