Prior to living in New York City, no visit to the city was complete without seeing the flowers of Takashimaya or the flowers of La Grenouille. I can still remember the awe I felt walking into the high-ceilinged atelier-like flower shop of Takashimaya on Fifth Avenue, as well as peeping my head into the brilliantly colorful, cavern-like dining room of La Grenouille just east of Fifth Avenue. Both were held in the highest regard to my young florist-seeking self. I call myself a New Yorker now and my florist-self seems to have come full circle. I have since worked in Takashimaya’s atelier-like flower shop under the direction of Christian Tortu, Thank You, Alicia. And just recently, I was granted a private tour of the flowers of La Grenouille, Merci, Charles.
Situated just off Fifth Avenue in bustling mid-town Manhattan, the townhouse that houses La Grenouille reminds me of the illustrations in Virginia Lee Burton’s classic children’s book, The Little House. With charm and tenacity, it stands in the shadows of modern buildings in every direction. However, I don’t know of any modern building that can match the passion which has marinated every inch of this building since it’s opening in 1962. A passion for the Art of Living. Food. Flowers. Art. And of sharing that art of living with the world.
Charles Sr. and his wife Gisèle had flowers in the early days of the restaurant. But it was a moment of divine problem solving, figuring a way to block a glaring ray of sunlight for their guests, that the idea of a large flower arrangement was born. One large arrangement led to many large flower arrangements, giving birth to ‘The Flowers of La Grenouille,’ as they are known today. Charles Jr. fulfills that pioneer vision still to this day.
The flowers are a “labor of love” for Charles. As a studied painter, he approaches the weekly creation of the flower bouquets much the same as a painter begins a painting; finding inspiration in the colors and textures he finds in the flower market very early on Monday mornings. He cares for and conditions the flowers with a honed knowledge for how each flower behaves in nature, thus preserving and maintaining the life of his flowers at an incredible rate. He approaches the buying of his flowers much as he approaches procuring ingredients for his fine French menu. Buy what is fresh. Buy what is in season. And the inspiration is boundless.
Walking into La Grenouille is just as inspiring today as it was fifteen years ago. The abundant and vibrant arrangements still take my breath away. Charles’ painterly approach with a keen eye for harmonious colors and an asymmetry which allows for each branch or flower to express its own unique language is marvelous. The sensitive paintings created by both Charles Sr. and Jr. hang on the walls both upstairs and down. In the dining room downstairs, Father’s paintings hang on one side of the room, son’s paintings hang on the other. Art truly surrounds the diner’s experience at La Grenouille. As Charles so eloquently closes in his book, The Flowers of La Grenouille, “And when the restaurant opens its doors so early in the morning, throughout the seasons, with so many flowers, it is only the introduction to a daily ritual; a labor of love, never a mechanical routine. It is the fresh creation of what is on the plate and around it. It is a daily feast, the celebration of life.” A celebration of life in the highest.
*UPDATE* Charles Masson continues his flower arranging tradition at his new restaurant, Majorelle, as of March 2017.
Photography Beth Horta for Sweet Sabelle.