Monday, December 1

Book Corner: Unruly – King of the kitchen

Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin is a fantastic book, but it is really a combination of a things: a magazine article about Kenny Shopsin and his restaurant of the same name; Shopsin’s musings on topics like family, customers, fancy restaurants, food critics, etc.; as well as about 100 recipes, each with a short story, all thrown in for the cover price.

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Since I love books more than cooking, Shopsin’s writing appealed to me just a bit more than his food. However, with food this appetizing – “mac n cheese pancakes” as just one example – it was a close contest.

You can be forgiven if you haven’t heard of Shopsin, since he first started serving food in his corner store in New York City he has taken great pains to shun the media. Not only has he vehemently rejected offers to be in any restaurant guidebook, he also tosses potential customers back on the street about three or four times a week.

Shopsin writes that customers’ “neuroses are coddled and their misbehaviors are tolerated for their patronage and their money by every restaurateur in America. But not by me. My approach at Shopsin’s is the exact opposite of ‘the customer is always right.’ Until I know the people, until they show me that they are worth cultivating as customers, I’m not even sure I want their patronage.”

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Shopsin has a lot of rules in his restaurant, although he says there are fewer now than in the past. Here is just a sampling; no copycat ordering, no special orders (unless he thinks it sounds like an improvement), no seating for groups larger than four, no take out, and everyone must eat.

How can you not love such a grumpy old man? But he is not all gruff and blustering, Shopsin just wants the respect and attention from the customer he feels he deserves. And it seems he and (some) of his customers have found a comfortable niche to inhabit.

Regarding the atmosphere of his shop he writes, “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.”

One of the things I like most about the book is that he dispels the commonly held belief that there is some magic or mysterious “thing” that occurs in a restaurant kitchen that cannot be replicated at home.

Shopsin’s philosophy on cooking is both simple and elegant: “Do what you can within the limits of what you can do, and it will all be just fine.” For him, that means using good ingredients, buying quality equipment and finding the most direct way to create dishes that taste good.

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In addition to an amazing assortment of recipes, Shopsin dispenses wonderfully efficient methods for cutting peppers, grilling chicken, cooking burgers and making eggs that have already proved successful in my meager kitchen.

One of my favorites from the book is the “Gidget” sandwich – tuna salad, avocado, and tomato on garlic bread. As he says, this is more of an assembly dish than a true recipe. And since he says “use the ingredients you like,” I threw on some cheddar and it was delicious.

The book also contains a replica of his menu, which he reprints at least twice a week from his home. The six-page behemoth has more than 900 items squeezed on it to the point of illegibility. But each one gives just one more example of Shopsin’s creativity.

The next time I visit New York City I will surely visit his restaurant, whether he wants a food tourist or not. I just pray I measure up to his strict standards and get to try one of his dishes first hand.