It’s been a busy sabbatical,” says Charles Masson with a laugh. He’s not kidding. Since he stopped devoting his full-time attention to La Grenouille, just over a year ago, Masson has been painting, running a catering business, and working with Robert Isabell and designing dishes for Swid Powell. Now, he’s also penned a rumination on his famed talent with flowers, “The Flowers of La Grenouille” (Clarkson Potter, $22.50).
Watching him decorate the seventh floor of Bergdorf Goodman for tonight’s gala launch of his book — he went to Morocco with a Bergdorf vice president to shop for some of the decor (which the store will sell) — it doesn’t seem likely that Masson will be slowing down soon.
Momentum is his strong suit, and it was his desire “to create something beautiful every day” that’s transformed the ambience of La Grenouille into a perfect match for its legendary culinary stature. His father, Charles, was and still is his inspiration. “When my father opened La Grenouille in 1962, it was vinyl banquettes and painted sheetrock — the luxury was the flowers. The velvet settees, the silk walls — I’ve added that over the years, but slowly. It’s been an evolution — or a depreciation if you don’t like it.”
Masson left La Grenouille to Charles and his brother Philippe. While there were problems with the two of them running the restaurant, he says there is no further strife. “It’s hard to tell,” he says when asked if he sees returning to La Grenouille. “It was difficult for me and my brother to work together — we have two very different personalities. I’ve already been there for 18 years, and it was important for me to take a step back. My father died when I was 19 and he [Philippe] was 13 — it’s only fair that he should be running it now. When you’re artistic, you think only of constantly creating. I think I drove some people crazy at the restaurant — it wasn’t just me that needed a sabbatical — it was everyone!”
Still, he allows that he misses the familial faces he worked with, and he doesn’t deny that his mother, Giselle, would be happier if he were back at the restaurant.
“I’m sure she wishes we were able to work together. It would be easier for me to be conventional — be a good boy.” He sighs. “But it would not be productive. People interpret that as animosity, but it’s not true. Sure there have been arguments, who doesn’t? But I don’t hate him; I love him, he’s my brother. It’s just very hard to be second fiddle; it’s very awkward.”
Many of La Grenouille’s best customers, among them Brooke Astor, Pat Buckley, Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass, have stayed faithful to Charles as a caterer and friend. “They have been very, very kind to me. When I left the restaurant, they called me — high-profile people — which made me feel it was an authentic friendship.”
His friends will soon have another reason to voice support — Masson is planning another restaurant, but apart from revealing it will be on the Upper East Side, he’s doesn’t want to jinx it by letting on too much. “It will be like home — I want people to feel like they can just drop in. Elegance through simplicity.” What he’d really like is to indulge his favorite cuisine — Moroccan. But he doesn’t think the time is right.
“No, no — if you say the word ‘Moroccan,’ people freak out — they will say Charles has gone off his rocker. It’s better to say nothing.”
LES MUSTS DE MASSON
“Flowers bring to any room — even a prison cell — life.”
That’s Charles Masson’s credo, and following are his hints on getting started.
“DO buy flowers. It sounds stupid, I know, but it should be a ritual. Maybe not every day, but as often as you buy vegetables. Start with a few, and then see how much it grows on you.”
“DON’T buy too many different kinds of flowers — you lose the emphasis of the flower and get into the more stylized aspect. Just have fun with them. When making a bouquet, you crisscross the stems like a bird’s nest. All you need is a glass, some water, and a sharp knife.”
Masson’s favorite flower for the beginner is the rose. “You get to experience the miracle of a flower blooming, just by adding a little boiling water to them. You can see that they are alive. It’s hard to get tired of roses — it’s such an ancient flower.”
Anemones are another favorite. “They are so spontaneous — no need to arrange them, just put them in a vase with some ice water and let them be. A little bit of alcohol will perk them up — don’t we all love that?”