Word of Kenny Shopsin’s death jolted the restaurant community on Monday. This eccentric figure had presided over the restaurant known informally as Shopsin’s (or more properly as Shopsin’s General Store) since 1973. The place began as a local Greenwich Village grocery that peddled roast beef sandwiches as a sideline and ended up being one of the quirkiest restaurants in the city, with a headache-inducing menu that ran to as many as 900 colorfully named selections in massive groupings. If you didn’t love Shopsin’s, you probably hated it, and it was the rare diner who didn’t have some opinion or hadn’t visited at least once.
To visit twice was to get to know Kenny. Appear at his tiny restaurant again, and you were his friend. Shopsin’s went through three incarnations during its history. Starting out at the corner of Bedford and Morton, where Snack Taverna now sits, it was forced to move early in this century to a location at 54 Carmine St., far too big. From thence, it moved to the Essex Street Market in 2007. In recent years, his youngest son, Zack, usually attended the griddle along with his sister Tamara, as Kenny sat on the sidelines, either dozing, giving orders, or kibitzing with well-wishers.
Towering, ample of girth, and given to wearing a black T-shirt and suspenders, Kenny was a memorable figure, especially when seated on his motorcycle riding to work from his apartment. He often wore a bandanna handkerchief as a headband, perhaps a vestige of bygone hippie days, and a fringe of graying hair peeped out underneath. In earlier times his wife, Eve — who died in 2003 — ran the front of the house, which was decorated with big jars of forgotten candies. It was understood that you were permitted to help yourself for free.
How did Kenny achieve his breathtakingly long menu? Every customer had their guesses. As a self-trained chef, he had few peers and often espoused unusual theories. He would never, he once told me, add both salt and pepper to a dish. But he kept both flavorings in a single shaker in a proportion known only to him, and thus would save himself the trouble of adding the seasonings separately. I was also told that he had a series of master stocks kept frozen, and each one of his dozens upon dozens of soups started out with a particular stock. He published a cookbook in 2008 called Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, which is filled with all sorts of oddball tips, many surprisingly practical.
Sometimes his dishes were pure invention; other times they were inspired by his experience of eating or reading about a recipe from another country, or simply fantasizing about what the cooking from that country might be like. As a person who eats a lot of Senegalese food, I couldn’t say that his Senegalese peanut soup was particularly authentic, but it was damn good.
I became a regular around 2000 and went almost weekly, late in the morning, until Kenny and I had a falling out around 2004. I didn’t feel welcome anymore; I’d been 86’ed like so many others.
I’d fixed on a favorite dish early on and always ordered the same thing: Kenny’s sublime French toast. Over the years, I figured out how he did it — by using thick absorbent pieces of bakery white, dipping them in pure beaten eggs without milk or water added, and cooking the sopping slices in pure butter. Kenny always served maple syrup, so you didn’t mind what seemed at the time like fairly high prices. When I discussed the dish with him, he swore up and down the taste was due to the griddle he was using, which provided an even heat.
Other times, extraneous objects would launch dishes. He told me he started making ebelskivers when he found a device for cooking the globe-shaped Scandinavian pancakes in a junk shop. Such a crisp and perfect roundness! But there’s no doubt that part of the pleasure of eating at Shopsin’s came from interacting with Kenny, who could be by turns hilarious, abrasive, or morbidly reflective.
Of course, one notorious aspect of the place was The Rules, an unwritten code of conduct that must be adhered to by diners who hoped to eat at Shopsin’s. Violating the rules would usually result in expulsion from the restaurant; they were celebrated by Calvin Trillin in a 2002 article that appeared in the New Yorker.
Some of the rules I remember, and saw enforced at one time or another, included 1) No parties of more than four, 2) No outside beverages, even if it’s just a few sips of OJ left in the bottle as you enter the premises, 3) No two diners at a table are allowed to order the same thing, and 4) Upon appearing at the front door, you’re not allowed to request to see a menu. I once saw a party of Food & Wine staffers tossed out because there were five of them and they tried to break into a party of two and a party of three. Kenny detected the violation, and they were soon out on the street.
Kenny was an icon of the New York dining scene that can never be replaced, but anyone who ever saw him flip a pancake, crack a dirty joke, or ride past on his motorcycle could never forget him.