"I may be viciously unkind, but I can still read what you're thinking…"

by Katie Pizzuto on November 23, 2008

in book review

eatmeI’ve been having a sort of spiritual wrestling match with myself the last couple of days as to whether or not I should write this post, and if I do, from what angle do I approach it. Is all publicity good publicity? Should good secrets stay secrets? But in the middle of the throwdown, Kenny Shopsin’s persona took over, gave my conscience a clothesline, and told it to shut the fuck up.

For over 20 years, Kenny Shopsin despised publicity, which is more than a little off the wall given that he owns a café in New York City. Kenny was the kind of guy that would get a phone call from a restaurant guidebook that wanted to include Shopsin’s General Store, and tell them that the place was no longer in operation. Those that have written the place up usually describe Kenny as a “foul-mouthed middle-aged chef” as if it were something unique—they’ve obviously never stepped foot inside the heat-riddled kitchens of New York. But Kenny doesn’t want complimentary reviews. He feels they bring in the “review-trotters” that eat at restaurants because someone else tells them they should…the kind of people that might feel uncomfortable with a stranger next to them contributing to their conversation or be taken aback by hearing Kenny use language normally reserved for merchant marines. But after 26 years of maintaining a policy of silence, Kenny Shopsin was convinced to write a book…part memoir, part food philosophy, part cookbook, part confessional.

In Eat Me, Kenny talks about his non-traditional approach to being a restaurant owner and chef. His view, for starters, is quite the opposite of “the customer is always right.” In fact, until he gets to know you and is convinced that you are worth cultivating as a customer, he’s not even sure he wants your patronage. Why? Because Kenny interacts with each of his customers—he develops a relationship with each of them and invests a little of himself in them. At Shopsin’s there is no “us” and “them” and the menu he puts outside (with hundreds of items on it) is actually to dissuade the wrong people from coming in. Kenny also has no recipes. Most of his customers are regulars and know that if they order the same thing on two separate occasions, they may get something completely different both times. This he equates to having sex—you try to do the best you possibly can each time, as if it were the only time. “You don’t think about what you’re doing because you are 100% in the moment.”

Then there are the rules at Shopsin’s that have gotten bent over the years, much to Kenny’s dismay. Rule 1: No copycat ordering. Yes, the menu can be daunting, but if you can’t think for yourself, Kenny doesn’t want you there and has no problem telling you to fuck off. He has since relented on this rule, but he ain’t happy about it! Rule 2: Limit of four people per group. Kenny originally claimed that it was because it was too difficult to get that many dishes out at once, but he now admits that it’s more because large parties are no fun. They’re an entity unto themselves and don’t interact with other customers that are part of “what’s going on.” Rule 3: No cell phone use—he doesn’t care who you interact with at the restaurant, as long as it isn’t with an electronic device, so take it outside. Rule 4: One entrée per person minimum. If you sit, you eat.

The book includes his philosophy about soup making (he usually has over 100 of them on the menu), his admission about using Aunt Jemima’s frozen pancake batter, and tons of his recipes including macaroni and cheese pancakes. But more importantly, it’s a window into a chef who’s often discussed and seldom understood. Eat Me took a lot of nerve to write because it’s completely honest, and as many of us know, most chefs, to a certain degree, are full of shit. Kenny stripped himself bare—scars, warts, gray hairs and all—and I think he did it in the hopes that the shock value would either draw you in or push you away. Either way, you’ll probably learn as much about yourself as you will about him.