Stephen Tanner on Being a Germophobe, Killer Boston Pizza, and Why He Hates ‘Munchies’

Tanner will open El Cortez this fall.
Tanner will open El Cortez this fall. Photo: John Fell

If you’re up to speed on your fall preview news, you know that Stephen Tanner, the Commodore chef and reluctant father of Williamsburg’s Southern-fried food scene, will soon be cooking up some vittles at the Bushwick bar and restaurant El Cortez. The Harvey Milk bassist also has a new solo LP out called Things Haven’t Gone Well. So it goes without saying that he’s a busy man. But not too busy to interrupt his evening repast the other night and chat with us between bites of a McDouble cheeseburger.

Tanner: [Gobbly noises.]Sorry that I’m eating while I’m talking to you.

What are you eating?
A McDouble.

Is that different than a regular McDonald’s double cheeseburger?
Oh, yeah. Dude, check this out. There was a guy that worked in the company. He was pretty high up. I guess at the end of whatever — when they have to analyze their profits and their bullshit and all that — they were at a loss, and they couldn’t figure out what the deal was because they used to have a double cheeseburger, but this asshole-genius came up with the McDouble. It’s the same thing as the double cheeseburger but it has one piece of cheese instead of two, and after the first year of serving it, the amount of money that they saved by using one terrible piece of cheese was staggering, and I think they even made the guy a president or something.

That reminds me of the Filet-O-Fish: I think they only use a half-slice of cheese for that.
I don’t really get that cheese-on-fish thing, but once in a while I crave a Filet-O-Fish.

What do you think of the Williamsburg food scene?
[Howls and snorts of derisive laughter.] Look, I’m not an asshole, it’s just, you know, it’s a weird town. I mean, since when did becoming a butcher or a farmer become some celebrated art form? It’s fucking insulting to the people who have done it their entire lives. These fucking dicks move here and they’re, like, “Oh, I’m a nose-to-tail bro.” I think it’s rude and it’s offensive. Other than that, I don’t really give a shit. I mean, I wish there was a Taco Bell, or, I don’t know, someone who knew how to wrap a burrito. I’d be into that.

What’s a food trend you hate?
I don’t know if it’s a trend. I’ll say this: I can definitely think of something that I hate. It’s that TV show that’s on Vice called “Munchies.” That’s an abomination.

Why do you hate it?
Well, the only one that rang human was the one with Frankie or whatever from Best Pizza. That guy’s awesome. That episode is brilliant. He takes them to Sunday dinner at his parents’ house in Bensonhurst; he takes them to the pizza places he went to as a kid. He’s earnest. There’s not an aspect of that episode where he’s, like, “Okay, I’m going to go drink shots with a bunch of dickheads now.” He’s not a dickhead. The rest of the episodes are a bunch of fucking assholes that are celebrating themselves. They have one thing in common. They all say they were looking for something the community wasn’t providing. And it’s, like, “What’s that? A club of dicks?” They’re not providing anything. They’re isolating the community. I don’t give a fuck. I’ll name names. Like Walter Foods, and people who say “proper”: “I was looking to go somewhere and have a proper Man-hat-ton, and a properly cooked steak … ” What the fuck are you talking about? Dumbest shit on earth. You’re not doing anything for the community but alienating the people who have lived there for a katrillion years.

How about something you don’t hate? What’s your favorite restaurant?
Oh, my favorite restaurant in New York, that’s easy. It’s the Stage diner, on Second Avenue. I mean, I can’t think of another place that if it’s pouring rain, snowing, whatever, that can make you get out of bed and go all the way there for fucking cabbage soup that’s so goddamned good. I used to go there so much and got friendly with the people that work there. Because they don’t have a public restroom, and they know that I have OCD and I’m a germophobe, they would let me come behind the counter where they do all the cooking and let me wash my hands.

What was your most memorable meal?
This might actually stir up some controversy in the food community of NYC, but this was pretty memorable. When I was touring with my band, we were playing in Boston, and a buddy of ours took us to this pizza place that’s been open forever. It’s called Santarpio’s. They do pizza and they do what they call barbecue, but the barbecue is, like, they make sausage, they make lamb skewers and steak tips or some shit, served with hot cherry peppers. And they make pizza. And I swear to God, living in New York forever and eating great pizza, this pizza was off the moon, man, it was so great. We couldn’t believe it. The pizza was amazing. The barbecue was amazing. The people that work there are a bunch of old curmudgeonly type dudes, but they were real cool. They were like, “Ehhhh, you’re from Georgia? I fuckin’ hate the Braves.” Just really fantastic.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I’ve never eaten a cricket. I don’t think I’ve ever even eaten sweetbreads or whatever. I don’t know; I don’t want to eat a gland. You know what, I’m not Anthony Bour — who’s that guy? Or whatever his name is, that other guy — “Yeah, we’re going to go eat monkey shit.” I always trip out when people are like, “Oh, lobsterrrr!” I’m like, “You know the history of this shit? This is what they fed prisoners 100 years ago. You’re eating a giant disgusting cockroach of the ocean.” It blows my mind that people pay $20 for a goddamned hot-dog bun with lobster and mayonnaise. Crazy!

What would you have for a death-row meal?
I don’t know, maybe a McDouble, extra pickles. Jeez Louise. I love the Meatlover’s Thin ‘N Crispy from Pizza Hut; I’d get a couple of those.

Who would you invite to your fantast dinner party?
Jesus! That’s crazy. All right, I’m just going to answer that off the top of my head. John Candy, Chris Farley, and, if I get a third guest, Jimi Hendrix.

Earlier: Commodore Chef Stephen Tanner to Serve Mexican Barbecue and Buckets of Fried Chicken at El Cortez … Maybe

Related: 36 New Restaurants Opening This Fall

Stephen Tanner on Being a Germophobe, Killer Boston Pizza, and Why He Hates