A Hamburger Today
'I Like Killing Flies,' the Kenny Shopsin Documentary
Author's note: I love moving images of food, people eating food, and people talking about food. But I hate commercials. Netflix Watch Instantly has a wealth of food-related shows, movies, and documentaries. Every week I'll share my currently streaming favorites in my TV/film column, "Watch (Food) Instantly" —Sam.
When we were studying Shakespeare's Henry IV: Part II in tenth grade English, my teacher spoke at length about the idea of the vitalist. Seeking enjoyment everywhere he can, the vitalist is not necessarily the happiest person around, but he understands the value of pleasurable things, like food and drink, and embraces them fully. Falstaff, Shakespeare's portly pub rat, was the vitalist in question during English class, but I believe there is another notable vitalist out there—one who has been cooking on the Lower East Side for more than 40 years.
A combination of Falstaff and your tirade-prone, crotchety Jewish uncle, Kenny Shopsin is a wonder to behold. And he and his restaurant, Shopsin's, form the subject of the understated 2004 documentary I Like Killing Flies. Though director Matt Mahurin orients the film around the restaurant's relocation, the doc is really about the people that populate it, namely Kenny, his large family, righthand man José and its colorful cast of regulars.
In red suspenders and a black t-shirt, Kenny pontificates from behind the grill on subjects ranging from the "sexual friction" of fusion cooking to the existential issues of killing flies. These musings, along with the restaurant's story and incredibly inventive menu, make this film mandatory watching for anyone interested in diners, cooks, or quiet, compelling stories more in general.
Shot in handheld digital video, the film begins with the cook/owner's morning routine of cleaning and prep work while he gives a profanity-laden explanation of the restaurant...and how hand-mixing eggs is something like third base. A self-proclaimed "fat old nasty Jew," Shopsin started the restaurant in the 1970s and immediately began populating the menu with unorthodox takes on standard breakfast and lunch fare.
Interviews with regular patrons find them waxing poetic about innovations from the 900+ item menu like mac & cheese pancakes, taco fried steak and 'Blisters on My Sisters;' once you start seeing Kenny's food, you realize he's not just an angry potbelly, he's an angry potbelly who can cook. Cooking, for the long-psychoanalyzed Shopsin, is a solution to a Freudian problem—something that gives him creative satisfaction while nurturing a unique community.
Just as engaging as the food, though, are the cook's stories from the restaurant's past. Short anecdotes about his "party of four" rule, or the time he held his son's bris in the shop elevate the documentary from simple chef profile to engaging character study. His family, several children and wife Eve, also speaks at length about memories of the patriarch and his distinctive restaurant.
The institution gets rattled, however, as Shopsin's is forced to move locations after more than 30 years. As the clan deals with the many obstacles of relocation, you can sense Kenny's creeping uncertainty and growing fatigue as he selects and renovates his new space. While touring a potential location, Kenny is a bit too rude to his guide and apologizes both sincerely and profusely for his actions, showing a more vulnerable, sensitive Kenny than previously depicted.
Ultimately, the move is a success and Kenny is up and cooking with José in no time, in his element and loving it. Like he says, a good day of cooking is "better than a good night's sleep."
I Like Killing Flies is a well-executed portrait of an incredibly interesting man. Mahurin penetrates the cramped spaces of Shopsin's kitchen to reveal a complex man with an incredible talent for cooking imaginative, delicious food. After my first visit to Shopsin's this morning, I can confirm that the food is as good, and strange, as it sounds.
I Like Killing Flies is currently streaming on Netflix Instant Watch.
About the author: Sam is an intern, college student, food TV enthusiast and, like Jiro, he dreams of sushi.