Brooklyn's Most Loved Chef Is Also In Sludge Heroes Harvey Milk... Stephen Tanner Talks Music and The Secret Behind The World's Best Fried Chicken...
When riff-heavy sludge-rock band Harvey Milk played a New York Times-reviewed residency at Williamsburg’s Union Pool in mid-March, the smart move was to get dinner first at the Commodore around the corner, a much-lauded bar and restaurant that serves the best fried chicken in NYC. And the chef at the Commodore? None other than Stephen Tanner, Harvey Milk’s bassist. We spoke with Tanner in the Commodore’s backyard on day four of the Blackened Music-booked shows, where we talked recipes, reviews, and what’s in a name.
The Daily Swarm: So here’s my first question. What will kill you first: the music industry or the restaurant industry?
Stephen Tanner: Good lord.
Well, the food part is what I do for a living. But the music is just for kicks. But I wouldn’t really say that there’s a lot of kicks in it. The killing part is that we’re all pretty unhealthy: we smoke a lot, and some people overindulge in things a little too much on these trips.
TDS: What did you do first, cooking or making music?
ST: They happened at kind of the same time. I think when I first discovered KISS, like I didn’t want to do anything but play music, and I was pretty young. And then I don’t think I was really old enough to have a job, but I was always on punishment for doing bad in school or just getting in trouble, getting suspended.
But my dad would always get Chinese food on Friday nights, and he came back and he’s like, “I got you a job at House of China. You’re not going to sit around.” So I ended up working in a Chinese restaurant and, I don’t know, I always liked working in kitchens. It’s like anytime I’ve tried to work like in a store – I worked in a liquor store, I worked in a record store – I hated it.
Kitchens are sociable and about meeting people. I don’t know, I like cooking. I never look at it as a real job. Like, I actually enjoy doing it. It’s the same with music. It’s like you’re trying to make people happy; and make yourself happy, I guess.
TDS: How’s the dynamic of like a kitchen versus the dynamic of a band on the road? Are they comparable, or are they totally different animals?
ST: I guess they can be kind of similar. I mean, you just have to get along and try to do whatever it is you’re trying to achieve. Like all the guys that work here with me are really nice, and I don’t treat them any differently than I would treat anybody; I don’t act like a boss. And I pay them as much as I possibly can, and they appreciate me just being honest with them.
My main cook played with us the other night; he’s one of my best friends. And then Manny, he’s from Mexico; he’s a death-metal guitar player. And when he came in to apply for a job I was listening to Slayer or something, and he was really excited. Then when I told him he had the job, he was like, “In two months, I have tickets to go to the Maryland Death Festival. Is it okay?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s totally cool.”
TDS: So everyone you work with in the kitchen knows about your music career? Or is it sometimes a surprise to people when they find out?
ST: It’s not much of a career! I mean music-wise. We get a lot of nice press and stuff like that. But we were better in the ‘90s when we were young. Plus, we don’t live in the same town, so when we go out and play, we get together in Georgia and practice.
We’re not the most motivated people, so usually at the first practice everything breaks. Then the next day we have to fix everything. And then we have to really make an effort to try to relearn how to play the songs.
And then there’s the whole question of being physically out of shape to do it. But I think people pick up on that we have a pretty good sense of humor for how depressing or dark some of it can kind of be.
But if I’m playing music I want to be cooking instead of playing music, and when I’m doing cooking all I really think about is going out and playing. So, can’t win. [laughs]
TDS: Do you read reviews of your shows, or restaurant reviews? Does one or the other bother you more, or please you more?
ST: In the music part of it, I enjoy negative press more; it’s funny.
But with the food, luckily I haven’t really gotten any bad press somehow. But I care, and I try my best. But I would say I would probably be affected a lot more by negative press with the cooking.
The music is funny to me. So none of that matters. It’s just hilarious.
TDS: In restaurant criticism, there are all these issues about anonymity, as if there’s some foul if the restaurant knows who the critic is before they come in. But in regards to music, even when you know that there will be important journalists in the house, it’s not like as a band you can decide, “Oh, we’re gonna put on the best show ever tonight.”
