Bryan Miller / July 2005
Food Arts presents the July/August 2005 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Charles Masson, who, for three decades, has represented the finest in haute hospitality and whose forward thinking in the often calcified world of classic French cuisine has distinguished the illustrious La Grenouille in New York City as not only a survivor but an exemplar.
Reserved, artistic, urbane, the 50 year old Masson could easily be mistaken for a diplomat or an art curator. Indeed, painting has been his passion since childhood, but it is another métier, running a world-class restaurant, that has occupied his talents for the past 34 years.
It was fate, not design, that set him on the path to becoming an esteemed restaurateur. In 1974, when he was a 19 year old studying architecture and design at Carnegie Mellon University, he received an ominous phone call from his mother in New York. "My father had been diagnosed with cancer," he recalls during an interview in La Grenouille's baronial second floor private dining room. "I decided to go home and help my mother." (Charles Masson Sr. passed away the following year.) Charles Jr.'s mother, Gisèle, who last year was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government, was a driving force behind the restaurant until her recent retirement.
"I didn't yet know enough about the restaurant business, so I started by working with the flowers—and I've been in love with them ever since," he acknowledges. To describe La Grenouille's flowers as "arrangements" would be like calling the New York Philharmonic a"band." All around the dining room are enormous splays of blossoms, some large enough to conceal a grown St. Bernard: lilies, garden roses, silverbacks, peonies, lavender, rhododendrons. To indulge his ardor, Masson rises before dawn to shop at the Sixth Avenue flower market, where he spends up to $2,000 a week.
Unlike many well-known restaurateurs, the soft-spoken Masson shuns publicity and the self-celebration that is often a part of today's food world. Nor is he one to drop names of the rich and famous who pass through his doors. His parents opened La Grenouille in 1962, and before long it became somewhat of a couture canteen, with regulars like Babe Paley, Jackie Onassis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Yves Saint Laurent, Salvador Dalì (lunch and dinner each day he was in New York), and Truman Capote. The restaurant joined the Gallic juggernaut that monopolized fine dining during the heady times in the 1960s and '70s with places like Le Pavillon, La Côte Basque, La Caravelle, Café Chauveron, and others, all now gone.
"Some people don't understand that the reason the best of classic cuisine has lasted so long is because it is consistent and has essentially very simple flavors," Masson says.
In an effort to attract a new and younger clientele to La Grenouille, Masson has made some changes. For one, the formal dress code is out—at least at the bar, which now serves a special menu to walk-ins. And he has torn down the floor-to-ceiling curtains facing the street. "It shouldn't be a big mystery about what is going on inside," Masson says.