Settle in folks, and I hope you brought your fucking appetites.
This film begins with the main subject, Kenny Shopsin, walking from his motorcycle to the steel, graffiti-covered grates of his restaurant Shopsin’s. He is wearing a white motorcycle helmet, looking like a 50-year-old playing spaceman. Lifting the steel doors, inside is the picture of a New York corner restaurant. A small wooden door leading to a cramped, grimy, homey dining room. The walls are covered in tin signs and paintings, jokes (“All cooks wear condoms”), and heartfelt knicknacks.
This is a mere distraction. The center of attention, the heart of the show is Kenny himself. Moments in, we are treated to no delusions. He is crass, loud, sort of gross (lot of hands in the food, lot of hands killing flies), and absolutely packed full of every imaginable opinion and idea. He will tell you everything you need to know about everything. He is the epitome of the difficult person. Here, I make a side note. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family filled with non-drinkers, former smokers, and dieters. These are a people who previously had fun, but then were repeatedly shamed out of it by, you know, god and Jesus and shit. All that joy, all of the life that once thrived within these people was replaced by niceness. They will all smile and laugh politely at your jokes, then talk shit behind your back all day long.
But people like Kenny Shopsin, he fucking hates nice. Despises it. Will not allow it in his restaurant. There’s a harkening back to the ideas brought about by Catcher in the Rye, the phoniness that Holden constantly references that exists within niceness. (Please note, even though I reference Catcher in the Rye, I hate the damned thing, but I digress.) Anyway, niceness is not a shorthand for kindness. Niceness will not save your ass at the end of the month when you got no cash, you got no hope. And so, niceness is gone. What exists within the Shopsin restaurant is kindness. Kenny’s wife, Eve, is the much quieter backbone of the restaurant, constantly shown interacting with customers, sharing a piece of her big heart with every piece of French toast. We see Kenny and Eve’s five(!) children, working constantly in the restaurant, along with Jose, Kenny’s right hand man and “perfect partner.”
Near the beginning, we take a short, drool-inducing interlude to see some of the foods that Kenny has created alongside his customers (a few plates with their own interesting stories). It is here where I must once again digress and GET YOUR ATTENTION. Please, if you care about yourself, get a look at some of these dishes (and tell me where you watched it, because I could only find this film for either 89 fucking dollars on Amazon or through, ahem, less-than-legal means). There is more creativity and care put into each of these dishes then anything Gordon Ramsay has farted out in the last 20 years, that’s for goddamn sure.
Kenny’s personality does truly evoke some of the more colorful professionals in the culinary world, specifically Anthony Bourdain. There’s this authenticity (as awful as that word is) that early Bourdain brought to cooking that Kenny brings in here. It’s a fearlessness that comes from someone who fully and passionately loves the fuck out of what they are doing. And Kenny loves what he does. The plot (what plot there can be from a documentary) essentially centers around the Shopsins being forced to move from the location they have had for over 30 years to a different restaurant two blocks away. There is constant reference to the fact that they have made very little money with this business and in face are basically broke because of several bad stock market decisions. No one involved is here to make money. What they’re here for is food, and the neighborhood. There are several lifetime customers that describe their relationship with the Shopsins and their food, and there’s a genuine feeling of belonging behind their words. It’s truly rare for people to find a restaurant (or bar) where everyone not only knows your name, they know what you like, they know what you’re allergic to, and in one case, they hosted your son’s bris. Yeah, hope they closed down for that experience.
It is shocking, in 2016, to be reminded that there existed this level of openness and kindness around that time, and in New York City of all places. I live in Colorado Springs, supposedly family values USA, “the big town that still thinks it’s a small one,” and I have never felt that level of comfort and kindness and satisfaction anywhere. We live in a time in which information that would have been once available in a phone book is seen as totally private, and here is a family that watches your kids for you while you throw some money in the meter. But I digress.
So, ten-year review. This film came out in 2006, but I will admit that I personally did not see it until probably 2009 or 2010. I had just started dating one of the biggest mistakes in my life (a five-year mistake, I add ruefully) and we had just discovered Netflix. I had been watching every single documentary I could possibly watch because I wanted to pretend I was in a life, any life, that did not resemble my own. I remember seeing this incredibly memorable cover over and over again. You have to admit, it is incredibly creepy, not to mention the title (which is explained early on in the film, thankfully). There are many documentaries that I remember because they were brutal or ugly or silly or informative. But this one, I will always remember, because it made me weep for the family I never felt that I had. The family, to my knowledge, few any of us have ever had. They are big, they are loud, and they love.
I have always admired difficult people, but much more than that, I have always admired the kind.
“The first duty of everybody in life is to realize that they’re a piece of shit. Selfish and self-centered and not very good……there’s nothing wrong with being not-so-terrific. In fact, it’s what the whole ballgame is about, being not-so-terrific… and accepting it.”