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An unusual man

“What happens occasionally is that Kenny gets an idea for a dish and writes on the specials board…something like Indomalekian Sunrise Stew. (Kenny and his oldest son, Charlie invented the country of Indomalekia along with its culinary traditions). A couple of weeks later, someone finally orders Indomalekian Sunrise Stew and Kenny can’t remember what he had in mind when he thought it up. Fortunately, the customer doesn’t know, either, so Kenny just invents it again on the spot.”

Kenny Shopsin may just have invented a whole new category of books: The ‘Adult’ Cookbook. But of course, Shopsin’s book Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin is more than just a bunch of recipes, so perhaps we can call the genre ‘Adult Food’. Shopsin does swear liberally, even in his recipes, but also constantly references certain bodily actions when talking about things food (and also when talking about things not food). Oh, it doesn’t bother me. It is hilarious, really. But this ‘quality’ is reflective of the very particular persona he has cultivated over the years: quirky and eccentric, media hostile, and generally very ‘unusual’, and therefore interesting. Among his many peculiarities is his penchant for the Internet. This would not be so noteworthy if he wasn’t seventy years old (most sexagenarians I know are still using their right index fingers to punch words, one alphabet at a time, and a very long time at that; and I don’t know of one single septuagenarian who pretends to understand how it all works). So it surprises me that he browses Amazon and eBay for kitchen related purchases, and speaks of Quark.

“Sometimes, by around twelve or one o’clock, after cooking really hard in the morning, I don’t feel the need to cook anymore…Since the real reason I was in the kitchen was to take care of my emotional stability, not to make food, I’m done”

Oh, did I not mention who Kenny Shopsin is? He runs a small restaurant in New York City’s West Village called Shopsins. It is an unusual restautant, run by an unusual man – creative, internet-savvy, profanity spewing Kenny Shopsin. Shopsin makes no efforts to disguise his food philosophy and his cooking style: heavily ‘inspired’, shortcut embracing, and sometimes almost Sandra Lee-esque in resorting to non-homemade/store brought preparations (he uses Aunt Jemima’s frozen pancake batter). His restaurant and his food are not known for sophistication and subtlety (for that matter, Shopsin himself is not known for either of those attributes), but he likes ‘gusto’ and that’s what his food is about. I cannot adequately capture the Shopsin spirit in these meager paragraphs, so I suggest you read this article that appeared in the New Yorker in 2002. If you are less pressed for time, you could see this documentary, appropriately titled I Like Killing Flies.

“We usually just held the kids, and if we got too busy, we handed them off to a customer”.

Shopsin does not care to attract new ‘customers’ and his happy with his own faithful Village clientele. He particularly despises food tourists who come in search of the restaurant, because they’ve heard that it is a singularly curious place. They get kicked out. His restaurant also has ‘rules’ which I get, although I don’t understand how all of this makes good business sense. He has a method, he has his madness, and somehow it works. I am intrigued, but I am also puzzled. Why would a self-proclaimed media-hater write a book and appear in a documentary that would firmly situate the restaurant in the minds of chowhounds? Shopsin writes that he works in the ‘service’ industry and has created items on his menu out of “popular demand”, then why does he seem to try so hard to discourage new faces in his restuarant?

Many consider him a culinary genius. But, as food writer and Shopsin devotee Calvin Trillin noted, “Kenny’s disposition has not improved”. The situation is not likely to change.

 

 

 

 

 

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