Back in 1986, a friend took me to a restaurant on Bedford Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village. That first meal at Shopsin’s converted me.

Back then I lived three blocks away so I often went daily. It was either breakfast (hashed browns with veggies and       poached eggs.) Or lunch (creamed tuna on toast.) Or dinner ((fried spaghetti—a crispy crossover between pizza and     hash brown pancakes). The encyclopedic menu listed hundreds of down-home favorites from every corner of the   globe, more variety than in any other restaurant.

On each visit, I read and deliberated over every single menu item, despite my preference for a handful of dishes that I    usually wound up ordering. Both the menu and the dishes, quirky, flavorful, and unabashed,  were concoctions of an   zealous cook in an old world kitchen.

As the over-brimming plates of food issued from the postage stamp-sized kitchen near the back, so did opinion and invective. It’s source was the cook-owner, the late, great, Kenny Shopsin. Outsized and outspoken, his opinions were a novel blend of radical and libertarian, with a dollop of abuse. His appearance and garb—grizzled Afro bound into a red bandanna, rudely worded tee short, and faded baggy coveralls all screamed “aging hippy.” Back in the eighties when I first met him, his refusal to change his views, style, or behavior to conform to post-sixties America, at first seemed adolescent. Eventually, it became iconic.

On September 3rd, he passed away, a phrase he, ever poised to confront, would have reviled for its benign hypocrisy. His voice is irrevocably recorded in my head. “Why don’t you just say I dropped DEAD!” Though he’s deceased, his counsel won’t cease.

Generous food stir-fried with irate hospitality magnetized some diners and repelled others. When I brought friends there, it could be iffy. Some couldn’t get past the undeniable: Kenny could be a total asshole. Others felt miffed at being ignored. Some found the food ingredients too populist and less farm-to-table than they required. Kenny cared not. Seeking to be universally popular or scalable was for scumbags. At a time when comfort was becoming a commodity and hospitality an industry, Kenny Shopsin’s unique expressions sharply contrasted to corporate  customer service trends— where pre-programmed and universally flattering reps, stripped of their own names, locations, ethnic backgrounds, and spontaneous responses, interact with clients across phone lines fanning out from mysterious corners of the world.

Contact with Kenny was in person real, customized and provocative. Whether bellowing from a hot grill or serving up an entree that could feed a family of five—he never ever let anyone—neither his customers, wife, nor five kids, (wiping down counters, or carrying over slices of pie)— forget there was a warts and all real person in charge.

As to diners, expectations of gracious hospitality were kicked to the curb. Hospitality itself was redefined. After I moved from the neighborhood, my once daily visit, though regular, became weekly, or monthly. “Fuck you, Alison! Where have you been?” Kenny would holler from the stove as I ducked in near closing time for a creamy tomato soup with croutons. Other diners looked on envious of the insult, as I scurried over the thinning linoleum to a table. It was a walk of honor better than any red carpet.

From the décor, (an old store furnished like a circa 1950’s children’s playroom with toys and games no one ever put away) to the house rules, all signified that it was the customers who must comply— if we hoped ever again to sit beneath the poster warning that, “This movie will totally fuck you up.” If we could not do without the chicken pot-pie, or the plate of Ebelskeivers, (a deep-fried sugar-coated Scandinavian doughnut Kenny made to order at one time), we had to play by Kenny’s rules.

Rule number one was: “No parties of five.” Cited by recent Shopsin chroniclers to jest at Kenny’s eccentricity, in context, the rule made perfect sense. At a small restaurant with a limited number of food supply issue four-seater tables, a fifth person would overweight the ecology by requiring an extra table. But the crucial point was that Kenny’s rules high-jacked the proprietor-customer interaction and transformed it from merely financial to personal and even spiritual. An angry Buddha in a dark age, he served as a rude reminder that, no matter how cool or creative or brilliant his customers thought themselves, outside of the store’s iron gate, selling out was the coin of the realm, and we all paid the piper.

“Never write about Shopsin’s.” was another hard and fast rule. I secretly longed to, but was ruled by fear— fear of losing access to the punditry, the insults, and the fried spaghetti.

Instead of bringing Kenny to the world, I brought my family to him. In 1992, my canny mother decided the time had come for me to repair my relationship with my father. In a move reminiscent of a rococo French coquette-gossip, she told me how much my father admired me, And then turned around and told Dad of my unspoken admiration for him. Neither was quite true but she successfully maneuvered us to meet weekly and chat. I chose the venue: Shopsin’s for breakfast. My Dad could pick up the tab for my favorite meal, while hopefully the atmosphere would offset my sometimes boredom with Dad’s lectures.

And so it came to pass. There we were – every Tuesday. My strait-laced father cutting and consuming neat squares of French toast, as he droned on about the minutiae of his latest professional triumphs. I plastered a rapt expression on my face and guffawed at every joke, as I dribbled hot sauce and devoured my vegetable hashed browns with poached eggs. And between cooking up orders of latkes or cheese omelets or wonton soup, Kenny plunked down at our table, breezily calling my uptight Dad by his first name, asking him sharp questions, opining on the world, and as always, peppering his remarks with cuss words. This three-way alchemy changed the recipe. Dad relaxed more. I appreciated his wry humor. No remark of Kenny’s, no matter how outrageous fazed him. Dad hugged and kissed me on arrival and departure.

We didn’t know it then, but within a short time, the Shopsin family would lose the lease at the original Bedford Street store. Eve, the red-haired materfamilias died suddenly and too young. The restaurant relocated first down the block to Carmine Street, and next, to its present location, the Essex Street Market. A few of the Shopsin children I used to see running into the store after school, or drafted into service as slouching adolescents, joined Kenny in the kitchen to keep it going. We lost my Dad a few years later, and in my eulogy, I recounted how a local chef named Kenny Shopsin had resuscitated our relationship with cheesy grits, rye toast, and tough love. Food is food. And an angry Buddha is still a Buddha, (even though in the Jewish tradition, we’re not supposed to speak the name of God out loud.) Nor write about Shopsin’s restaurant. But if you’ve sat at the feet of a master, you haven’t got the lesson, until the day comes when you defy the rules.

copyright 2018, Alison Rose Levy Photograph credit: Jason Fulford