How to Live, According to Kenny Shopsin

A young Kenny and Eve Shopsin. Photo: Courtesy Shopsin Family

Kenny Shopsin was the king of the New York diner, as skilled at manning a short-order station as he was at doling out acerbic aphorisms. Shopsin passed away last year, 36 years after he and his late wife opened Shopsin’s, the temple to downtown eccentricity that is still carrying on his legacy in its latest iteration at Essex Street Market.

Shopsin also published the very excellent cookbook, Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, in 2008. Following his death, his co-author, Carolynn Carreño, combed through her documents of the conversations she had with Shopsin that didn’t make it into their book. What she found — as will be unsurprising to anyone who knew or ever interacted with Shopsin — was a trove of Shopsin’s unique wisdom and insights. Today, Grub is happy to share 20 of these previously unpublished thoughts from Shopsin on everything from the purpose of goals to what restaurants are for to cooking what you know. Get an egg cream, and sit down.

On the meaning of life:

“The only way to not be crushed by the stupidity of life is to pursue something energetically and gain as much satisfaction as you can before it gets stupid — and just ignore the fact that it’s stupid. The whole thing is shitty. You’re gonna fucking die.”

On customers:

“Bad customers drive away good customers — if your definition of a customer is not how much money he spends but the style he spends it. I want people to be themselves, not to want to watch people be themselves.”

On unrequited love:

“It must be nice to have someone who loves you hopelessly even if you don’t want them. It’s like having a customer you don’t want who eats your food and likes it.”

On the brutality of shared love:

“Love is a contact sport as far as I’m concerned. So is friendship.”

On cooking:

“Like they say to a writer, ‘Write about what you know.’ Cook with ingredients you like. The ones that bring you back to your childhood, the ones that you enjoy touching, the ones you enjoy eating, the ones that you have a good feeling for, you know. And not try to go beyond that. At least not for a really long time.”

On facing adversity:

“Exercising judgment is the hardest thing in life and exercising judgment that is part of a style is harder yet. That’s what a restaurant does: it exercises judgment of a certain style.”

On bringing people together:

“People I like being with generally like being with each other. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s probably five or ten things that are common [among them]: interested in actually communicating with others, self-deprecating, in love with themselves.”

On a fate worse than death:

“I don’t mind dying but I do mind being embarrassed. I wish I lived in old times when there weren’t tests for these things. Now people blame you. You’re an idiot.”

On leaving good-enough alone:

“You just can’t make some things better. Like if I say: ‘I love you,’ there’s no way I can improve on that statement. Not, ‘I love you very much.’ Either I love you or I don’t love you. You can’t improve on it.”

On confidence:

“If you understand your intrinsic value in the world, you can put up with a lot of shit and have a happy existence.”

On the importance of restaurants:

“Thing I do best is creating a community of people I love to be with and who love to be together. Because there is no church anymore, no YMCA. Unless you go somewhere to get laid or married.”

On the perils of restaurant fame:

“The thing that makes it appealing is that it appeals to the wrong kind of people, who want to watch that happening. It’s ironic, because they’re the people who will stand on line for two hours to get in.”

On getting involved:

“[One] modern phenomenon is that people have begun to savor their spectatorship rather than being involved. They don’t want to be a part of it, or if they do, they don’t know how. They construct an artificial wall between reality and themselves — and they don’t cross it.”

On culinary success:

“A good chef has rigid parameters for how something should taste. Either his tastes are ubiquitous, or he terrorizes people into thinking it’s great. Usually both happen at the same time.”

On the demands of New York City:

“They seem to think that the city of New York is a shareholder in my biz and that it’s my obligation to make as much as humanly possible to fulfill my obligation to the city.”

On staying humble:

“So if things are going so well in your life that you start to get this megalomaniac successful feeling, this inflated ego, this belief that you’re Tom Cruise, that you understand everything, you’re guilty of wretched excess, of treading past your human, defective self toward godlike. It’s excess, it’s a no-no. It has to do with why Adlai Stevenson had a hole in his shoe. Why we worship someone like Elvis ‘til they get so out of reach as a fallible human being that we hate them.”

On improvising in the kitchen:

“Once you have a solid foundation which is uniquely your own, once you feel really comfortable with your ingredients and your ability to actually physically cook, it’s really easy to fuck around. And it’s enormously fun. And it will take you more places than the magic kingdom will.”

On ambition:

“It’s just an initiation into the idea until the abilities to appreciate life for the moments in a row starts to make you a deeper and more fulfilled person, and the energy you put towards pursuing the goals … it starts out obsessive.”

On the point of goals:

“My stupid goal: I’ve risen above that and I don’t need a goal, I’m just stupid. I just float free, knowing that after you’ve pursued a stupid goal for a long time, even if you understand it’s not important, you understand it’s a device to help you overcome the absurdity of life.”

On finding comfort:

“My lifestyle and the way my restaurant looks, cluttered and all that — I like that. Like is a mild word. I love that. I feel really happy there. When I’m in my place, surrounded by all the tchotchkes in the window. Too many packages, too many aprons stacked up, avocados here and there — I love that. It’s my place.”

How to Live, According to Kenny Shopsin