by Alaina Mabaso
According to her family lore, former Germantown Friends School foreign language teacher Michèle Haines, who is also chef/owner of Spring House Café and Gallery, 164 Barren Hill Rd. in Conshohocken, for 34 years, says her babyhood was just as thrilling as the rest of her life so far.
A native of the Touraine region of France, Haines was born in 1942 on the border between Nazi occupation and the Vichy regime. Her father “was a powerful man who was welcome in the day time at the Gestapo headquarters and who would help British pilots at night.” In 1944, when her father was killed in an American bombing, Haines, just 17 months old, was found safe in his arms.
Haines’ grandparents played a central role in her life, when her young mother, who had Haines’ sister days before the fatal bombing, moved into her parents’ home in Tours with her children.
Haines still misses her grandmother, a tiny Swiss-German woman who had had a creamery, complete with donkey and cart, near Versailles. “I still smell food today and think, that’s not as good as my grand-mère,” she says. “When something very hard or amazing happens, I say, ‘Thank you, mémère.’”
Haines always longed to go to the U.S. As a teenager, she won scholarships to Radcliffe and Stanford, but her family withheld permission. When an opportunity to work as a translator for the United Nations arose, she signed the paperwork herself and departed for New York. At a café on her first morning there in 1961, a US veteran of Normandy bought her breakfast. “Welcome to America,” he said.
But the job at the UN proved disappointing: “I didn’t realize I’d be a machine,” Haines says. “I hated it.” She lasted five days. Later, she joined a U.S. federal program run out of Florida State University, training foreign language teachers for American high schools. It was the first time she had heard of Tallahassee, but she boarded a plane and spent the summer of 1963 there.
While the university itself was racially segregated, Haines noted, the federal program located there was not. That same year, Haines traveled to Birmingham, Alabama for a simple reason. “I believe in freedom,” she says. “I wanted to act what I preach.”
She marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and was arrested twice. In one incident, she sat next to a black friend in a restaurant and refused to move. A man subsequently attacked her, and she grabbed a stool to defend herself. By the time the police arrived, as she tells it, “The stool was red.”
The next stage of her career brought her to Providence, Rhode Island, where her fluency in French, German and English gained her acceptance into Brown University’s graduate-level Russian program. “My grandfather raised me to have many arrows in my bow,” she explains of her diverse pursuits.
She met her husband of over 40 years, New Jersey native Arthur Carroll Haines, who at the time was an undergrad at Brown. In 1965, she joined the faculty of the Mary C. Wheeler High School, where she used her expertise to found a new language program: not German, French or Russian, but Spanish. A few years later, when Arthur’s enrollment at the University of Pennsylvania brought Haines to Philadelphia, she joined the faculty of Germantown Friends School, where she taught French before founding its Spanish department.
But after about five years at GFS, the polyglot teacher was getting restless in the confines of the classroom. While many of her former students remain her friends 40 years later, she was ready to pursue another passion: cooking. She took menial restaurant jobs, determined to learn the industry from the ground up. Her mother was appalled; why throw away a top-tier education “to go peel onions?”
Haines takes a different view. “If you don’t know something, recognize that. Then you can learn,” she says. “People are not as young as they should be,” she adds of the willingness to take chances in life. “I love fun as much as I love hard work.”
Her culinary labors in 1970s’ Philadelphia brought her to La Terrasse restaurant before she opened her own country-style French restaurant in 1978, the Spring Mill Café of Conshohocken. With a $500 investment, she and her husband teamed to paint the walls, and Michele literally made the tablecloths and napkins by hand for five lunch tables. Now, the Cafe serves up to 40 for lunch, brunch and dinner six days a week. Haines, originally a tenant, purchased the property 20 years ago.
“I have always loved cooking,” she says, inspired by her grandmother. “It is a creation. It is art. We never heard of portion control,” she says of French food, shocked at Americans’ outsized servings of meat and potatoes. In France, “it’s a little bit of everything because it’s all so good.” The French also don’t brook any rush: in Michele’s childhood home, meals usually averaged two hours except on holidays and special occasions, when they could literally last all day,lunch continuing into dinner. But good food is about balance, she says, likening a fat-free diet to trying to run an engine without oil.
Now a widow of five years and mother to two sons, Jason, 42, and Ezra, 38 (who, to Haines’ deep gratitude, is in the process of taking over the Spring Mill Café), Haines’ ongoing love of cooking and travel infuses her charity work. In addition to hosting frequent fundraisers at the café, after viewing a New York exhibit by Japanese-born photographer and humanitarian Kenro Izu in the 1990s and speaking to him about his plans to open a charity hospital in northwest Cambodia, she shocked him by joining him there to pledge her support for Friends Without a Border, founded in 1996. Last year, the charity’s Angkor Children’s Hospital treated its one millionth patient, and Haines remains involved as an advisor.
With friends from Mississippi to New Zealand and Bangkok to Morocco, Haines never remains in one place for long, often wearing green in honor of a friend who was incarcerated for three years after protesting in Tehran, Iran.
Now doing cooking demonstrations for a living in addition to managing special events and musical soirees at the Café,, she always has one eye on an upcoming trip: “I’ll go and jump in the plane and go and cook,” she says, offering culinary lessons across the world.
Her mother teases her for wandering so much, but Haines, now a resident of Old City, insists she is not a restless person – as long as she is free to travel. “I’m restless if I don’t go,” she explains. “I’m not restless if I can go.” For proof, she points to her special enjoyment of the leisurely American south, where, once she arrives, she’s happy to watch the tomatoes grow.
Her one rule while traveling continues to frustrate her adult sons. She refuses to book a hotel room. Instead, she won’t board a plane until she finds someone willing to take a guest at home. From Hawaii to Sicily to South Africa, “everywhere I go in the world, I must be lodged,” she says. “I’m in somebody’s room. I’m part of the culture.” She’ll always repay the favor with some world-beating food.
“When you are 70 years old, people think you are retired,” she says. “I’ve never been less retired in my life.”
For more information, call 610-828-2550 or visit www.springmill.com.