ST: Yeah, you definitely can’t do that. I think it’s easier like if you’re working in the kitchen. And you know that guy, Peter Meehan [former New York Times restaurant reviewer]? I didn’t know him until after he had reviewed a couple of the places that I worked at. I heard stories from people that work in kitchens. Like this girl I know, she was working in a restaurant and her boyfriend was the chef, and there was a food critic there and the chef wouldn’t fucking let anybody make any of the food for this guy; it was like “I’m gonna make all of it”. That’s ridiculous.
ST: It’s like the deal here at the Commodore – nothing’s fancy; it’s like all very simple, you know. Even if it gets busy, I don’t know. It just seems to work really good here. Everybody seems to get along really well.
TDS: Are you an owner of the restaurant?
ST: No. If I owned this place, it wouldn’t be called the Commodore.
TDS: What’s your issue with the name?
ST: It’s just not funny.
TDS: It’s all about being funny?
TDS: Is there where the name Harvey Milk comes from, to be funny?
ST: Well, not naming the band that. We liked that guy. There was a documentary and we all saw it. It’s not a really great name for the band. For the first 15 years, no one knew who the fuck it was. And then I didn’t even see that new movie. Gus Van Sant is a horrible director, Sean Penn’s terrible. I mean, please, that documentary is so accurate anyway.
TDS: When did you move to Brooklyn?
ST: Eleven years ago.
TDS: And do you get homesick for Athens?
ST: I do until I go back. I like living here a lot. Like Creston, the guitar player of the band, his parents are very old-timey country people. They live on a farm, and they’re great. That’s where we first practiced, and they’ve always been really supportive of the band in the early days. If we broke down somewhere, his dad would drive to wherever we were and would like rebuild the engine. So it was really cool.
But the last time I was down there on their land, they’re like [adopts deep southern accent], “Steve, why you want to live up there in Brooklyn? That just doesn’t make sense.” And I tried to explain to them. I said, “Believe it or not, if you came up there and spent a couple of weeks with me, you would see that there’s a lot more about neighborhoods here that are like, really throwbacks to Mayberry. I mean, there’s a bodega across the street. The kids that worked there when I first moved here they were little, and now they’re teenagers. And people are friendly and all that. And I explained that to them, and they kinda got it. But down there they are isolated. You know, when they go out it’s all terrible chain restaurants and stuff like that.
TDS: How’s the Athens scene changed over the years, musically, socially or otherwise?
ST: I don’t know. It’s a nice, easy place to live. I love it, but I don’t really know what I would do for work down there, ‘cause it’s a college town, and it seems like the tendency is for whatever you can sell the cheapest, that’s what people are gonna go get because they’re strapped or whatever. But there are some really nice restaurants down there now. There’s like a guy, he owns this place that’s called the Five & Ten. He won “Best Chef” from one of those big magazines and I think now he’s on a cooking show.
So there is a place in Athens where people will pay $12, $15 for a cheese plate. I never imagined that would ever happen.
A lot of when I think about moving back down there has to do with what I would do for a living, which would be cooking. And then it’s such a small town and there’s already so many places to eat. And a lot of great places that have been there for years are never going away.
TDS: Do you feel that your style of cooking, what you’re doing here in NYC is kind of easy for you, whereas down south there would be more competition?
ST: Well, down there, like fried chicken and all that, that’s nothing new. I mean, New York is kind of ridiculous. Like I’ve done interviews with New York magazine and they’re like, “Why do you think there’s this explosion of Southern food?” and I’m like, “Because you guys write about it! It’s like you have to like write about food every week.” I mean, before this place was even open they wrote a thing about “Stephen Tanner’s Unnamed Fried Chicken Project”, and I was like, “Okay, I guess I have to make fried chicken.” I don’t even eat that shit.
ST: No. I don’t want to eat the fried chicken. I never eat here. If he [points to colleague] made me something, I would eat it. But, you know…
TDS: That’s amazing. [laughing]
ST: I taste everything from time to time and make sure that I think it’s good, and every time I eat it I’m really pleasantly surprised. I’ll come in here at night and see people really enjoying it.
TDS: People go crazy over your food.
ST: But some people don’t like it, because a lot of people don’t like the simplicity of just coming and ordering your food and a drink and fending for yourself. A lot of people come here and are really disappointed that they’re not being taken care of.
