I wrote previously about Al's Diner, the story of an outlaw cook in Rio Dell a decade ago. The term "Outlaw Cook" I stole from the eponymous book by John Thorne, in which he goes against the grain of all the "rules" of the culinary establishment, with chapter headings like "The Discovery of Slowness" and "Learning To Eat." (His website, home of his magazine Simple Cooking, is www.outlawcook.com.) These are, of course, different interpretations of "outlaw" -- Thorne's is "against the rules"; Al's was "against the law." I like both.
Now comes Kenny Shopsin and his new cookbook/memoir Eat Me. Actually, Shopsin's has been around for decades, a Greenwich Village place with a six-page menu, jammed with 1,000 original creations like "The Goyboy Sandwich" (pulled beef, fried onions, cheddar, vichyssoise sauce), "Macaroni and cheese pancakes" or "White trash chicken hash with eggs."
Shopsin's was a successful neighborhood secret (Kenny hates publicity; if called by a guidebook, he will say the restaurant is no longer in business, he's just there removing the equipment) until Calvin Trillin exposed it in a New Yorker article in 2002. That article made me wish I was back in New York, at least for lunch. Shopsin is a third kind of outlaw cook, the kind who only serves people he approves of. He won't serve a party larger than four, and he refuses to alter anything on the menu:
Most of the time when a customer makes a special request, it's not about the food, but about his own desire to be in control and to establish his own specialness. Making people feel special through this kind of ass-kissing is one of the services that a restaurant can provide to people who need it, but it's not a service that I want to provide...
The rule about no parties over four is really because he doesn't think they interact properly with the staff and other customers: "They are no fun. They come into the restaurant, and they're an entity unto themselves. Let them have their powwow somewhere else. I don't want them here." This rule inspired a customer to write a poem, which begins:
You could put a chair at the end
or push the tables together
but don't bother
This banged-up little restaurant
where you would expect no rules at all
has a firm policy against seating
parties of five...
It doesn't matter if one of you
offers to leave or if
you say you could split into
a party of three and a party of two
It won't work: you're a party of five
But there's another element to "outlaw cooks" besides their eccentricity: They all seem to have evolved through paths not common to the culinary profession. Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential, No Reservations) went to culinary school, and his cookbooks use classic methodologies -- he's an iconoclast, but not an outlaw. Al, John and Kenny are. Al is a blue-collar cook who learned from working the line at countless greasy spoons: His secrets are those of the grill and the deep fryer. John is self-taught, but is an educated cook and polymath. Kenny learned everything he knows from trial and error in his own little neighborhood grocery: He has sometimes invented the wheel from scratch; surprisingly often, it's a better wheel.
An autodidact is more open to outrageous possibilities, like Pecan Chicken Wild Rice Cream Enchiladas, Chocolate Peanut-butter S'mores French Toast and Cheeseburger & Fries soup. Many dishes have personalized names, like Slutty Cakes, Blisters On My Sister's, Squaw Eggs, Eggs Piaf, Jewboy Sandwiches I, II, and III, and Greekboy Sandwich (brisket, tapenade, crisp mushrooms, feta, tahini). He is scrupulously politically incorrect: There's also a Jihadboy Sandwich. Another outlaw touch: His is the only restaurant I've ever heard of that makes soup to order.
And while he seems to revere only the original James Beard Cookbook (a reverence I share), similarities to classic cooking practice can be found: for example, a spice mixture of cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg and allspice that is reminiscent of both Chinese "Five Spices" and a Julia Child spice rub for pork.
Meanwhile, despite all the personal touches and memoirs, Eat Me is the most original and useful cookbook of the past several years. The instructions for making pancakes and crepes alone are refreshing, direct and simple. (He doesn't make pancake batter, he uses frozen Aunt Jemima mix, and he tells you why. His secret to crepes? Whisk an egg with a little heavy cream and vanilla, and soak a flour tortilla in it.) You want a little philosophy with that? Listen:
Rules of Prep and Leftovers
The same method I use to make hundreds of soups from scratch I use to make 900 items in five minutes: I parse a dish into its individual components and look at how those elements might be put back together in a way that takes less time and attention or fewer steps. My rule of thumb is anything that takes less than five minutes is made from scratch, and anything that takes more than five minutes is made ahead and either refrigerated or frozen. I cook a big load of whatever it is, divide it into individual-sized portions, put each portion in a small plastic baggie, and put the baggies in the freezer. This is something the home cook does without thinking. What these packages really are is leftovers...
When you are freezing dense foods such as mashed potatoes and polenta, press down on the bag with the palm of your hand to form a 1/2-inch-thick disk. It thaws most efficiently this way...
Keep a mix of salt and pepper in one container. Mine is a ratio of 80 percent salt to 20 percent pepper. Usually if I'm adding salt to something, I'm adding pepper too. And this way I only have to pick up one container ... It is not salt now, and it is not pepper; it's saltandpepper.
But more than philosophy, this book offers secrets to simple cooking, using mostly easily-found ingredients in bright new imaginative combinations.
Mac N Cheese Pancakes
makes 12 4-inch pancakes
Peanut oil for the griddle
Butter for the griddle and for serving
3 cups pancake batter (such as Aunt Jemima frozen batter, thawed, or scratch batter)
1 heaping cup cooked elbow macaroni, tossed with olive oil and warmed before using
1 heaping cup feather-shredded cheddar cheese
Warm Grade B maple syrup for serving
Prepare the griddle and drop the pancake batter according to the instructions. When small bubbles appear on 40 to 50 percent of the surface of the pancakes, about 2 minutes, drop about 1 tablespoon of the warm elbow macaroni on each pancake. Sprinkle with a thin layer of cheese (about 1 tablespoon) and use a thin, lightweight spatula to rapidly flip the pancakes. After all the pancakes have been turned, reduce the heat to medium and use the spatula to press the pancakes down on the griddle. When the undersides are golden, about 2 minutes after turning them, use the spatula in a decisive high-pressure sawing motion to lift and turn the pancakes onto a plate, B-side up. Serve fanned out on a plate like a hand of cards so you can butter each one without lifting it. Serve with butter and warm maple syrup.
P.S. There is a 2004 DVD documentary about Shopsin's, I Like Killing Flies, a film we enjoyed enormously.
In immodest moments, Joseph Byrd considers himself an outlaw cook. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.