To speak with even cursory knowledge about one of Montreal's most venerable restaurants is to know the name of Claude Masson. Or Monsieur Masson, as he prefers. The familiar gentleman behind the bar at L'Express has been with the rue Saint-Denis restaurant for over three decades. Eater Montreal sat down with the veteran barman for an interview last week.
Where were you born?
In Montreal. And I don't mind saying in 1947. I'm 66 years old.
What did your parents do?
My father was from a wealthy family. He was hired by a cousin who owned a brokerage firm and subsequently lost a lot of money.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Collège Brébeuf. From about 1959 and for about eight or nine years.
How did you get your start in restaurants?
Funny story. I was a part-time teacher at a time when there were no jobs available. Someone told me that in Old Montreal there was a hotel that was looking for people. This was in 1976 or so. They needed someone to take out the garbage and do menial chores like that. I didn't want to be unemployed. I felt I must work. So I was hired. I worked there for a summer. Then in September the management asked if there was anything else I wanted to do. I ended up working the reservations desk and also as a, how do you say, at the door, as a bouncer?
Doorman! That's it. I was a little bit more muscular but not very big but someone told me this amazing phrase that being a good doorman is all from the neck up. It's all in your face.
“Being a good doorman is all from the neck up. It's all in your face.”
It's a presence.
Exactly. And after two years I realised it was time to do something else. I went to the ITHQ to study bartending. Because four or five months before, they asked if I wanted to take care of the bar. I told them I knew nothing about making drinks. For me scotch, rye, whisky, it was all the same, to tell you honestly. I knew vodka but it was always, vodka orange, vodka orange. That's all I knew. So in September I started evening courses. I eventually left my first hotel job and was employed at Hotel Bonaventure. That was a very good education. They said okay, we have two days for you. I said I'm ready, I'll work as much as you need. So I started two or three days at the service bar.
“Le Castillon was an important restaurant. It's where I learned to tend bar.”
The Bonaventure was a busy place back then, no?
Oh yes. They had two or three dining rooms. Le Castillon was an important restaurant. It's where I learned to tend bar. There was a gentleman I learned a lot from. He was Portuguese and very friendly. He taught me how to clear plates, how to serve a large table, how to carry yourself. After awhile I decided to enroll in some courses in restaurant service.
At the ITHQ?
Yes. At night. At that time, it was banquet season at the hotel. I never worked so much in my life. We used to do five days and two evenings. I remember waking up early one Sunday, after a late night at the hotel, rushing back to work and then practically falling asleep at my station. But that's how you learn. After awhile I met a guy who was working at a very nice restaurant—L'Entrecôte Bordelaise. There was one on Laurier where the SAQ is now and one Downtown, in the basement, near Thursday's. I worked at both locations, on the floor.
When I was working at the hotel, they told me I should think about working in the kitchen. And it was my intention. Because at the bar you're limited in a sense. You cannot increase your productivity beyond a certain point. I can't make a cocktail faster than seven seconds, for example. In my head I thought yes, this could be interesting. So that was part of the reason why I left for L'Entrecôte Bordelaise.
But the restaurant eventually changed management. And I was told that they preferred having women work behind the bar. This was around the same time L'Express opened. I had a friend working there and he arranged for me to meet Mr. Pierre Villeneuve, one of the owners. A very, very nice man. And he asked me if I knew how to work. I told him I knew how to make some cocktails and so on. He said no problem, you can learn as you go. But I didn't feel at ease yet. I still felt like I had a lot to learn.
What year was this?
Let me think. 1981?
“I didn't feel comfortable. I felt like I still had a lot to learn.”
So right around the time L'Express opened.
Exactly. I was hired one year later. I started as a bus boy, day service. But at L'Express bus boys have a lot of responsibility. Eventually I moved to evenings. And then the barman left. But I didn't want the job. I didn't feel comfortable. I felt like I still had a lot to learn. So I started gradually with some day shifts, while still bussing at night.
L'Express clearly occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of many Montrealers. Is that something you can define or put into words?