TDS: What, because it’s not a sit-down, full-service deal?
ST: Yeah. I’ll have people say to me, “We’ve been here for .” blah-de-blah, and I’m like, “I don’t know what to tell ya. You just go up there and tell them what you want, and they’re gonna give you a number and someone’s gonna bring it to you.” The food’s dirt cheap. You don’t have a waitress you gotta tip. It’s easy breezy.
TDS: So what is the secret of your fried chicken?
ST: It’s no secret.
TDS: Do you give away your secrets?
ST: I don’t care about any of that.
TDS: What’s going on in the crust? That crust is amazing.
ST: It’s nothing. You brine chicken in salt and sugar and let it sit in there and then put it in flour, shake it up and fry it.
TDS: Do you feel any ownership over the recipe?
ST: No, I don’t give a shit. You can’t put a patent on food. But, I mean, to be honest, it’s weird. Like something as simple as I could take the chicken out of the brine and put it in flour; he can do it, the other guys can do it, and it’s always gonna be a little bit different. It’s really weird.
ST: Like it doesn’t make sense. But I don’t know. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that people want to eat plates of fried chicken.
TDS: Do you have designs to open more places or a fancier place, different locations, anything like that?
ST: I don’t know. I think about my experience working for other people. I worked for Mark [Firth] and Andrew [Tarlow] at Diner; you know, they’ve opened tons of restaurants. And I used to always go to those guys, “God, you have such a great thing here at Diner, why spread it out?”
But I kind of understand it now. It’s like you get the bug. I think a lot of the fun is the building part of it and designing it and all that. It’s really stressful the first time that you go through it, and then I think the second time it’s like you probably think “Oh, well, I’ve learned a lot, I’m going to be able to do this more efficiently”.
And, yeah, Chris, my boss who I love and he’s my best friend, he really wants to do something else. I would love to stick with him.
TDS: And what about for music, what’s next for the band?
ST: The music, it’s like, you know like, really, our drummer has a recording studio; so that’s good and bad. That means that it’s there, but we don’t have to stare at a clock. I mean, we’re paying for it. Well, whoever is going to put out the record is going to pay for that time. But realistically, we’re not gonna be able to charge how long we fucking waste, because we’re lazy. It’s like we’ll go there and we’ll just be like “Fuck this, let’s go eat; let’s get drunk. I don’t want to do this”. But, I mean, we could manage to get a record out every year or so; but right now we don’t really have any I want to make at least one more record. I mean, the smartest thing to do would be to just maybe not play for another 10 years and then come back.
TDS: What was the inspiration to get back together five years ago?
ST: Because there was all of a sudden after the eight or nine years that we were a band, there was no interest. And then after we broke up, there was a shift to real heavier stuff being kind of widely accepted; I think it was really that and the Internet. Any interview you would read, SunnO))) would mention Harvey Milk or Earth, and there got to be this interest. And I would get calls from record labels that I had sent tapes to in the early ‘90s that turned us down, and then they wanted to do stuff. When we stopped playing, it was like one guy had a kid.
TDS: Were you guys high school friends?
ST: No, we just all met in Athens. But we all really, really like each other; we all have a similar sense of humor. And so it wasn’t a big deal. I just called them and was like “Hey, do you want me to try to compile some unreleased stuff to put out, or do you want to just get back together and play?” And they were like “Oh, let’s just play”.
It’s cliché, it’s so cliché. I’ve heard it a million times. We didn’t play together for years and then we played, and it was cliché; it was like we never stopped. And I’m dead serious, that’s how it was. I mean we were a little rusty, but it was great. There weren’t any major obstacles to overcome, it was easy.
And then we started playing shows, and a lot of people would come to them. And it’s nice to have people, however few there are. I mean it’s more than it was then, but I mean, I love it when people tell me that they like the band and stuff like that; it’s great. Some bands say they do it for themselves; it’s like we do it to make other people happy. I mean, it’s not the happiest music. But people like it. I don’t know. The same as cooking: I don’t want to fucking serve you something and have you be like, “Oh, god, this sucks.” We have such a small audience. it’s like the music is just well-seasoned fried chicken.