Kenny Shopsin has died. He got the Great Man Obituary — “Brash Owner of a Quirky Restaurant” — in The New York Times, which is simple justice. He ran the most original restaurant in the city, had the best — and worst — relationships with his clientele, wrote a cookbook like no other, and was full of big ideas that were as important to him as anything he’ll put on your plate.
Odds are that you never ate at Shopsin’s and have never heard Kenny Shopsin’s name.
So, the facts: Shopsin’s is a New York institution. Kenny Shopsin and his late wife Eve started it as a Greenwich Village market before turning it — without much in the way of redecoration — into a 40-seat restaurant. It moved to the Essex Street Market, in a more pristine space with just 20 seats, more constrained hours (Wednesday to Saturday, 9 AM to 2 PM; Sunday, 10 AM to 2 PM) and a menu trimmed from its former 900 items. Yes, 900 items, including Cotton Picker Gumbo Melt Soup, Hanoi Hoppin John with Shrimp, Bombay Turkey Cloud Sandwich, Cuban Bean Polenta Melt, and “tomato soup the way Sarah likes it.” As the proprietor explained, “I hang a menu out in front of the restaurant, which a lot of places do in the hope of enticing customers to come inside by showing them what they have to offer. I do it for the opposite reason. I put the menu there to dissuade people from coming in. My menu is six pages long, and there is a lot of stuff crammed on those pages.”
That’s just the begging of his eccentricities.
Shopsin didn’t want to serve his customers, he wanted to know them: “Once we’ve established a rapport, my customers and I are absolute equals in my restaurant. But I guess I shouldn’t expect newcomers to understand this. In all fairness, they’re right and I’m the a**hole, because my way is hardly the traditional you-give-me-the-money-I-give-you-a-bagel. I want more from them. I want a relationship. The brilliance of my restaurant is my ability to control my clientele. The thing that makes my restaurant special is my relationships and interactions with my customers — and the way they relate and interact with one another. With the wrong people here, those interactions don’t happen, so…I probably axe at least one party every day — and usually more than that. By kicking them out, what I’m doing is respecting the fact that they don’t belong here.”
In the documentary made about him, he reveals the Meaning of Life: “Pick an arbitrary, stupid goal, become totally involved in it, and pursue it with vigor, and what happens to you in that pursuit is your life.”
Along the way, you’ll find it liberating to “admit you’re a piece of s**t.”
Of course there’s a cookbook: “Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.” It offers amazingly simple recipes for home-cooked classics, and, of course, his thoughts. [To buy “Eat Me” from Amazon, click here.] You might also be interested in his daughter Tamara’s very smart and refreshing memoir, “Arbitrary Stupid Goal.” [To buy Tamara Shopsin’s book from Amazon, click here.]
Shopsin hated publicity. A magazine photographer asked to take his picture.
Shopsin: Get the f**k out of here!
Photographer: F**k you!
Sound effect: Shopsin slamming the door.
But he let old friend Calvin Trillin profile him in the New Yorker, and that is the piece you want to read.
More Shopsin wisdom:
On his beloved pancakes: “They are flour and milk drowned in butter and some form of sugar. They’re crap.”
On inventing new entrees: “Eventually something inside me, probably skewed by my erotic feelings about breasts and things like that, assembles a product and just shoots it up.”
On his huge menu, revised daily: “I spent almost $3,000 on toner in the last three months.”
The key rule: No two people at one table can order the same thing.
Kenny Shopsin was a very happy man. Between the recipes and the philosophy, his very useful book can make you happy. You don’t think so? To quote the maestro: F**k off.
BLISTERS ON MY SISTERS
This name came from a Frank Zappa song called “Jewish Princess” where he says: “I want a dainty little Jewish princess with a couple of sisters who can raise a few blisters.” I decided to make something called Blisters on My Sisters, and when I went to the kitchen to make it, this is what I came up with. I make the rice and beans mixture in a bowl because all my ingredients are hot all the time, but since you are probably starting with cold ingredients, I gave you directions for mixing the ingredients together over heat.
6 corn tortillas, warmed
2 cups cooked white rice
1 cup Cuban Black Bean Soup, or canned black bean soup or black beans, drained
2 roma tomatoes (fresh or from a can of San Marzano tomatoes), chopped
Minced jalapeño or chipotle peppers
2 extra-large eggs
2 big handfuls of arugula
Heat the tortillas on the griddle or in whatever way you like to heat tortillas.
In a sauté pan over medium heat, combine the rice, soup, tomatoes, and jalapeño peppers.
Mush it all up together.
Meanwhile, cook the eggs sunny-side up.
To serve, put 1 handful of arugula in the bottom of two plates.
Put the tortillas side by side on top of the arugula, and the rice-beans mixture on top of the tortillas, dividing it evenly.
Carefully slide the sunnies on top of that, and serve.
Per serving: 301.5 calories, 24.7 calories from fat, 2.7g total fat, 0.6g saturated fat, 0.0mg cholesterol, 1270.1mg sodium, 58.6g total carbs, 10.7g dietary fiber, 3.4g sugars, 10.1g protein
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler