Kenny Shopsin (1942–2018)

Kenny Shopsin, the idiosyncratic, irascible philosopher-chef who reigned over a New York culinary institution, passed away on September 2, 2018.

Associated Press/Mary Altaffer

I was deeply saddened to hear that the idiosyncratic, irascible philosopher-chef Kenny Shopsin had died. The last time I ate at Shopsin’s was a few months ago, when I revisited his phenomenal sliders for a story on our favorite cheap eats in NYC. I marveled, as I always have, over what has to be the world’s largest menu—though Kenny was assuredly too Bohemian to go for a designation in the Guinness Book of World Records. Kenny wasn’t in that day; when I went to chat with his son Zach in the kitchen, he mentioned that Kenny had been waylaid by injury and hadn’t been in for a couple of months.

I first met Kenny in the early ’80s, when I was booking a jazz club across the street from the original Shopsin’s location on Bedford Street. At that time, Shopsin’s was a combination cafe/grocery store. Kenny was, shall we say, slow to warm. In fact, newcomers at Shopsin’s were often treated as interlopers, aliens from another solar system. But once Kenny decided that you were a member of his semi-exclusive club, he turned into a softie. Kenny would still greet me with a string of expletives when I walked in, but he would also always ask after my wife and ask me to try one of his new mad culinary-scientist creations. Eventually, like many of Kenny’s regulars, I became an unofficial member of the Shopsin family. I got to know his late wife Eve, with whom he often bickered in full view of everyone in the place, and his five kids, whom he clearly loved dearly even though he’d frequently dress them down in public.

Over the next quarter century, Kenny and I stayed in touch semi-regularly through both his various location changes and my zillion career changes. When I started Serious Eats, he was downright supportive. He loved that we were taking on the food media establishment, or "The Man" in his eyes. Kenny lived for taking on "The Man." Eventually, he accused me of "f**king up" the site by going commercial, by selling out. I didn’t mind; I knew he had to say that because, well, Kenny was Kenny.

I keep coming back to that phrase: Kenny was Kenny. What it means to me is that if Kenny liked you, he always felt free enough to express his very personal opinions, with no filter. Whatever came out of his mouth was Kenny being Kenny, and I think that what made Shopsin’s great was the same could be said about his food, which was as creative, profane, and over the top as the man himself.

Three slider sandwiches on a plate, with chips, pickles, and greens
The sliders at Shopsin's. Niki Achitoff-Gray

On the one hand, there were dishes like his macaroni and cheese pancakes—pure, insane, beautiful genius—and on the other there were his paradigmatic sliders. And that vast menu, with its hundreds of options, gave his patrons some insight into the way his remarkably creative mind worked.

To the Shopsin family, I want to say thanks for sharing your father with me. He was a true original. And to say farewell to Kenny in the most appropriate way I know how, I’m going to sign off by reversing, invoking, and adding to the loving inscription he wrote in my copy of his cookbook:

F**k you, Kenny.

And rest in peace, my friend.