Shop talk

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

It's a riot trying to describe the famously eccentric and eccentrically famous Kenny Shopsin. I'll begin by saying it's a safe bet Kenny Shopsin doesn't want to get to know you on Facebook. And though Shopsin has owned a popular and high-profile NYC restaurant for decades, don't expect to see him trotting around the globe with a camera crew trying to act cooler than you as he gobbles down food you never will.

A legendary cook and anachronism, Shopsin has been immortalized by writers like Calvin Trillin in publications like The New Yorker - but it's mostly been to the consternation of the cantankerous and self-taught Shopsin. Because while celebrated artists, writers and A-list celebrities (like Madonna) frequent his tiny and cheap dinery eatery, the contradictory Shopsin clearly loathes our "look at me" attention-desperate culture and its attendant cult of shallow celebrity.

See, unlike so many self-acknowledged food experts, Kenny Shopsin views good cooking as an end in itself - not as a dollar-loaded springboard to networking, fame and wide acceptance.

Thus it's no surprise that the irascible and often Zen-like Shopsin unjokingly writes, "I've done everything I could to avoid articles and accolades of any kind. I have talked about how the media was evil, about the dangers of celebrity, and the pitfalls of losing self-doubt," in his supremely entertaining new book, Eat Me. The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.

Cowritten by James Beard award-winning journalist Carolyn Carreno, Eat Me takes its name both from Shopsin's notorious sailor-mouthed attitude (among other things, he's known for indigo-blue humor, arguing with customers and tossing out patrons on a daily basis) and Shopsin's souvenir T-shirts - which when folded correctly form those potent two words.

As a playful bonus, the book features a "Do Not Pull" tab teasing you from its top that, when yanked (he knows you can't resist), switches its black and white title into a tripartite color photo of eggs and bacon - with yolk suggestively spilling off the plate.

Relatedly, the book's defiantly unglossy, unfussily punky and real-life funky boho photos alone would probably be worth its $25 admission; but you also get Shopsin's non-pandering food musings, hard-learned restaurant tips and cooking techniques, his hilarious and casual references to a long and non-conformist lifestyle ("Pancakes are a luxury, like smoking marijuana or having sex. That's why I came up with names like Ho Cakes and Slutty Cakes"), and about 100 refreshingly short and easy-looking recipes for things like Fellini Eggs, Shrimp Lefses and Asian Waldorf Chicken Salad with Kamikaze Dressing.

These beyond-quirky recipes each come with a short and engaging personal story (characteristically involving friends and family) and are nonchalantly woven into Shopsin's free-wheeling narrative and his idiosyncratic observations on life, love and why he hates the health department.

Trillin's wry intro to this must-have super-fun book includes the inevitable mention of Shopsin's infamous "rules" - which have actually softened over the years. But for a long time, if a star-searching, non-regular diner became flummoxed by Shopsin's jarring 900-item menu (this was intentional) and frantically gazed over at his neighbor's great-looking Burmese hummus - a Trillin favorite, which is neither hummus nor Burmese - and the would-be diner would then point and say, "I'll have that," he'd be steadfastly refused on account of Shopsin's "no-copycat" rule.

In fact Shopsin's confounding dining guidelines (clearly, he does not believe the customer is always right) are so folkloric that poems have been composed about them, and the book includes a very funny ode to Shopsin's strict ban on parties of five.

Following Trillin's perfectly winsome intro, Eat Me's ensuing 260 pages loosely progress much like Shopsin's wild and rambling menu - currently pared down to about 450 items and gleefully reproduced "as is" in the book. Like the photos, this ponderously "out there" meal document is almost worth the book's price itself, yet it's only a taste of Eat Me's many delicious charms.

I'll end by saying that the best description of Kenny Shopsin - who started out as an unemployed sculptor undergoing heavy Freudian analysis - and his one-of-a-kind little restaurant is that they're the long-awaited and most hilarious ever Mel Brooks film that's still waiting to happen.