The Kenny Chronicles: In Which We Attempt to Charm and Disarm the Curmudgeonly Cook
Kenny Shopsin is somewhat more press-friendly these days — he went on Conan and showed the Times how to cook macaroni-and-cheese pancakes. So has the man who makes Gordon Ramsay look like Ned Flanders finally mellowed? We weren’t about to try to find out for ourselves (not without Calvin Trillin on our arm) — so we sent a
sacrificial lamb intrepid reporter in before us. We challenged Jessica Pilot, who has charmed many a counterperson into a free cuppa, to befriend Shopsin over the course of a week, or at least become a respected regular. So how did she do?
My first visit to Shopsin's. I wear jeans, flats, and a peacoat so that I don’t stand out. When I see Shopsin, all I say is “Hello.”
He looks up from stove and yells “"What are you doing? You want to eat or waste my time? Scraaaam.”
His server, a beefy guy in his early twenties, asks me in a thick Brooklyn accent whether I’m a reporter. I tell him no, I’m a customer.
A deliveryman headed for another vendor in the market stops and asks, "Hey, lady, why you talkin' to that man — he's crazy!"
Kenny’s little (well, not so little) helper doesn’t seem too pleased when I return. Like Kenny, he avoids eye contact when he talks to me: "That table is for a group of four, and you gotta get off your cell phone, or you ain’t eating."
A German couple is escorted to my table even before they’re done reading the menu or deciding whether to dine. They ask me if the food is good, and I tell them it’s my first meal. They both order the Krakatoa and I order the mac 'n' cheese. The waiter grimaces. "That's it?"
"Yeah," I reply.
When the food arrives, he slams down the plates and I dig in. As he walks back to the kitchen, I ask him to tell Kenny that it’s delicious. He rolls his eyes and shakes his head. I decide it’s only polite to thank the chef myself.
The waiter looks flustered when I walk up to the counter. "What do you want?"
I ignore him and tell Kenny, "Hi, I just wanted to let you know how good the mac 'n' cheese is.”
"Okay, I guess you’re busy," I say.
The Germans complain that their meal isn’t hot, so the waiter takes their plates and returns with the check. They don't seem too pleased, especially because my mac 'n' cheese is on their bill. The girl takes out a $50 bill and asks me for change. I handle the bill, and they leave. The wait for change is longer than the wait for food was, but I leave a nice tip — I want to be a welcomed regular, after all.
I wave good-bye to Kenny, and he lifts his arm. But he isn’t offering a quasi-friendly wave good-bye; he’s only reaching for a utensil.
After taking the weekend off, I arrive at 1 p.m. I sit at the same table, but this time I don't have to share it. The waiter comes over, and I ask him for a menu.
“There's one on the wall, a few feet in front of ya!" He’s enraged that I’m not ready.
I order the mac 'n' cheese again, hoping it might make me one of Kenny's "regulars."
"What else?" he asks.
"That's it," I tell him.
I stare at Kenny, but he never looks up from the stove. When the food comes, I ask him if I could rent out the space for my birthday. He laughs and says once again, "What are you doing? You want to eat or waste my time?"
Four more days of this, and I might get blacklisted, if I'm lucky…
While I’m waiting for a free table, the server accuses me of "loitering."
"I don't mind waiting, it's fine," I assure him.
"Come back in an hour," he says.
After fifteen minutes of walking around the market, I return to find an empty table. The waiter sees me sit down and says that it was the shortest hour he ever "heard of." I’m tempted to correct his grammar, but instead I apologize for not listening.
"So, you gonna come back?"
This is what I get for funding this guy with my tips? I leave, and don't return.
I consider going to Schiller's and getting up some nerve via a cocktail or two, but I’m running late for a meeting so I just charge right up to Kenny. As I walk toward him, he darts his ghoulish eyes at me.
"Hi," I say.
I’m whisked away by the waiter — he stands close to me, in order to prevent me from getting any closer to King Kenny, who has clearly had it with me.
"Don't bother him, man."
"I'm not a man, and I would appreciate it if you'd allow me to thank him."
"For his fine hospitality."
Kenny is not interested in speaking with me, I am told. And I believe him.