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For this week’s Young & Hungry column, I spent part of the afternoon with François Haeringer, the 90-year-old owner and founding chef of L’Auberge Chez François, the French country restaurant in Great Falls that can trace its roots back to 1954 in downtown D.C.
In reporting the story, I spoke with Mark Furstenberg, the master baker behind G Street Food, who says he learned about French food, back in the early ’60s, by visiting L’Auberge’s early incarnation, Chez François, which was located approximately where Equinox is today on Connecticut Avenue NW. At the time, the young Furstenberg had never been to France and had never sampled many of the dishes that have become staples on almost every French menu.
But Furstenberg got more than an education in French cooking at Chez François; he also got a taste of the stuffiness that has since become a stereotype of the French. He still recalls the icy reception that would await him every time he walked in the front door at Chez François. It was courtesy of Jacqueline Rodier, who served as hostess at the restaurant until 1966 when she opened her own place, Jacqueline’s, on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Furstenberg remembers Rodier as stunningly beautiful — and stunningly cold. It was the attitude, of course, that was hard for many Americans to swallow in the ’60s.
Haeringer himself believes that part of his success — and longevity — in the business is due to the fact that he adopted the American business practice of treating his customers with respect, Rodier’s iciness notwithstanding.
“The French people were different than American people,” Haeringer told me about those early years on the D.C. dining scene. Some French restaurateurs at the time didn’t pay enough attention to the differences.
“They were too cold to the guests for the Americans’ tastes,” he says. “That’s just my opinion.”
So while Haeringer may be hard on his staff, and even his own family, he has been unfailingly kind to his customers over the years. Even today, at age 90 with bad feet and other ailments, he still rises from his seat in the dining room to say goodbye to lunch time guests, inquiring how their meal was.
“I was the one who lasted because I was modest in the way of doing things,” he says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery