Salty language, seasoned customers

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NEW YORK --- One recent afternoon, a middle-age man walked into a small restaurant in lower Manhattan looking for lunch.

"Hi, Elliot," the owner and chef greeted him.

"You open?" Elliot asked, hopefully.

"No. Go away," he was told.

Elliot turned to leave, somewhat crushed.

The owner, watching his longtime customer walk away, reconsidered.

"Unless you can get me some Vicodin," he called out. "Can get me some Vicodin?"

Elliot could not get the painkiller, but he was happy to report that his recent dental procedure had gone well.

"If you had Vicodin, I'd let you eat," he was informed.

Overhearing this, you might wonder whether it's any way to run a restaurant. Most owners don't act like this, at least if they wish to remain open long. Most don't shoo customers away. Most don't attempt tongue-in-cheek drug barters.

Most, though, aren't Kenny Shopsin.

Since the 1970s, Mr. Shopsin has become a cult hero in a food-obsessed city by dishing out quirky up-market diner food with a side of salty insults.

His Shopsin's General Store, in one site or another, sells a staggering amount of food for breakfast and lunch -- at last count more than 900 items, including 300 soups.

There are rules for the lucky who get a seat: no cell phones, no parties of more than four, and one entree per person. If you have special requests or are a picky eater, you could be unceremoniously shown the door.

Along the way, Shopsin's has developed a loyal following despite its disdain for strangers. Fans include author Calvin Trillin and TV producer J.J. Abrams (Lost, Fringe ), who had the honor of having a chicken sandwich named after him.

New York Magazine called Mr. Shopsin "the profane prince of the New York short-order world" and he even inspired a documentary -- I Like Killing Flies.

Regular folk now have a chance to eat his food without risking a verbal slap-down. The self-taught chef has released Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin , which blends recipes with his unusual views on cooking.

Why has he put pen to paper now? Perhaps to inspire home cooks with the final results of his long years of tinkering?

Not exactly.

"Foolish investing," he says. "I lost all my money and the building where I was in went co-op and I needed the money. I did it for the money."

The book contains more than 100 recipes, including those for such Shopsin's classics as Blisters on My Sisters (a rice and bean concoction), the Auntie (scrambled eggs with blue cheese, avocado and spinach), and Slutty Cakes (peanut butter pancakes).

It's a distillation of the foods of New York -- Jewish, German, Italian, Mexican and Middle Eastern -- in addition to a compilation of hard-learned techniques, no matter how unconventional.

"James Beard said, 'Never microwave an eggplant.' That's the first thing I did when I got an eggplant," he says. "It works great! You can make baba ganoush in six minutes that way."

Other secrets: His pancakes are built from Aunt Jemima frozen batter, his crepes begin life as store-bought tortillas and his chili gets its richness from a splash of coffee.

It's also perhaps one of the few R-rated cookbooks around, filled with rants littered with obscenities about thoughtless ex-customers and health officials.

"Swearing is a sign of affection for me," he explains.

Being asked to put together a cookbook tickled his ego, but he is ambivalent about the result. For him, the journey in the kitchen is more important than the result.

"Why would you want to know the exact, best way to make a pancake? Or the exact, best way to make a reduction sauce?" he wonders. "Why is it necessary to not go through the process of arriving there, but get to the absolute pinnacle of success?

"There's something wrong with people that need to do that. That's the wrong way to live."


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