Chef’s salad

Last month, as local veterans polished medals, buffed boots and starched uniforms in preparation for Memorial Day services, Paul Elbling left his Henrico home for a May 8 decoration ceremony.

Like recent holiday occasions in Sandston and at Fort Harrison National Cemetery, Elbling’s event was long on red, white and blue and "The Star Spangled Banner" – even if lacking in small-town marching bands and Sousa music. But then, Elbling had hopped a trans-Atlantic flight to attend the ceremony – which took place in Blotzheim, France.

To Richmonders who know him as "Chef Paul," the owner and culinary artiste of La Petite France, it might come as a surprise to learn of Elbling’s 18 months as a paratrooper and nurse in the French Algerian War. But as a 19-year-old in the French Army, Elbling rode ambulances around combat zones collecting the wounded, and made more than 100 jumps getting to the sites.

On his last jump in 1962, attempting to evacuate more injured, he was shot in the leg while still aloft. "Which is against the Geneva Convention," he says grimly, adding that he barely noticed the shock of his own wound.

"I was more concerned about my friend," he recalls, going on to describe the sight of a fellow paratrooper who had taken a much more serious hit. His friend did not survive.

After three weeks in the hospital, and additional time in therapy at a convalescent center, Elbling eventually returned to his culinary calling.

First medals were for cooking
Even though he was winning honors for his cooking by age 18 (a Gold Medal in culinary competition in Strasbourg), becoming a chef was actually Elbling’s second-choice career. At age 12, he entered the seminary and studied for the priesthood two years before changing course and getting into the restaurant business. He jokes today that his decision was best for all concerned.

"When I went in the seminary," Elbling says with a laugh, "my older brother slapped my shoulder and said, ‘Paul, if you become a priest one day, I will be the pope!’ And I was afraid that my brother might be the pope!"

Beginning with an apprenticeship at a local restaurant as a young teen, Elbling embarked on a career that took him to, among others, the famous Carlton Hotel in Cannes, France, and the Georges V Hotel in Paris. As an apprentice, he worked 90-hour weeks with a dozen peers to help 57 cooks.

"[At one restaurant] we had a huge stove, the length of the dining room," he recalls, noting that the massive fixture connected to the water pipes supplying the hotel above. "We had to be down there every day at 5:30 a.m. to clean the stove – so the hotel residents would have hot water."

Two years after becoming a chef in the resort city of Baden-Baden, Germany, Elbling earned his European Master Chef Degree. That same year, driving near his home in the Alsace region of France, he met his wife-to-be, Marie Antoinette.

"On the road, she passed me going very fast. She made a fishtail!" he says, tracing the car’s near spin-out with a gesture. Indignant, Elbling caught up with Marie at the next stoplight. "I got out of my car and gave her hell," he says.

Marie began crying. "It’s my birthday," she told the stranger. "I’m going to my birthday party and I’m in a hurry. . . Would you like to come?"

After the couple married, they came to America in 1967, fulfilling a dream Elbling had had since he was five years old. He had never forgotten the Americans who liberated his family from a German labor farm in 1945. "They gave us Hershey bars and Spam," he says, describing the menu as if it were a sumptuous gourmet repast. "[Spam] was the first meat I’d ever had.

"Now when I go hunting or fishing, I always take a can of Spam," he adds. "It brings a good memory."

When the Elbling family returned home from the labor farm, they found their house bombed. Lt. Joe O’Neill of Chicago, who then drove the family to Paul’s grandparents’ house to live, kept in touch for years afterwards. He helped Elbling with the paperwork that allowed him to move to America, but passed away before the process was finalized.

"Otherwise," says Elbling, "I’d be in Chicago today."

Guinness world records
After three years in Washington, D.C., where he served as chef in the Restaurant Chez Francois and the Washington Hotel, the Elblings moved to metro Richmond. Since establishing La Petite France, Paul Elbling has compiled a lengthy resume of honors, including Richmond Small Businessman of the Year (1982), Restaurateur of the Year from the Virginia Restaurant Association (1985), Academy Award of the Restaurant Industry, and the Great American Chef’s Award.

He has also been cited for excellence in Southern Living and Gourmet Magazine and earned several records in the Guinness Book of World Records, including one for the world’s largest omelet (10,470 eggs), world’s largest ice carving and longest sandwich.

All the Guinness stunts were charity benefits, and he continues to be a frequent contributor of auction items (the latest a dinner for 10, prepared at the buyer’s home) for non-profits such as the Maymont Foundation and Heart Fund. For another favorite charity, Little Sisters of the Poor, Elbling has helped raise more than $1 million. He also thoroughly enjoys getting monthly letters from two youngsters in Appalachia "adopted" through Children, Inc.

Among his proudest accomplishments, however, was founding the Virginia Chefs Association apprenticeship program. His first apprentice remains at La Petite France with him 35 years later.

“He would never leave,” Elbling jokes.

Another one of his most satisfying achievements was winning two gold medals for the United States in the 1980 International Culinary Olympiques.

"When we got the gold medal," he recalls, "my old chef from the George V – 83 years old – was there watching, and he had tears in his eyes."

Elbling was equally emotional as French officials awarded him four medals – what military types jokingly refer to as a “fruit salad” of colorful ribbons -- for his wartime medical service at the recent ceremony in Blotzheim.

“What was very impressive about this was my brother, a retired general, was the one pinning on the medal,” he says. “And the kids [of Blotzheim] came with American flags, and they played the [American] anthem.

“I had tears in my eyes.”

The medals, soon to be mounted on the wall of his home off River Road, recall for Elbling the cherished memory of a conversation in 1970, when he and Marie returned to France to be at the bedside of his dying mother.

“She was always very jovial,” Elbling says of his mother. “First, she told my wife, ‘Marie Antoinette, Paul is a good boy, but keep him on a leash!’ [Marie] hasn’t forgotten that!” he says with a laugh.

Then his mother turned to him and said, “I am so happy for you. Your dream has come true.”

“We wouldn’t go back [to France] for anything,” Elbling concludes emphatically.

“We love it here.”
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Eastern Henrico Recreation Center will offer “Establishing a New Lawn, Renovating an Old One” from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. A master gardener will review how to decide if you should renovate your existing lawn or establish a new one. The class will also cover the steps needed to maintain your lawn year-round. Registration required. For details, visit http://www.henrico.us. Full text

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