Shopsin’s Article in NYT Magazine
My friend Steven took me to Shopsin’s many years ago when it was located down end of Houston Street. A wonderful article about one of those NY hide-a-ways.
Source: NYT Magazine
The Way We Eat – Flipping the Bird by CHRISTINE MUHLKE
Larry FinkPhoto: Kenny Shopsin and his daughter Tamara on the brunch shift. Right: Counter culture. Published: October 9, 2008
AS THE LEGENDARY bon vivant Ludwig Bemelmans once noted of restaurateurs: “The most strenuous customer-versus-proprietor battles occur in the smart restaurants of Paris and New York. This kind of restaurant, as a rule, is small. It is benefited by a certain type of guest and injured by another, and the latter must be discouraged from coming. In a man confronted daily with the task of separating the wanted from the unwanted, a degree of arrogance is indispensable.” Add photos
Lars Klove for The New York Times & A Shopsin’s specialty: Mac ‘n’ cheese pancakes.
Confronted daily with the task of deciding who gets to eat at Shopsin’s General Store, his 20-seat restaurant in New York’s Essex Street Market, the cook and owner Kenny Shopsin separates the wanted from the unwanted with a degree of foulmouthed eloquence that makes Lenny Bruce look like Sirio Maccioni. This is food politics in its rawest form. “We have a really wonderful relationship with our customers for the most part,” he said. “We kick [expletive] out. Regularly.” Up to three times a day.
Order off the menu? Out. Cellphone call? Beat it. Sometimes people don’t even make it into a seat, as in the case of the infamous no-parties-bigger-than-four rule. Or maybe Shopsin simply doesn’t like you. (Let’s just say that years ago, when I took Alain Ducasse to dinner at Shopsin’s — I ate there weekly for eight years, until I lost it in the divorce — I knew better than to introduce him to the cook whose food he was praising. I waited weeks to tell Shopsin, who softened and got borderline misty for a second before bellowing: “I’m glad you didn’t tell me. I would’ve kicked the” you-know-what “out.”)
It’s not the most Danny Meyer-like approach to cultivating clientele, but after 28 years behind the stove, Shopsin wants only to cook for people he likes. “I’m not a very mature person,” he says after a lunch shift, his white hair kept at bay by an appropriately
McEnroesque headband. “Sometimes my mind works a bit too fast, and I come to the conclusion of a relationship with customers faster than they get there. The abruptness of my understanding the essence of what’s happening is really upsetting to them and makes them vindictive and angry.” (One man, refused service at the original Bedford Street grocery-turned-restaurant, ripped a toilet out of the floor.)
Shopsin’s menu is another ejector seat. With more than 900 items — including 300 soups — it sends the indecisive, the health-conscious and the humorless running. It’s a window-slash-rabbit-hole into the 66-year-old’s mind: 75 riffs on pancakes, from Post Modern to Lemon Ricotta; 100 made-to-order soups, from Cream of Any Vegetable to Cheeseburger; and countless other dishes, like the Nuclear Melt Down sandwich and burgers with mac-’n’-cheese sauce.
“I dedicate myself to consuming all sorts of ideas,” says Shopsin, an avid reader and Internet crawler. “Eventually something inside me, probably skewed by my erotic feelings about breasts and things like that, assembles a product and just shoots it up.” For example, a recent item on the food blog Serious Eats about foods on a stick led to the State Fair combo plate: corn-dog sausage, s’mores pancakes and chicken-fried eggs. New dishes are printed on the menu the same day: “I spent almost $3,000 on toner in the last three months,” Shopsin says.
Unlike other restaurateurs, Shopsin has refused publicity. (Whenever I tried to write about him, he would tell the fact checkers that Shopsin’s was a shoe store or out of business or insist that they do something uncheckable to themselves.) But two regulars, a Knopf editor and a literary agent, persuaded him to write a cookbook. “Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin” blends recipes with his uncensored thoughts on cooking (“The only explanation I can give for . . . how I came to this method of cooking is that it’s a product of a lot of psychotherapy, drugs and making chicken potpies”) and running a restaurant (“My approach . . . is the exact opposite of ‘the customer is always right’ ”). Like the restaurant, where three of his four children work, the book is a family affair, designed by his daughter Tamara and photographed by his son-in-law, Jason Fulford.
Shopsin is dreading the attention “Eat Me” will attract, claiming it will draw the wrong people for the wrong reasons. “The brilliance of my restaurant is that the customer base is soooo special,” he says. “They do not hesitate to engage the stranger at the next table, as opposed to just observing the dwellers of the zoo.” They know that the real reason Shopsin’s has been successful for so long — despite the fact that the owner is a self-confessed “[expletive]” who serves mind-bending food in a very funky environment — is that it has such a huge heart.
“I was thinking I could learn to be insincere,” he says in book mode. “But the first day I really go off, I’ll probably just close for a month.”
A version of this article appeared in print on October 12, 2008, on page MM89 of the New York edition.