There is a magic to the place. It's a classic bistro but without much formality. The wine list, almost all private imports, is affordable, accessible. There's a special formula to what makes the restaurant work and it's a formula that hangs in a very delicate balance. Changes are made very gradually, very prudently. L'Express is blessed with a chef [Joël Chapoulie] who has been there for 30 years and very consistent management. [The now late] Colette [Brossoit], Mr. Tremblay, Mr. Villeneuve—they are the pillars. They're very thorough people. L'Express has elegance and finesse but it's not precious.
“L'Express has elegance and finesse but it's not precious.”
What are the vital elements of professional bar service?
Personally I don't like my customers to lack anything. I always ask the people who work the bar with me if everyone has enough bread, water? Check. Always check. Because when I started, I said to myself that at least at the bar the customers would have the best service. We want to be present. It's in a sense our duty, our pride to do that.
My father loved to go to restaurants. And I remember when I was ten or so we were at the Ritz, I think, and I was struck with the finesse of the service. It made a big impression on me. You have to have finesse and professionalism but you also have to be yourself. And be present. This is what I appreciate as a customer and what I remember about old places like Chez Gautier, Chez Lévêque, and Café Martin. Small details are important. A vinaigrette can tell me a lot about a restaurant. I can recall three or four.
“A vinaigrette can tell me a lot about a restaurant.”
What kind of cocktails do you make at L'Express?
Well we don't do exotic cocktails at L'Express. Because you understand, if you're selling cocktails you're not selling wine [The cellar at L'Express counts 11,000 bottles]. But about ten years ago people started ordering martinis. Vodka, gin martinis, dirty martinis. It's amazing because in the late 70s, early 80s, we thought martinis were for old people, or pretentious people. So it's interesting to see young people ordering that drink today. It's slowed down over the last five years but it's still popular. We do a lot of Caesars too.
But you have to understand that when L'Express opened, one of the goals was to build an affordable wine list. A good wine list but an affordable one. Because in the early 80s, wine was associated with very fine dining. It's hard for some people to judge the list because it's all private imports. There are no points of comparison at the SAQ. But the wines at L'Express are chosen to enjoy with the food. And they're fairly priced.
“When L'Express opened, one of the goals was to build an affordable wine list.”
What do you personally like to drink?
I like wines from the Languedoc. But I recently discovered an American Pinot that I like. We have it at the restaurant. It's powerful, if maybe a little expensive, but quite good.
Do you have staff tastings at L'Express?
Yes. Every two or three weeks. I try to go on days when I'm not working because I have a hard time spitting the wine out.
Do you drink hard liquor?
No. At home I drink wine. Sometimes I taste new gins that we get at the restaurant. But wine mostly. I've taken wine courses too in the past and I'll probably take another one next year. I find it heightens my sensitivity to keep learning about wine. When I take a course, for five or six months after, I smell things differently, I taste differently. It helps cultivate my senses. I'm more aware. It's always my goal to learn more.
Can you describe a perfect night of service at L'Express? Or, put another way, what has to happen for you to feel like the night was successful?
I remember a recent Friday or Saturday night. Some customers said, "It was so good. It was marvellous. And it's because you were here."
For me it's quite emotional. [Pause] Just one second. [Chokes up, takes a few seconds to compose himself.]
On a night like this we are so happy. We say wow, it was a success. You know, we try to be discreet, professional. We pay attention to small details. And then when customers say things like that, it's just, wow. It's a team effort. We sort of feel like, at the end of the night, that we created a little paradise. It's a success in the sense that we achieved the goal, we did our jobs—but we did more than our jobs. Those moments are really precious.
“We sort of feel like, at the end of the night, that we created a little paradise.”
What advice do you have for young people in restaurant service?
Delicacy. Finesse. Efficiency. Also, I think, a certain sense of culture.
How do you deal with difficult customers?
We're fortunate at L'Express to have a lot of regular customers who we know well. They make demands sometimes but without rudeness and with this I have no problem. But when a customer is rude it sucks all your energy and enthusiasm. You have to be delicate but firm, in a way that diffuses, and not flares, the situation.
Do you ever ponder retirement?
For many reasons, no. Financially, psychologically. For me, work is a blessing. I understand retirement for people who are fed up with their jobs. But L'Express is a wonderful place. It's a gift to work there. I may slow down in five to ten years but I have no plans to retire.