Kenny Shopsin Is Dead
"The Irascible Chef-King of Lower Manhattan"

by Dr David, Editor / Publisher

Kenny Shopsin is dead. His demise might not matter to you, but the New Yorker eulogized him, "Remembering Kenny Shopsin, the Irascible Chef-King of Lower Manhattan". The illustrious author Lionel Trilling wrote two articles about Kenny, while yrt he lived. (See the links in the article cited above.) He would have written more, but he was afraid that the publicity would anger Kenny and that he would be banished from the iconic Shopsin's Restaurant, as many before him had been.

I went to Kenny's whenever I visited New York, which was more or less frequently. My friend's Soho home and painting studio was my base in the city. According to my friend's Facebook, he cried when, now in Vancouver, he heard that Kenny had died. Back in the day, when dinnertime came my buddy and I would walk over to the West Village to Shopsin's.

There were 6 or 8 booths for patrons and a long lunch counter (without stools) behind which was all else: the dishwashing and prep areas, manned by loyal and thick-skinned Jose, Kenny's six burner stove, Kenny's wife and waitress, Eve, also loyal and thick-skinned, shelves piled high with restaurant supplies, an impressive array of bric-a-brac, games, posters ("Our cooks wear condoms"), signage from the era when the place was a corner grocery store ("Oscar Meyer Beef Franks"), paintings, jars of penny candy, distributed without charge to underage patrons...

Kenny gave forth to the customers, the counter his stage, not just food, but philosophy, social commentary, personal critiques insults and more. Completely outspoken, confrontational, regularly foul-mouthed, his pontifications were made palatable by his delivery, witiness and a sensitivity only partially obscured by gruffness. Not a continuous flow, his were periodic eruptions burst over the diners. It was a little like what being invited to a dinner party at a more cultured Rodney Dangerfield's house might have been like, if Mr Dangerfield were a culinary wizard. People came for the food, and came back if they could stand the tirades.

Kenny was such an interesting character that they made a documentary about him, which priemered at Sundance. Its title, "I Like Killing Flies," isn't as off-putting as it sounds considering the man spent the better part of his life in a kitchen.

His menu had 300 (eventually color-coded)soups on it, and that was just page one. (Can you even imagine 300 different soups?) Subsequent pages, five large pages, offered complete Tex-Mex, Chinese, Italian, American... menus, including, among the standard fare, many exotic creations.

All of this was made on Kenny's 6-burner stove, from ingredients fresh or canned. The real magic came from the 2-3 dozen bain maries that surrounded the stove on three sides. Kenny's small culinary laboratory was an alchemist's kitchen. He was like a witch over her caldron: "Eye of newt. Tongue of eel," adding to the work in progress in the pot on the flame, sauces that gave each meal its distinctive ethnicity, even if the class and genre, which was often the case, came only from Kenny's tortured heart and brain... a small ladle of beef stock, a large spoonful Chinese seasoning, a dollop of herbs of India. My favorite dish was the African, Green Curry Soup.

When I see a large home kitchen (normally while watching a movie as I don't get around much in circles where there are large home kitchens) I remember Shopsin's tiny cooking space. I think, such a large kitchen could only appeal to persons who don't cook. The space is so vast that you have to take a bus to get from the sink to the refigerator. Many large houses in SMA are not built for comfortable living, they are built for show, grand entertainment, impressive spectacle; the sweeping staircase rising so beautifully around the high entryway is a pain to ascend every time you climb it. They are nice places to party in, but I wouldn't want to live there.

My home kitchen here in SMA is small. When I am at the stove I just need to turn around and step aside to open the refigerator door. The sink is only 3 steps away. With my juicer out for daily use I do lack a little counter space. I keep my (less-frequently used) food processor stowed away on top of the refigerator. My pots are hanging on the wall aside the stove. My herbs and oils and regular staples are arranged on my many open shelves.

I love cooking, and, in my very limited repertoire I am very good at it. My father owned more than one restaurant and so did I. One of my chefs told me, "David, I am a good cook, but you are a great cook."

Sometimes, when I buy food in bulk, I have to store the extra cans or cartons in my bedroom closet. This is not really a problem, because my house, like my kitchen is small. Living room / office, dining room, kitchen and bedroom are all on one level, wrapped around a small, not tiny courtyard. The rooms themselves are also not tiny, but like the kitchen, once you include the furniture there is no wasted space.

My girlfriend wishes I had a bathtub. I make up that lack to her, at least in part, by regular trips to Escondido Place [the hot springs just outside town]. At the end of summer vacation, her 16 year old son decided to remain with his father in Puerto Rico. Given his father's newly acquired US citizenship, the young man, already possessing a Green Card, is now himself on a fast-track to a US passport, as long as he resides in the US. Consequently, recently, to her delight, I've been spending many more nights at her now adolescent-free house. Her home is more spacious than mine. Her rooms are larger than mine. There are two bedrooms. She even has a hallway. However, she has no bathtub.

My home in Connecticut had a bathtub and a hottub (with a superb arrangement of powerful jets, 10 of them in a "therapy seat") and a sauna. It was a 3-storey, neo-Victorian house, built on a small hill next to the Vanderbilt estate's gatehouse after the main house burnt down. Farmington Avenue was once lined with mansions and almost mansions. Hartford was once the place to be, the first city with both telephone and electrification. Now amongst the apartment houses and stores, the avenue still boasts the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe Houses. My house, including my medical office space on the first floor (including the aforementioned hottub and sauna) was, with it's 30'x60' footprint, 5400 square feet. That's not including the 1800' square foot basement.

When I return from my girlfriend's house, when I think back on my palatial abode up north I am delighted to be in my small space. Aside from all the saved time and footsteps getting from here to there, there are other advantage; for example, when I misplace something, for example, my passport the other day, there are many fewer places to look for it.

Then, after the McMansion era, small has become the new black. A smaller space makes you more conscious. Lacking the closet space of Imelda Marcos, that was mine up north, I have had to limit my possessions; to quote the Dalai Lama, "More possessions, more worries." This lack of space fits in well with my aversion to buying things. Reusing and repurposing things is much kinder to the environment. Take for instance, the Christmas lights I found on trash day riding my bicycle down Guadiana from my girlfriend's; they only had one, easily-repaired short circuit and I'm all about subtle lighting.

Kenny Shopsin, came from a well-connected family. He was smart enough to make a fortune, like his father before him, like his brother, both professional men. Although he wasn't hurting for cash, his retaurant was very successful, life and temperament demand something more immediate of him. His real wealth was in his personal philosophy. In a town noted for its rugged individualism and larger than life personas he was a giant. From behind his counter he thundered against corruption, duplicity and the false show of society, with language that made his patrons cringe and laugh, sometimes simultaneously. He was a Manhattan Diogenes, who, you might remember, when asked why he went around Athens during the day with a lighted lantern, replied, "I am looking for an honset man."

Kenny Shopsin was a great cook, greatly honest and greatly loved. Here, in my own small kitchen, cooking up my own radical honesty, I pay him, in a small way, homage.

**************


photo: Alessandro Bo (cropped)

Dr David started this magazine because he could write and liked to communicate. He fully expected that in a town like San Miguel he could find authors to publish in addition to himself. Well, practically no one is submitting anything. Stubborn as he is, he continues, now publishing himself, and a faithful cadre of authors and photographers. His motto continues to be, "It's hard to be ahead of your time."

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