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Charles Masson and the Art of La Grenouille

May 1, 2008

    photo of: Charles Masson

A Change at La Grenouille

As father-son memories go, perhaps one of the most poignant for me was the day my father gave up on trying to talk me out of my fanatic passion for playing guitar for a living. We set out on a Saturday afternoon toward downtown New Haven, and he purchased a nearly new 1974 Fender Stratocaster for me, which I still own to this day. I never did make it on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, but the message of that day stayed with me.

When he was about the same age as I was, Charles Masson was presented with a similar gift from his father, whose heart had been broken by the younger Masson’s stated desire to forego a career in the restaurant industry, a world that his father had mastered.

“There was this one year when I was 17, when I told my father, ‘Look, I am applying for a college, but not to become a restaurateur,’ and I knew it broke his heart. He said, ‘You would be a very great restaurateur,’ and I said, “No I would not - I see what you do and it is absolutely insane and I do not want to do this. I love to paint, but I know that painters may not make a living and so I’d like to be an architect or a designer.”

His father arranged for him to spend the summer drawing and painting design diagrams for a Manhattan jeweler named David Webb, and one late night as the summer drew to a close he heard a knock at his bedroom door.

“If he knocked at your door, it usually meant and that my father was not too pleased with my grades, but he woke me up and opened the portfolio with all the drawings I did during the summer. David Webb had shown them to my father and said to him, ‘You have to let your son do this, do not put him in a restaurant.’ My father became very teary-eyed, looked at all this and he said to me, ‘Do as you wish.’”

He was accepted at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburg, where he was a design major, and seemed to be on his way to a career as an architect, as he had always dreamed. But sometimes people are led to their true calling by unforeseen and often tragic events. In 1975, coincidentally the same year that a young David Webb would succumb to cancer, Masson’s father became very ill.

“He was very careful of what he ate, he never smoked, he drank wine moderately with his food; he was in great shape. This behemoth, this very strong healthy man was suddenly stricken with Melanoma cancer, and back then the treatments were brutal. He had this thing on his back and they misdiagnosed it so it spread. When they tried cobalt treatments it made him weaker and he died very quickly. So I left college and came back to help my mother.”

In a matter of days the young Masson had lost both his career aspirations and his father. He quickly left college as a sophomore to try and fill his father’s shoes at La Grenouille. There were, of course, some employees at the restaurant who were concerned with their future now that the one of New York’s great restaurateurs had passed away. There were even unfounded whispers in the press about the Masson’s selling the business and the building. But Charles Jr. and his mother Gisele restored calm, their customers and their staff remained loyal, and La Grenouille flourished, in no small part because of Masson’s modesty and work ethic.

“I realized I was out of my league, obviously. I could not pretend to do what my father did. I tried not to get in the way and become an armchair quarterback, because that would have been very irritating. But what my employees did respect was the fact that I kept my mouth shut, I listened a lot, and I worked very long hours alongside them in the kitchen and in the dining room, and tried to observe as much as I could.”

As it turned out, he wasn’t all that bad at the family business. Less than 5 years later, in 1980, the restaurant was awarded four stars by Mimi Sheraton of the New York Times. So Charles Jr., the reluctant restaurateur, soon became completely immersed in his father’s world, which was ironic considering that his father had actually been averse to restaurant ownership as well. The senior Masson had run a restaurant in the Berkshires and nearly had a nervous breakdown from the experience. He vowed to his family to never open another establishment again. He was working happily overseas in the restaurant of the USS Independence, making a good living. Meanwhile his wife Gisele was trotting around New York City with young Charles in tow and another son on the way, secretly scouting out vacant places to open a restaurant. Then she found 3 East 52nd street being auctioned, and it was literally a fire sale. The restaurant that had been there previously, the Copenhagen, had experienced a terrible fire that affected the entire back wall, yet Mrs. Masson walked into the place and knew that it was their spot. Even though her son now remembers it as “that wreck,” she signed the lease that day for a hefty $4,000 a month, with an option to buy.

