Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Kenny Shopsin: White Knight

Kenny Shopsin passed away last weekend. See this remembrance on Grubstreet. And, unusually, the New Yorker offers free reading of Calvin Trillin's classic profile from 2002. Don't miss it.

So much was always made over what a character Kenny was. That aspect never phased me. I'm old enough to remember when NYC was full of characters. Shoot, I'm a character, myself. And to be perfectly honest - what the hell, it's not like he ever held back! - I thought Kenny had crossed over into the realm of shtick, locked into playing this Kenny Shopsin character. Pandering to feather-ruffling expectations rather than genuinely ruffling feathers. He was hardly the first fuck-you iconoclast to wind up a treasured cultural landmark (slip a quarter in the slot to receive your "fuck you"!). The eccentricity racket can be an awfully sticky wicket.

I was much more interested in the deliciousness of his cooking. We musicians had found him early. It was pianist Uri Caine who first tipped me to Shopsin's, describing it as "this great soup place". Uri offered no titillated stories about the eccentricity, because, compared to us and our friends, Kenny was downright straight-ahead. Musicians had him on our radar purely for his food - both its deliciousness and its singular creativity. Who else had invented so many genuinely successful dishes? We considered him an artist, period. Same with the Soup Man, for that matter, despite Seinfeld's disrespect.

I never spoke directly to Kenny, though I made infrequent visits to both his restaurants over the years. For a peripatetic chowhound, always questing for new greatness just over the horizon, it was hard to find patience to work methodically through Kenny's twenty zillion offerings. I did really like everything I tried, however. I was an early adopter of mac-and-cheese pancakes.

But I do have a story to tell you about Kenny. It's a secret. As I once explained, I've always taken ethics very seriously. There were only two instances where I intentionally relaxed my self-imposed rules. I ate anonymously everywhere (to the best of my ability) except at Astoria's Kabab Cafe, where I was friends with owner Ali. And I never took a dime, or a morsel of free food, from any restaurateur...except Kenny. When Chowhound had scaled from a fun hobby to a time/money sucking nightmare, and I'd exhausted my own meager savings to keep the damned thing open as a public service, and had to ask for support from users, Kenny sent a couple of checks. Big checks. With no notes attached, no self-identification, nothing. Just mutely generic checks in plain white envelopes, signed by one Kenneth Shopsin.

To this day, I'm not sure why I accepted. It wasn't greed; it's not like I was tempted or anything like that. I just felt a deep certainty that it was the thing to do. The quietness of how he'd gone about it spoke volumes. I understood no strings were attached; that it would never bring me grief. In fact, we moderated discussion of his restaurant extra vigilantly from then on, to be sure we weren't playing favorites. Kenny wrote in a couple times over the years to politely (believe it or not) complain about the moderation. Our staff politely explained the specific issues, and he amiably accepted those explanations. That's it.

To his great credit, Kenny never once mentioned his support when he wrote in. Or at any other time. Class guy. I know terms like "quietness", "class", "amiable", and "polite" were not his brand, so I've waited until today to tar him with this slander. But I felt him.

I was championing quality; trying to awaken consumers and coax them into more thoughtful choices, to help support the good guys. He understood I was chopping a decade out of my life to work an essential angle no one had previously thought to work. While other restaurateurs tested our defenses, scheming to pollute and dilute the resource with fake raves, or sent us furious objections for allowing people to post negative opinions (if I had a dime for every threatened defamation lawsuit...), Kenny, and seemingly Kenny alone, understood that it was all a big fat wet kiss on the lips for dedicated, talented people like him. Don't ask me how I knew this, but I did, from the silence of his gesture. So we cashed the checks.

Mr. Asshole turned out to be a white knight.

His cookbook, "Eat Me", is wonderful, by the way. Very underrated. It's currently out of stock, but I'd imagine they'll reprint if there were demand. Order at Amazon to help make that happen. If you enjoyed Chowhound, this would help return the favor.

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