Saturday, October 6, 2012

La Grenouille

The secrets of a classic French restaurant.
If you walk into La Grenouille on a Monday morning, you will find Masson arranging his flowers for the week. The normally orderly dining room looks like a botanical crime scene: banquettes and floors draped with tarps, tables covered with waiting vases, everything buried beneath a forest of leaves and stems and clippings. Even Masson is out of his suit—a sight as disconcerting as glimpsing Mickey Mouse with his head off at Disney World. He strides back and forth amidst the foliage he picked out early that morning, in Manhattan's flower district, adding a wispy stalk of purple delphinium here, a Creamsicle-colored lily there. The bouquets, when done, will be displayed in clear glass vases, an act of mad floral hubris that necessitates that the water be siphoned with a rubber tube and replaced each morning.

More than simple decoration, flowers are a kind of guiding metaphor for Masson. "In France, your flowers come from the same garden as your fruits and vegetables," he says, sounding like Alice Waters by way of Provence. "It's all part of the same harmonious thing." When lilacs and peonies give way to sunflowers and hydrangeas, he knows it is time to switch from the spring to the summer menu.

Masson's highest term of praise, the word he uses to describe the goal of every decision that goes into running La Grenouille, is harmony. And he maintains an almost mystical faith that the secret of harmony is rooted in the country of his parents' birth. The staff, from busboys to captains, is still expected to speak at least some French. And you would be hard pressed to find an ingredient on the menu that wasn't used in Escoffier's time....

One of the greatest enemies of harmony, Masson believes, more pernicious even than foreign herbs, is the cult of the celebrity chef. "When you make a restaurant all about one person, you're putting one person's ego ahead of the pleasure of your customers," he says. No cook's name appears at the bottom of his menu, and Masson does not bestow such titles as executive chef. Nor will you ever see a cook schmoozing with clients. "Remember," says Masson, "it used to be that a maître d'hôtel started in the kitchen and was eventually allowed into the dining room."
To whatever extent Masson has kept his chefs in their traditional place, he has also restored waiters to theirs. "Just carrying food to the table, that's not a career," he says. "That's a messenger." Dishes like frog's legs, which are cut into three-inch segments, soaked in milk, and then sautéed in fresh butter and garlic, get a final, theatrical deglazing in the dining room. (They would make perfect Super Bowl food, especially if followed, as they are at table, with a gleaming silver finger bowl.) The waiters must also be able to expertly dismantle a roast chicken grand-mère, fillet a sole using only a fish fork and a flat sauce spoon, slice kidneys for rognons de veau moutardier into uniform strips, like meaty little mushrooms, and then flambé them with Cognac and mustard in a whoosh of old-school flame. (Read entire article.)

1 comment:

julygirl said...

Oh to have more restaurants in this country with that kind of style and flare!