François Haeringer, 91

François Haeringer, 91

As chef David Becker looks on, François Haeringer, oversees the cooking at L'Auberge Chez François in Great Falls. Mr. Haeringer opened his first restaurant near the White House in 1954.
As chef David Becker looks on, François Haeringer, oversees the cooking at L'Auberge Chez François in Great Falls. Mr. Haeringer opened his first restaurant near the White House in 1954. (1999 File Photo By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010

François Haeringer, a chef who made an art of French country cooking and whose Great Falls restaurant, L'Auberge Chez François, was a beloved culinary destination, died June 3 at Reston Hospital Center of complications from a fall. He was 91 and worked in the kitchen of his restaurant until Tuesday.

When Mr. Haeringer opened his first restaurant, Chez François, near the White House in 1954, he introduced Washington to a fresh approach to French cuisine. He emphasized the rustic flavors of his native Alsatian region of France, with fish, steaks, patés, stews and roasts.

"It was the French restaurant that made French food accessible," Washington restaurateur Mark Furstenberg said Saturday. "Chez François came to represent in this city that French food could be simple and straightforward."

When Mr. Haeringer moved his restaurant to the Virginia suburbs in 1976, he created an auberge, or country inn, in the manner he remembered from his youth. He steadfastly rejected culinary fads, preferring to produce the simple but hearty food he learned to cook during his long apprenticeship in France. He kept a close eye on his restaurant, often slicing the beef himself, adjusting the seasoning of sauces and moving tables and chairs.

His unbending standards made L'Auberge Chez François a popular and critical success, with readers of Washingtonian magazine naming it one of the region's best restaurants 25 years in a row.

Mr. Haeringer managed the restaurant like a small military operation, requiring that each of his employees greet him personally every day.

"Directing a staff of 85, he mobilizes the salad crew and dispatches the pastry chefs with the tyranny of Gen. George Patton orchestrating tank columns toward battle with the Nazis," Edward J. Cody wrote in the Washington Post Magazine in 1996. "He carves filets from tenderloins with the peremptory single-mindedness of a star surgeon."

In a Washington Post video recorded last month, Mr. Haeringer extended the military metaphor.

"They say in France, discipline makes the army," he said. "And I am the general."

For years, Mr. Haeringer managed the restaurant with his three sons, and his wife kept the books. He seldom drew attention to the famous names who dined at his restaurant -- or to his own. Even as chefs increasingly became recognizable celebrities, Mr. Haeringer preferred to stay in the kitchen.

"He was proud of what he did," his son Jacques said. "He didn't want to be a star."

His sons sometimes chafed at their father's Old World manner, but his authority was absolute.

"We agreed to disagree on a lot of stuff, although he always had the final word," Jacques Haeringer said. "Who am I going to argue with in the kitchen now?"

François Robert Haeringer was born Jan. 6, 1919, in Obernai, France, in the Alsace near the German border. He began cooking at 16 in local restaurants and later apprenticed at the Plaza Athenee hotel in Paris.

"Years ago, when I was a little boy, you had no television, you had nothing," he told The Post in 1987. "So what do you think [the French] did? They ate. They made love and ate. That's all."

While serving in the French army during World War II, Mr. Haeringer was captured by German forces and sent to work as a prisoner-chef at the Four Seasons hotel in Munich. His son said he was briefly sent to the Dachau prison camp for trying to smuggle Frenchmen out of Germany.

After the war, some French loyalists who knew of Mr. Haeringer's work in a German hotel considered him a collaborator, and he was narrowly rescued from a firing squad by a cousin.

Mr. Haeringer came to Washington in 1947 to work at restaurants with an uncle and a brother. He spent more than a year cooking at a hotel in the fishing town of Ketchikan, Alaska, before returning to Washington in 1950.

He worked at the Three Musketeers restaurant on Connecticut Avenue NW before buying it in 1954 and naming it Chez François. Mr. Haeringer's sons, Jacques of Great Falls and Paul of Potomac Falls, will continue to run L'Auberge Chez François in the style their father established. A third son, Robert Haeringer of Arlington, left the restaurant last year.

Other survivors include Mr. Haeringer's wife of 62 years, Marie-Antoinette Clare Haeringer of Great Falls; and four grandchildren.

When Mr. Haeringer sat down to a meal, he preferred simple fare, such as a steak and french fries. For a snack, his son Jacques said, he liked -- of all things -- Spam and a Budweiser.

His formula for a successful restaurant was equally unpretentious.

"Listen, when people go to the restaurant, what do they want?" he said in 1996. "A good time. A nice atmosphere. A good meal. It's simple."

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