Sammy Hagar is best known for his work as a musician -- he has performed in the bands Montrose, Van Halen and Chickenfoot. But he also has a passion for food. "The most fun thing about cooking is making something from nothing," he says. He is the author of Are We Having Any Fun Yet?.
Jennifer Luebke: I bet some of your biggest fans have no idea that you are a legit cook. You've even said that you cooked before you rocked. Where did this love of food and cooking begin?
Sammy Hagar: The first chapter in the book is called "It All Started in My Grandpa's Trailer." My grandpa was a great chef -- he was an actual chef. He was an immigrant who came from Italy when he was about 11 years old, landed in New York, didn't speak the language and went to work in restaurants.
By the time I was born -- I was the youngest of four kids -- my grandpa was settled in his trailer. You would go in his trailer and it smelled so damn good. He would feed us the greatest food. It would be like, "Oh man, this is so good."
When I was little, I tasted great food. We never went to restaurants -- I never went to a restaurant until I was in my 20s. I'm not joking. You get used to that kind of cooking, and then you know the difference.
I go out on the road for 5 or 6 years, really broke, eating the worst food possible. Then when I came back home after that, I went back to my mom's house, who was a great cook as well, and back to my grandpa's house. He'd come home and cook on Sunday. I realized how good that food really was. That's when my mind opened up -- that was probably in my early 20s.
The reason I wanted to write this cookbook is because I'm really interested in doing things that I have a passion for, like making tequila and now making rum, having restaurants and writing music. I have a passion for that, so I want to do it. I have a passion for food. I thought, "If I'm going to write another book, I want to write about food."
JL: You organized the book around the three places where you spend the most time. Why did you do it that way?
SH: These ideas just come to me in the middle of the night. I'm tortured with ideas in the middle of the night. They never come to me when I'm working. They always come to me when I'm trying to sleep.
I spend so much time in Mexico and then so much time in Hawaii. In Mexico it's just a stripped-down version of my rock 'n' roll life. I'll come off a tour like when I was in Van Halen. I'd come home from tour and I'd just go straight down to Mexico, to Cabo [San Lucas]. You kind of unplug, but you don't really. I'm going to the canteen at night, rocking out, doing shots of tequila, eating tacos in the street, partying all day on the beach. But I'm doing it in a bathing suit instead of rock 'n' roll clothes.
When I went to Hawaii, I realized I really unplug there. I put on a sarong on my property, I go husk coconuts, I make my own coconut milk, my own coconut water, ice cubes for my drinks. You pour the rum over that. I'm telling you, coconut water ice cubes, go ahead and steal it.
I have my rum distillery there, I have a beautiful garden, bananas, chickens that lay eggs. I eat the chickens, I eat the eggs. I really unplug there.
Then my hometown, where I live, around my house, how I live when I'm just doing this, doing that, going into the studio, working like what I'm doing today.
JL: That's the Mill Valley, California, section of the book. You spend a lot of time there, work there, you have a restaurant there. In that section of the book I found your recipe for paella. I made that a few days ago and it was a revelation to me. I always thought that paella was this elevated, complicated dish, but it's really not.
SH: I love that dish. I was asked in an interview recently if there was a dish that represents me -- if I were a dish, what would it be? I said paella. It has everything in it, it kind of works, all in one bite.
JL: You can throw other things in it too.
SH: Yes, it's so versatile.
JL: I looked at your instructions and I thought, "That's just like a seasoned rice dish. I could probably do this." It was a hit at my house.
SH: When you hit it right, it's great. You can mess it up -- you can either make it too gooey and not dry enough. I like that crunchy thing in the bottom.
JL: I didn't wait long enough, but next time.
SH: You get in a hurry. You have to leave that towel on there that last 5 or 6 minutes.
JL: I do like your colorful instructions, I'll just leave it at that. You have great instructions for the recipe. I listened -- I did not stir it.
SH: I wrote this cookbook. I have a co-writer, but I talked through every recipe the way I do it exactly in my own voice.
JL: You also know a thing or two about wine and spirits. So how about some wine or spirits and food pairings?
SH: As far as the way I cook most of the time in Mexico or Hawaii, wine doesn't pair that well with it. But I'm a wine-pairing guy -- I love wine, I have a collection, I've been collecting since my mid-20s.
But in general, I think a good margarita with some really hot food or a good mojito with the rum, which is a little sweeter and not quite so salty. I think you get a little more flavor in that with Pacific Rim things, like if you're eating shrimp that are hot, Thai food or things like that. I'm a mojito guy. There's nothing better than a mojito to wash some kind of semi-spicy Asian or Pacific Rim food down. That's my Hawaiian thing.
I'm always experimenting with cocktails. I'll give everybody one big, fat, strong lick and that is if you're going to use limes, use good, fresh limes. Don't just try to go to a substitute. Lemons or limes. You can use orange, but it's sweeter. But just use fresh juice; I hate the mix things.
JL: You've included some of your favorite drink recipes in the book, some dishy stories and pictures. But besides that good stuff, I like that you encourage us to improvise.
SH: To me the most fun about cooking is not following a recipe exactly. Use your creativity because that's the most fun thing about cooking is making something from nothing.
It's just like writing a song. When I write a song, I start with this guitar. I pick it up. I think, "OK, I'm going to write a song on guitar." It's just like, "OK, I'm going to make a dish from chicken." Just keep moving on and pretty soon you need a bass on there. So you go, "I'll put some potatoes in there." That's the bass part. "Now I need to spice it up." Now you're adding something else. It's the same exact process until you feel like this is what I like, this is what I want to hear or this is what I want to eat. It's the same process. That's the most fun part.
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Jennifer Luebke is The Splendid Table's editor and technical director. She has been with the show since shortly after its national debut. Prior to working in public radio, she was a host/disc jockey and music director in commercial radio, and also performed as a vocalist for various Top 40/rock bands.