One of the things that's happening to me as I'm getting older is I'm seeing my beliefs, the tenets of my existence, coming back to me through my children. I cast my bread upon the waters, and it's flying back in my face, fully baked. My kids--I have three boys and twin girls--have taken everything I've given them and developed it to the point where they're superior to me when it comes to discussing and acting on a lot of my own ideas. My girls especially are more unyielding in my beliefs than I am.
All their lives my kids have known me to have a leave-me-alone attitude toward the media and the public eye. In running my restaurant, Shopsin's General Store, 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 about the pitfalls of losing your self-doubt. And they took me at my word. What they didn't know, because how could they know--I certainly never vocalized it--was that behind absolute statements, like those that I made on a regular basis, is a complex set of emotions. Inherent in those absolutes were compromises. It's like there was a tug-of-war inside of me that, in an attempt to resolve itself, took sides.
For me, writing this book was one of those compromises. On the one hand, it was tremendously satisfying to my ego to have someone ask me to write a book. On the other hand, I knew that in writing this book I would be allowing strangers a look into our private lives--something I have vehemently avoided since I started my business in 1973. Even worse, I knew that a book would encourage these strangers to come into my restaurant.
A few years back, Melinda posted a sign in front of the restaurant that read, "Restaurant for Customers Only." That pretty much explains our attitude at Shopsin's. It's pretty straightforward, but it also says more than it might seem to.
My approach toward the customer is something a lot of people don't understand, and I guess I shouldn't expect them to. Customers in this country have been raised to believe that they are "always right." Their 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.
For me, customers are not just people who give me money, and my restaurant is not for just anyone who wants to come in. It's not for a film crew doing a movie on the block to get a cup of coffee to go. It's not a place for you to bring your out-of-town friends to look at us as if we are exhibits in a zoo. And it is also not--if we have anything to do with it--someplace to come because you read about us in a magazine. By writing a book, I was putting myself at risk of attracting wrong people who want to come here for wrong reasons.
The brilliance of my restaurant is my ability to control my clientele. 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. With the wrong people in here, those interactions don't happen, so to keep the wrong people out, in addition to avoiding publicity, I have rules that people have to abide by in order to be here. (You'll hear more about those later.) And I kick people out when I don't like them. I probably ax at least one party every day--and usually more than that.
As for why I decided to write the book anyway, a question I'm asked often by people who are familiar with my feelings about publicity, my typical response is that I did it for the money. This is partly true, but, of course, there's also a deeper reason. In a nutshell, I decided to write this book because I was asked. Peter Gethers, who is now my editor, and Janis Donnaud, who is a literary agent, had been regular customers for many, many years, and for the last several of those years they've been telling me I should write a book. Despite my resistance, it was clear to me that unlike people in the media who write articles in order to exploit me for their own purposes, Peter and Janis weren't trying to get anything out of me or to do anything to me. They were just expressing their honest feelings of interest and thought I had something to say that would be of value to the audiences that they're used to working with.
Although I wasn't sure that what I had to say--about food or my restaurant or anything else--was of value or interest to anyone, much less somebody buying a cookbook, the fact that they believed this meant a lot to me. I was really touched by their appreciation. And because I appreciate them and consider them to be people of quality--they are well read, well fed, well traveled, and, more important, really know the book business--I believed them. I put my trust in them, and I decided to do the book based on that trust.
Once I started writing, my biggest fear was that, by its very nature, a book is a stagnant thing. Once it's printed and bound and out there, there's no changing it. It's done. My restaurant, on the other hand, is never done. It is constantly changing. I change the menu just about every day, and the feeling and personality of the restaurant are different as different customers come in from day to day. I am different, my thoughts are different, my personality is different, and the conversations I have are different from one day or from one minute to the next.
My cooking is the same way. I don't even have recipes. My regular customers know that if they order the same thing they got last week, there is a good chance I will make it so differently that they won't even recognize it. I don't do it differently on purpose. It's just that everything I cook, every time I cook, is an event in and of itself. It's like when you have sex: you approach it each time to do the best you possibly can, as if it were the only time. You don't have to think about what you're doing because you are 100 percent in the moment--and each time it turns out just a little bit different. That's how I cook. And I think that in order to enjoy cooking, that's how you have to cook.
As I got into writing the book, I was surprised to find out that I actually had something to say that might be of value to the home cook. I often compare my ideas about cooking to the children's book Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, where the little boy discovers that everything he needs in life is in his life already, right in his own room. In a Goodnight Moon world, it's pretty easy to be a good home cook. It's really not about having some terrific skills or exotic ingredients or expensive high-tech equipment. It's not even about having the right secret recipe. To be a good cook, to turn out good, honest food that satisfies your individual tastes, it is all about having the kind of confidence and self-awareness that comes from Goodnight Moon living, in which you are happy with what is already in your life.
