Five minutes with La Grenouille's Charles Masson
Classic Manhattan society haunts were the swanky setting for our April fashion portfolio, “NY, NY 10021,” photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. In the story, Freja Beha Erichsen and Raquel Zimmerman play creatures of leisure who shop at Cartier and dine at (where else?) La Grenouille. We recently chatted with Charles Masson, owner of the venerable restaurant, about his love affair with flowers, his opinion of trendy restaurants and how he feels about walk-ins.
You personally create all of the floral arrangements for which the restaurant is so admired. How do you decide what to do each week?
I mark the seasons. I appreciate revisiting December with my dear friend the anemones, or May with the peonies or July and August with the garden roses. When we get the first twigs of wild local lilac [in spring] it’s a moment of exhilaration.
What’s on display now?
Forsythia, along with tulips—that means it’s the pre-advent of spring. The flowers and the food are all part of the same garden in a sense; it’s very spiritual, having a culture of understanding when it is time to eat what. I like delphinium, but not in January. Just like flying [an ingredient] in from New Zealand just to say you have it—that doesn’t impress me at all.
A lot of restaurants do that though, and boast about it.
Yes, but we’ve never really been in that stream of fads, of what’s hot and what’s not. Because if you do that, it’s a dog and pony show; it’s what’s your next trick? These chefs, they get so involved in their ego, or they have a chance to be a celebrity on TV, and their restaurant doesn’t do well because they forgot the most important ingredient in the restaurant: the customer.
You take such pride in the beauty and dignity of your restaurant. And yet it still must get its share of rude customers.
Unfortunately we do see grownups who behave like kids—they get on their cell phones and they’re loud and they forget other people are in the room. The most gratifying people to serve might be the ones who walk in without a reservation and ask very humbly if we have room for two—they have no expectations and their potential for being happy is tremendous. Whereas the person who has reserved months in advance and asked for a certain table and makes special requests—this neurotic behavior is a surefire recipe for unhappiness. I prefer guests who appreciate the moment, rather than anticipate it.
How has La Grenouille’s menu changed through the years?
Back in the days when my father and mother opened the restaurant food was a lot richer. But my father always believed in having, in addition to the classic rich dishes, some very simple dishes like our grilled sole, which remains one of the most popular things on the menu. He was a modern thinker, and by modern I mean not of today but of the moment. Being of the moment means being classic and timeless. Something that never ages poorly, that’s always in the right place at the right time, is by essence modern.
La Grenouille, 3 East 52nd Street, NYC. 212.752.1495