The spirit of La Grenouille

In many ways Gisele Masson’s foresight to make this purchase is one of the primary reasons that La Grenouille is now the only classic French restaurant still remaining in New York out of the giants of this genre who reigned supreme in the city from the 1960’s and 1970’s. “My parents made the immense sacrifice, back when they had no money, to take this huge gamble on their life and to sign a lease, and to go ahead in 1962 and buy a building for almost half a million dollars, which is the equivalent to $30 million today. They had the vision and the perseverance to go ahead and do this. I think that if you’re going to open a restaurant, it would be safe to say that one of the wisest investments you can make is to find backers to help you buy the building, because New York is an environment that is not very friendly to small business.”

That spirit of long-term investment and the belief in the longevity of your business is best illustrated by a story Charles tells about a large purchase of light bulbs while he was still in college. His father was a painter and was always obsessed with the restaurant’s lighting and color. He had always believed that for a restaurant to be successful, women have to look beautiful when they came in, and proper lighting was an important aspect of achieving that. When Charles Jr. was in Pittsburg attending college, he received a call one day from his father. “In Pittsburgh they make light bulbs at Westinghouse, don’t they?” he asked his son. The bulbs that lit La Grenouille and gave its’ patrons their perfect beauty glow were now precipitously low in supply, and the original maker, GE, had stopped making them. Charles Jr.’s dorm mate happened to be the son of a Westinghouse bigwig, so he offered to help.

“He UPS’d me one of his last bulbs,” Charles remembers. “So I went to the Westinghouse plant and thanks to the guy I knew in my dorm, we went to see his father. But he laughed when I brought him this bulb. He said, “Do you realize that the minimum order is 50,000?” So I said, “Okay.” I called my father, and this is where my father and I thought along the same lines. He said, “Sure, no problem, how much is it going to be?” Well, they were 8 cents a bulbs, so it was so many thousands of dollars. When my mother got the bill she said, “You guys are crazy.” But I keep reminding my mother that it was a very good investment, because they lasted - we still have some of those bulbs today! So for 8 cents a bulbs it was a very good investment. In the restaurant business, you do not just invest in wines, you invest in light bulbs!”

The service at La Grenouille

Besides their investments in backup lighting, another reason La Grenouille has achieved so much success is their service. They have been nominated for James Beard’s Best Service award three times, including this year. One of the hallmarks of their renowned service is, of course, their famous table-side service, a lost art that Masson believes deeply in and his customers seem to keep coming back for. But in order for table-side to be successful, you have to have a chef who is not only talented but is committed to that style of service, because many dishes will be finished not by his hand but by the hands at the front of the house.

“With the heritage of table-side service, you learn a lot of why dishes are composed in such a way. I think the word composition is important, because as an artist, as a painter, or as a cook or a musician, you think of harmony. And in order to achieve harmony you have to actually assume composition. And the assumption of composition is not something you should overlook as an afterthought. Before you can create the dish you really have to have these flavors and these sensations in your heart. Composing them should be something very swift and very spontaneous.”

The cuisine of La Grenouille

Matt Tropeano was only 23 years old when he joined La Grenouille in 2003 as a line cook. He had previously worked near his home town on the South Shore of Boston, in Dallas at the restaurant Nana, and briefly at Fiamma Osteria before coming to work for Masson, who sensed talent in his Italian chef, and promoted him to executive chef within a year. Tropeano is a hard worker who has managed to develop new and seasonal dishes to a menu that has to constantly balance his new cuisine with the restaurant’s old French classics. He has fit in well with the 45-year traditions that have allowed La Grenouille to endure when others have not, and Masson is impressed with the maturity that he shows for such a young chef.

