Eat Me: Remembering Kenny Shopsin
Our columnist pays tribute to the curmudgeonly New York cook and restaurant owner who recently passed away.
It took me a long time to fall in love with Kenny Shopsin.
He ran an eponymous New York restaurant with a signature (and complicated) mix of warmth and animosity. While his establishment moved around to different downtown locations, each incarnation felt like you were eating inside Shopsin’s head. He died on September 2, at home in the West Village at 76.
Like many people, I first heard about him and his restaurant in a profile in the New Yorker written by Calvin Trillin. (Shopsin, true to his nature, insisted that Trillin not print the restaurant’s location in the article.)
I moved to New York in the middle of the nineties, and bumped into many of those capital N capital Y quintessential New York experiences accidentally.
I walked into a barber shop on Broadway in midtown, for instance, tile floors, gleaming chrome chair with a smiling old man standing next to it. I asked how much a haircut would cost and was told that in the 50-whatever years of running this shop, nobody had ever asked how much a haircut was going to cost. “I cut John F. Kennedy’s hair. Sit down. You see The Godfather?” He snapped the smock around my neck. “That was me.” He showed me a postcard addressed to Bill the Barber, NYC. “See this? No address, no nothing.” I think the haircut was twenty bucks.
So, that was cool.
However, the first time I went to The Coffee Shop in Union Square, which was famously staffed by actors and models, the experience just made me feel poor and unfashionable. On the other hand, I enjoyed bowls of mussels at hipster Meat Packing institution Florent, which attracted a diverse clientele and was open 24-hours a day. While the neighborhood was still gritty and just getting hip, the scene was never my thing. I just went along.
Then somebody took me to the little restaurant run by Shopsin in the West Village. I didn’t really pay attention to the food or the owner, and I never went back. I suspect the dishes from the gigantic menu cost a little more money than I wanted to spend. Maybe I just didn’t “get it.”
When Trillin’s New Yorker piece came out in 2002, I wondered briefly if I’d missed something, but by then I lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I bought oysters at Marlow & Daughters and drank beer at the Turkey’s Nest Tavern. Everybody in the Big Apple needs a few places at which they are recognized—being a regular is everything. Shopsin’s delivered that for some people, but it was never my thing, never my place. Wrong neighborhood. Wrong atmosphere. Celebrities and denizens of the west village waited patiently for a table or to fill their mugs of coffee at communal industrial-sized urns. This wasn’t a place to preen or ask for special favors. Nobody wanted to provoke Shopsin’s ire and risk being yelled at. However, witnessing him dressing down a hapless tourist or an entitled stockbroker was a form of brunch theater. And I imagine many people went there, like Nascar fans, secretly hoping to witness a blow up. (Maybe today was the day somebody would try to order a hamburger without a bun…)
It felt exclusive. It was exclusive. Excluding people is very much a part of the ethos of the most democratic bootstrapping city in the world. The reason that the hamburger at the 21 Club costs as much as it does is so that people won’t try and go there to eat it. I figured Shopsin and his clientele had their club down there in Greenwich Village, and they didn’t want any of us in there anyway. So, you know, fuck ‘em.
Then, I got Kenny Shopsin’s cookbook, Eat Me, and I fell in love.
First of all, he says things like “Cut the chicken into strips the size of a baby’s index finger,” or shoots off wisecrack wisdom, such as “No matter how good the iced tea is or how unusual it is, it’s all just water. A person who orders an iced tea could get three refills and then take the glass home with him and I’d still make a profit.”
Or this, on poached eggs: “there’s a whole mystique about making poached eggs that I’ve never understood. It’s just like making sunnies: you crack the eggs in a bowl, heat the pan, slide them in—only there’s water in the pan instead of butter. The way I make them, they’re simple—no swirling shit around. No vinegar. No little cups to break the eggs in. You do have to pay attention to the heat, though. You don’t want the water to boil, rapidly, but you don’t want the water to stop boiling, either, so you have to make adjustments to the heat while the eggs are cooking. And you do need a slotted spoon to get them out. That’s the only special tool.” He goes on to say “As I get older, I’m less and less prone toward gilding something that is already perfect.”
So much to love. It’s just a whole epiphany about how the techniques that I’d learned were overly complicated, and how if you just wanted a clean egg that didn’t taste like the fat you’d cooked it in, you could cook it like Shopsin.
What Eat Me did better than anything else I’ve ever seen was explicate not just the techniques of short-order cooking, but the whole package of what it means. I worked as a short order cook, and this book resonates. His technique for cutting bell peppers is the most short-order diner-cook thing of all time, and I’ve never cut a pepper any other way since I learned it. (You just stand the pepper on its blossom end, hold the stem, and cut the lobes off. The seeds and the ribs remain, ready to be thrown away.)
Ten years after the publication of his book, we are overrun by restaurants which are built on everything that Shopsin railed against. Now we’ve got multi-million dollar build outs designed to create an atmosphere where diners can experience street food from all over the world. We’ve chefed up cucina povera (food of the poor) to within an inch of its life and serve it at sky-high prices.
Kenny Shopsin wanted none of that. He wanted Indomalekian Sunrise Stew, of which Trillin wrote “Kenny and his oldest son, Charlie, invented the country of Indomalekia along with its culinary traditions.”
While I never attained regular status in his restaurant, I can say that we lost a good one.