Paul Haeberlin: Star chef and restaurateur
Tuesday 24 June 2008
Paul Haeberlin's Alsace restaurant, L'Auberge de l'Ill, has had three stars in the red Michelin guide for an unbroken 40 years since 1967, a record bettered only by his friend Paul Bocuse, who has had his third star since 1965. Four generations of Haeberlins have run a restaurant on the banks of the Ill in the tiny village of Illhaeusern (which means "the houses that run along the Ill" in the local dialect), 15km north of Colmar.
In 1882, Haeberlin's grandfather, Frédéric, who came from a family of smallholders and livestock farmers, bought the little country inn there called l'Arbre Vert, where the cook was his wife, Frédérique. She prepared a menu of traditional Alsace family dishes, simple and based on the freshwater fish from the Ill, or on game in the autumn, featuring fish stewed in the local Riesling or fried fish and roast venison, with local fruit tarts for puddings. They had a daughter, Henriette, and in 1888 a son, another Frédéric (Paul's father, always known as Fritz), who had the good sense, or good fortune, to marry a pastry-cook, Marthe Oberlin. The two women ran the increasingly celebrated restaurant, and Fritz looked after the farm and livestock.
At 14, Paul, after a childhood in the kitchen with his mother and aunt, began an apprenticeship at l'Hôtel de Pépinière at Ribeauvillé, in Alsace, with the great Edouard Weber, former chef to the Tsarist court in St Petersburg, to the king of Greece and for great private houses, including the Rothschilds. Paul Haeberlin's talent was evident, and he became the spiritual heir to Weber, who seems to have taught the young man all his skills and recipes.
As Paul finished his apprenticeship in two grand Paris restaurants, his younger brother, Jean-Pierre, studied landscape and painting at the Ecole Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs at Strasbourg. "He was," said his nephew, Paul's son Marc, "not remotely interested in cuisine."
Then came the dark days of the Second World War. After the fall of France in 1940, Alsace was administered from Berlin. Paul had been called up, but managed to be discharged, and joined Charles de Gaulle's Free French forces as a resistance fighter. The Nazis conscripted many young men from Alsace into the Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS; some volunteered. Near the end of the war, Jean-Pierre was forced to join the Wehrmacht, much against his will, and sent to the Danish front, where he was taken prisoner by the Americans.
This was the second generation of the family to have found themselves on opposite sides. Marc wrote that in the First World War: "My maternal grandfather and his brother were in the French trenches, and another one in the German trenches separated only by a few kilometres and by the chance of their dates of birth."
When the bridge over the Ill was bombed in 1945, the family inn, l'Arbre Vert, was destroyed. The Auberge de l'Ill was built on the site and opened in 1950, with Paul at the stove, and Jean-Pierre front-of-house. They did not suffer the recriminations that split so many Alsace families with men who had fought on opposite sides. They had huge ambitions for a world-class restaurant in this beautiful backwater with its sad history. Paul had a round face and looked every inch the well-fed cook, and Jean-Pierre was a little lean. But both were outward-looking and shared a good sense of humour.
Jean-Pierre used his artistic gifts and passion for gardening to landscape the property, using its riverside frontage and small lake to great advantage. In only two years, the Haeberlins had their first Michelin star; the second came in 1957 and the third 10 years later. In 1953, Paul married Marie Ittel, from the nearby village of Wihr-en-Plaine, and she joined her brother-in-law in supervising the service.
Their children are now in the business, Marc joining as a chef in 1976; his sister Danièle, who gave up her career in theology for hotel school, is now in the dining room. The menu still retains some of the Alsace specialities Paul Haeberlin made famous: the terrine of foie gras (Alsace being as famous for foie gras as the south-west of France); the whole truffle coated in foie gras and puff pastry, and baked in embers; the mousseline of frog's legs Paul Haeberlin; and the salmon soufflé Auberge de l'Ill.
Paul Haeberlin was never parochial or hidebound, and Marc continues his father's use of non-traditional ingredients, which is why you sometimes come across a dish featuring the startling eastern touches of coriander, chickpeas or even seaweed.
Paul Haeberlin, chef and restaurateur: born Illhaeusern, France 24 November 1923; married 1953 Marie Ittel (one son, one daughter); died Illhaeusern 10 May 2008.
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