It's about using ingredients that you know and that you like. As an eater, the advantages to cooking with ingredients that you know and like are obvious, but there are also advantages as a cook. When using ingredients you're familiar with, you are a lot less likely to mess up what you're cooking. If you like melted cheese, for instance, you probably know that if you put cheese under the broiler, it's going to melt, and if you leave it there long enough, it will get brown and bubbly on top. So you not only know why you're putting the cheese under the broiler, you also know what to expect when you put it there. On the other hand, if someone tells you to add peach juice to a beurre blanc, you not only have no idea why you're adding it, you more critically don't know how the juice is going to react to the beurre blanc--you may not even know what the fuck beurre blanc is. As a consequence, your chances of screwing it up are pretty high. I learned this lesson the same way I learned most of my cooking lessons: by screwing up. When we were a grocery store, we used to get a lot of cabbies coming in for coffee and tea. One time one of them told me I should try tea with milk and lemon in it. I'd never heard of putting milk and lemon in tea, but I did it anyway because this guy told me to. I made the tea, squeezed lemon in it, and then added milk. The first time I did it, the milk curdled; it was bad. So I threw out the milk, threw out the tea, and started over. I did this four more times, each time throwing away another carton of milk before I figured out that the milk wasn't bad. None of the milk had been bad. The acidity from the lemon had caused it to curdle in the tea, but I didn't know that because I wasn't familiar with the combination of milk and lemon. I was just doing what someone told me to do, which is exactly what following a recipe is and exactly why you're in trouble if you use recipes that are out of your field of knowledge. I was such an idiot that it took me five times to figure out the lemon was causing the curdling. But guess what? I've never put lemon and milk together again. And not because I'm thinking about it, but because I now know, from somewhere deeper than my brain, not to do it. Call it what you want--instinct, experience, familiarity--but I've learned to trust that internal guide.
In my Goodnight Moon kitchen I don't use any exotic ingredients. I don't subscribe to some intellectual school of thinking where I care about the provenance of every ingredient I'm cooking with and where every single component of a dish has to be homemade with the utmost integrity. I don't use fancy cooking techniques or expensive equipment. The base of my cooking philosophy is to get the job done with as few ingredients, as little effort, and in as short a time as possible. And if I were to take a wild guess, I'd say that this is how most people cook at home--or how they want to cook, anyway.
I hope you like the book. I guess I'm not that different from everyone else in that I, too, would like to be loved by the masses for the right or the wrong reasons.
If anything in this book is wrong or untrue, it wasn't intentional. I didn't mean to lie. I don't live in the past. My wife, Eve, who died in 2002, was the one who was good at remembering details and dates. My life is right here, right now. Even though I'm not sure I remember everything correctly, I still thought it was important to start with the beginning, because the beginning is what brought me to where I am today. It has all been one slow evolution, like the line in the poem by Carl Sandburg that goes: "The fog comes on little cat feet." Everything in my life is like that. My life moves inexorably forward. It might be flowing at the speed of molasses, but it is definitely flowing.
MAC N CHEESE PANCAKES
makes twelve 4-inch pancakes
Peanut oil for the griddle
Butter for the griddle and for serving
3 cups pancake batter (such as Aunt Jemima
frozen batter, thawed, or scratch batter)
1 heaping cup cooked elbow macaroni, tossed
with olive oil and warmed before using
1 heaping cup feather-shredded cheddar
Warm Grade B maple syrup for serving
Prepare the griddle according to The Art of Griddling (page 71) and drop the pancake batter according to the instructions. When small bubbles appear on 40 to 50 percent of the surface of the pancakes, about 2 minutes, drop about 1 tablespoon of the warm elbow macaroni on each pancake. Sprinkle with a thin layer of cheese (about 1 tablespoon) and use a thin, lightweight spatula to rapidly flip the pancakes. After all the pancakes have been turned, reduce the heat to medium and use the spatula to press the pancakes down on the griddle. When the undersides are golden, about 2 minutes after turning them, use the spatula in a decisive high-pressure sawing motion to lift and turn the pancakes onto a plate, B-side up. Serve fanned out on a plate like a hand of cards so you can butter each one without lifting it. Serve with butter and warm maple syrup.
"Kenny Shopsin hates publicity the way a magnet must hate metal filings. With a documentary, a New Yorker profile and several New York Times articles clinging to him, this supposedly reluctant restaurateur now adds to his own troubles by releasing a totally hilarious and surprisingly touching treatise on cooking, customer loyalty and family bonds. As his brood grew to include five kids, his Manhattan eatery shrunk in size, yet maintained its idiosyncratic 900-item menu (reproduced here in a 12-page spread). Recipes for more than 100 of the offerings are presented, including Mac 'n' Cheese Pancakes and Blisters on My Sisters (sunny-side-up eggs placed atop tortillas and a rice and bean concoction). But the real treat is Shopsin's salty philosophizing. Sure, pancakes are tasty, but he reminds us that, 'They are flour and milk drowned in butter and some form of sugar. They're crap.' And the customer is always wrong 'until they show me they are worth cultivating' as customers. Two such well-cultivated customers were the writer Calvin Trillin and his wife, Alice. They pop up throughout the book, providing not only happy reminiscences, but a roux of poignancy as both Shopsin and Trillin become widowers, bonded together over the love of a decent meal, quickly rendered. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Shopsin does not gladly suffer fools as customers and heaps abuse on those who do not kowtow. A riotously funny and magnificently idiosyncratic cookbook." Booklist
The legendary owner and chef of the Greenwich Village restaurant Shopsin's dishes food and philosophy in this collection of more than 120 recipes, including such perfect comfort foods as High School Hot Turkey Sandwiches, Cuban Bean Polenta Melt, and Cornmeal-Fried Green Tomatoes with Comeback Sauce, plus the best soups, egg dishes, and hamburgers.