Anyone know where Payne City, Georgia is? Elmo? It doesn't show up on Mapquest.
Variety is the spice of life for Paul Harpin
Ed Grisamore - firstname.lastname@example.org
When his hands aren’t busy rolling crepes or stuffing quiche, Paul Harpin might be tempted to take his thumb and fingers and pinch himself.
Even after 61 years on his remarkable journey, it still seems like a dream.
His eyes twinkle when he talks about the places he has been and the people he has fed along the way.
Paul is co-owner of Harpin’s Restaurant with his wife, Hazel. He is chief cook and bottle washer, while Hazel bakes cakes, takes orders and runs the cash register.
When the soup is on and the salads have been prepared, Paul’s apron strings often pull him out of the kitchen for handshakes and hugs.
It has got to be his favorite part of the job.
He sure has some serendipitous stories to tell, boasting a colorful culinary history like something right out of a script for Forrest Gumbo.
It also serves to explain how someone who grew up in a steel mill town in England has found happiness running a small restaurant on the edge of an old cotton mill village in Macon.
Variety is the spice of life.
Paul once served as Mick Jagger’s personal chef.
Judy Garland gave him her recipe for egg salad a few months before she died.
He once brushed elbows with Frank Sinatra, Elton John and Sammy Davis Jr.
He danced with Carol Channing and went swimming with Olivia Newton-John before she became famous.
He prepared meals for Andy Warhol, Bette Midler and Jimmy Carter.
This month marks the 35th anniversary of Paul’s arrival in a place he had never been before. Of course, he never dreamed it would one day become his place setting.
His destiny certainly hasn’t followed a straight line. There have been plenty of white tablecloths and a few crumbs under the table.
He has kept the faith, though. Still does.
“You make a life,’’ he said. “You never forget where you came from. You never let it go. And it never lets you go.’’
Paul was born in August 1947, one of six children to Mary and Matthew Harpin in Consett, County Durham, England.
Consett was a steel town north of London and holds the distinction of having the world’s first Salvation Army band in 1879.
His father died when he was 12, and Paul quit school to help his mother. Those were troublesome economic times in England, and he mostly found work running errands and doing odd jobs in the neighborhood.
He had always loved cooking, and he learned from two of the best cooks ever to put on an apron — his mother and grandmother.
He would watch the Fanny Cradock children’s show on the BBC, which included a segment on cooking, and built his own grill out of a fireplace grate.
He also found it fascinating to read the labels on cans and food packages. He could recite the ingredients for just about anything in the pantry.
In July 1963, his aunt took him with her to live in London. He got on the bus with a 10-shilling note, a candy bar, a copy of the Daily Mirror newspaper and most of his worldly possessions.
He stayed with his cousin in London and was hired to stock shelves in a local market, the perfect job for a label-lover. His big break came when he got an apprenticeship in the kitchen at Scott’s, one of London’s most famous restaurants.
He began to taste life, too. Even though he had dropped out of school, he was able to self-educate himself. London was his classroom. He read books and visited museums.
“One day, Princess Margaret came into the restaurant,’’ he said. “I had never seen royalty. The kitchen was upstairs, and they let me peek through the curtains.’’
He worked such long hours his bosses practically had to shoo him from the ovens. On the night of June 6, 1966, he reluctantly went home from work. After a few hours of boredom, he dressed in a pinstripe suit and headed to a nightclub on the West End.
The first young lady he asked to dance turned him down. Then his eyes fixed on Hazel across the dance floor.
For Paul, it was love at first sight.
For Hazel, it was a case of mistaken identity. (She thought he was Peter Noone, lead singer for the Herman’s Hermits.)
Hazel worked as a switchboard operator. They married three years later. Their daughter, Trudy, was born in 1970.
Those newlywed years brought several rounds of job hopping. Paul worked in the executive dining room for Kodak and served ice cream in a bingo hall.
He then became chef at the Revolution, a nightclub that brought him toe-to-toe with many celebrities.
He was hired to cook meals for the Rolling Stones while the band finished an album at Mick Jagger’s country estate. Jagger extended an invitation for Paul to become his full-time chef and travel with the group.
By then, however, Paul was being tugged in another direction.
Frank Fenter, a successful music executive in London, had co-founded Capricorn Records in Macon with Phil Walden.
As Macon became the epicenter of Southern rock ’n’ roll in the 1970s, Fenter hired Harpin and manager Peter Marriott to open a restaurant in downtown Macon that would cater to the city’s vibrant music scene.
“It was a leap of faith for me,’’ said Paul. “It was an opportunity in unknown territory. I had never been to the United States. Hazel and I were both young and didn’t think about the consequences.’’
His perception of America had been formed by television and books. “I thought it would be glamorous, with lots of skyscrapers,’’ Paul said.
In June 1974, he flew from London to Washington, D.C., and then to Atlanta. A few miles south of the airport on Interstate 75, Paul realized he was a stranger in a strange land.
“Nothing but pine trees,’’ he said. “I kept looking for the skyscrapers.’’
He called Hazel when he arrived in Macon.
“How is it?” she asked.
“Hot,’’ he said.
Le Bistro opened in September 1974 in what is now the Downtown Grill on Mulberry Street Lane.
It was a different fare from the customary cornbread and collards.
“We brought food here some people had never eaten before,’’ he said. “It was continental food like veal, lamb and kidneys. We served trout with the head still on.’’
He also introduced the European concept of having a couple of booths with curtains for private dining. He was in the restaurant the night Greg Allman proposed to Cher in one of the booths. (Paul later called The Telegraph with the scoop.)
Le Bistro eventually fell victim to Capricorn’s financial difficulties and closed in 1977. At the time, Hazel was pregnant with their son, Matthew.
Paul started a small restaurant on Cherry Street before becoming the head chef at Leo’s, which opened in the former Le Bistro building in the alley. He was there for 17 years.
When Leo’s closed in 1995, Paul led a nomadic cooking life, jumping from the old Radisson Hotel to Beaches on Northside to Caper’s on Ingleside and Paul’s Bistro on Arkwright Road.
Four years ago, another leap of faith led him across the railroad tracks to Payne City. The old cotton mill village provided him with a fresh start.
Hazel had retired from her job as a record-keeper at Piedmont Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine, and she joined him in the venture.
Paul was familiar with several other businesses that had prospered on the same ground where the mill once operated — The Shamrock, Milltown Market & Dawson’s Kitchen and Payne City Antique Mall.
“We had very little money,’’ Paul said. “We just believed. We had faith God would take care of us. God helps those who help themselves.’’
A Payne City business license now hangs on the wall, and the 36 chairs in the dining room are often filled for weekday lunches and Friday night dinners.
Just about everyone has their own favorite dish. Steak au poivre (pepper steak), one of Paul’s specialties. Or the chicken salad. Or the salmon cheesecake.
Paul will sometimes slip home in the afternoon for a cup of hot tea. It’s a change of pace from the sweet tea he serves to his loyal customers at Harpin’s.
His British accent has never completely left him. Still, he can pronounce Harpin’s with a slight Southern drawl.
He can also say: “Y’all come back.’’