“They have to get involved here as it used to be back in the old days and in the great restaurants. There, a dish would be started in the kitchen and finished before the customer, which is very unusual,” says Masson. “All this is, I think, is a show, but it is a very practical show. It is not just aesthetics, it means that the waiters and the staff in the dining room are working with the kitchen. There are many chefs who would object to that. Matt is a fantastic chef, he really is unusual because he is very young, very talented, and unpretentious.”

At La Grenouille, a chef has to be willing to give up a small amount of control with how the food will be presented to the customer. This also means that it is essential for the service staff to have a certain amount of cooking skills far beyond a normal waiter. And if they mess up a dish, it’s far more difficult to conceal than if the snag had occurred in the kitchen, behind closed doors. That, in essence, adds to the excitement of the meal, yet it also ensures that food is brought to each customer at exactly the proper time.

The flowers at La Grenouille

If you saw La Grenouille on a Monday when they are closed and the flowers have been removed from their glass vases to make room for fresh ones, you may notice that the room, while clean and elegant, is not altogether different than other high-end restaurants of its kind in this town. But adding the flowers every week at La Grenouille is like adding beautiful furniture to an empty room, especially the way it is done by Charles Masson, who has carried on his father’s love and talent for floristry. To the senior Masson, the art of floral arrangements was built around the notion of surrounding beautifully dressed people with more beauty, but also to create a soothing atmosphere, and to provide a natural boundary of privacy. One of Charles Sr.’s greatest skills was in his ability to create an atmosphere that achieved the dual feeling of beauty with that of being home. “They felt like everything is safe,” says Charles of his father’s customers, and of his. “Everything maybe is ugly outside, but when you go in there, it is safe.”

Twice a week, Charles Jr. visits his friends at the Chelsea wholesale flower market to replenish the huge bouquets and vases at his restaurant. He wrote a beautiful book on the subject in 1994 called “The Flowers of La Grenouille.” His biggest floral day is Monday, which is his buying day, but he spends many other days scouting, looking for something new or seeking an inspiration from the natural beauty of the season. The real secret of Masson’s successful 35-plus year run at the helm of La Grenouille has been his talent for taking a simple living thing, a flower with its fleeting and humble beauty, and preparing it in such a way that it becomes art. This talent was not really handed down from his father, but was borne out of duty and gradually developed into a passion.

“It’s a great privilege starting the morning with flowers, but it’s not just Monday. On Monday we take everything apart, but every day we change the water and refresh everything - it’s like tending to a garden. Just like there is a mis en place for the food that we cook, there is a mis en place for what goes on in the dining room.”

The art of La Grenouille

I think that Bernard Lamotte would agree that an important reason that La Grenouille has lasted for so long can be seen in the paintings on the walls of the dining room, and again upstairs in the private dining area that Charles Jr. built himself one summer in 1996. Lamotte was a Paris-born artist who lived in the second floor of the building La Grenouille now occupies. When the Masson’s bought it, the famous painter became a patron and a friend, and eventually helped Charles Sr. with his painting skills. Some of the paintings are Bernard’s, some are Charles Sr., and some more recently painted by Charles Jr. The paintings are perfect compliments to the colors of the room, the curtains and the carpet. But they are not just accessories, they are reminders of the continuity that the building has enjoyed, from Mr. Bernard’s work in the attic garret, to Charles’ father’s passion for flowers and all things beautiful, to the son who to this day retires to the same attic with a glass of wine if he has had a bad day.

“Very good painters, and even very bad painters, all love life around the table. I have yet to meet an artist who does not like to eat well or drink a great glass of wine. The conviviality of life around the table brings together the life of friends. You have a life around the table that will exist without any artifices, it is just the table and what you are about to have for food which you are sharing with friends. It is a very special moment which I think if you understand that in its simplest and its rawest form, you are offering to your customers the same luxury. It is an escape from whatever you are doing. Take some time off and instead of wolfing down a sandwich or just having a bite, just sit down and enjoy this moment. I think the French have it right because they do take the time to do this, and they still are very productive; they still make the best of their day.”

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