By Patty Kruszewski, Citizen Managing Editor 06/02/05
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.”
By Amelia Heymann, Capital News Service 03/24/2017 Features
MAR. 23, 12 P.M. – Hello Kitty fans, rejoice. On Saturday, the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck, described as “a mobile vehicle of cuteness,” will make its first visit to the region.
The truck will be at Short Pump Town Center, 11800 W. Broad St., from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. The vehicle will be near the mall’s main entrance by Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn.
The Hello Kitty Cafe Truck has been traveling nationwide since its debut at the 2014 Hello Kitty Con, a convention for fans of the iconic character produced by the Japanese company Sanrio. > Read more.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Thursday vetoed several bills that Republicans say would have increased school choice but McAuliffe said would have undermined public schools.
Two bills, House Bill 1400 and Senate Bill 1240, would have established the Board of Virginia Virtual School as an agency in the executive branch of state government to oversee online education in kindergarten through high school. Currently, online courses fall under the Virginia Board of Education. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 03/23/2017 Education
Individuals and organizations wanting to help George F. Baker Elementary School students and staff recover from a March 19 fire at the school now have two ways to help: make a monetary donation or donate items of school supplies.
The weekend fire caused significant smoke-and-water damage to classroom supplies and student materials at the school at 6651 Willson Road in Eastern Henrico.
For tax-deductible monetary donations, the Henrico Education Foundation has created the Baker Elementary School Emergency School Supply Fund. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 03/23/2017 Business
ChamberRVA is seeking nominees for the annual IMPACT Award, which honors the ways in which businesses are making an impact in the RVA Region economy and community and on their employees.
Nominees must be a for-profit, privately-held business located within ChamberRVA's regional footprint: the counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Powhatan; the City of Richmond; and the Town of Ashland. > Read more.
Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer announces the sale of the former Friendly’s restaurant property located at 5220 Brook Road in Henrico County. Brook Road V, LLC purchased the 3,521-square-foot former restaurant property situated on 0.92 acres from O Ice, LLC for $775,000 as an investment. Bruce Bigger of Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer handled the sale negotiations on behalf of the seller. > Read more.
St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.
Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.
Richmond International Raceway's 13th annual Community Christmas tree lighting has been rescheduled from Dec. 6 to Monday, Dec. 12, at 6:30 p.m., due to inclement weather expected on the original date.
Entertainment Dec. 12 will be provided by the Laburnum Elementary School choir and the Henrico High School Mighty Marching Warriors band. Tree decorations crafted by students from Laburnum Elementary School and L. Douglas Wilder Middle School will be on display. Hot chocolate and cookies will be supplied by the Henrico High School football boosters. > Read more.
CAT Theatre and When There’s A Will director Ann Davis recently announced the cast for the dark comedy which will be performed May 26 through June 3.
The play centers around a family gathering commanded by the matriarch, Dolores, to address their unhappiness with Grandmother’s hold on the clan’s inheritance and her unreasonable demands on her family.
Pat Walker will play the part of Dolores Whitmore, with Graham and Florine Whitmore played by Brent Deekens and Brandy Samberg, respectively. > Read more.
- More News
Mar. 16, 2017Click here to read the print edition.
- More Entertainment
- More Obituaries
- More Community
- More Opinions
- More Sports
CalendarCAT Theatre, 319 N. Wilkinson Rd., will present “Jeeves Intervenes,” a comedic farce, March 17 to April 1. “Jeeves Intervenes” is a delightful romp full of deception and disguise based on the original P.G. Wodehouse stories. Starring Scott Bergman in the title role. Tickets are $23 in advance and $25 at the door (opening night is $33 to $35). For a complete performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.cattheatre.com. Full text