"Oh my god, look at these tomatoes! Let me take a picture of them!" laughs the soon-to-be-69-year-old rock legend Sammy Hagar, talking about the passion he and his wife share for their home garden. "We're like fucking little kids."
And Hagar's Lost Boy status isn't exactly a secret: The guy is known for his love of fast cars and has tacked his name to an array of brands that are all about the good life: liquor, restaurants, bicycle shops. There's even a mountain bike called the Red Rocker. But while Hagar still can't drive the speed limit, good food apparently also gives him a high.
"I'd rather go in my garden, which costs me nothing to grow, to get my food than go to any store on the planet and be able to afford anything in there," says Hagar, owner of Mill Valley's El Paseo restaurant. "It's so much more rewarding to me to go pick those tomatoes from the garden. My wife and I get so excited."
This level of appreciation is evident at El Paseo, where we chatted last week over happy hour. Hagar opened the restaurant in 2011 in a rambling brick compound originally built in the mid-1940s. But, while the Red Rocker is pretty accomplished in the kitchen (he's even published a cookbook), he leaves the cuisine at El Paseo to professional chef Henry Cortez, who was named executive chef in early 2015 after four years there as a sous.
"These are not my recipes," Hagar assures us, adding, "I've got a legitimate chef to create recipes....You hire people who are good at what they do, then you don't tell them what to do after that—other than, 'hey, don't cause trouble!' or, 'stay out of jail!' That [would be] like having a singer and telling him how to sing, or telling [a drummer] how to play the drums. That's not the way to have a great restaurant, or a great band."
In guiding El Paseo's current transition from modern steakhouse to Spanish-influenced California cuisine ("Spanish is my favorite way to eat," he explains. "I like the way they serve food one dish at a time. They just bring something out and everyone digs in."), Hagar provided Cortez with the "big picture instructions": "'Take a little trip through Spain, then come back down through California.' He's killing it."
As if to prove the point, Cortez arrives with a dish of smoked octopus and open-faced BLTs with crispy curled bacon, roasted cherry tomatoes, and soft butter. "See? Henry knew I was going to be here, so he wants to try a couple new things. He is the the last superstar chef on the planet who doesn't want to be a star. He just wants to cook."
Reaching for a tentacle, Hagar says, "I love his octopus. He does a cool little twist where he smokes it and then deep fries it. He treats it like pork belly. It's like bacon from the sea."
While we ponder this idea of "bacon from the sea," the conversation turns to fame. Does he ever wish his fans would leave him alone when he is out in public?
"Well, yeah. If I'm out with my family, or when I'm taking a leak in the bathroom and someone wants to shake my hand, that's always uncomfortable," he laughs. "But really, I don't mind it. Just don't come to my house. I have a gate up for a reason. Those are my only rules. If I'm out in public and you catch me, you've got me."
He continues, "I really don't get harassed, I think because I'm older and I've been user friendly. I don't have a ton of mystique. I'm like Sammy the Friendly Rock Star."
While Hagar's fame occasionally comes with the awkward bathroom encounter, it has brought with it a sizable fortune; more money than he needs, in fact. (He sold 80 percent of Cabo Wabo Tequila to Gruppo Campari for $80 million.) He has leveraged his stardom to turn a myriad of businesses into gold, but he says money's not his motivation.
"If I can break even for the rest of my life, I'm happy," says Hagar. "When you do things just for money, that's all you get. You'll never have enough because you get hung up on the game of making money instead of what money can do. And when you don't do things for money, and the money comes, you go, ''Wow! That was great! I'm having so much fun! I love this, and look at all this money I'm making! I can give it away.'"
And he gives away plenty. In fact, the Hagar Family Foundation, which he and his wife Kari started in 2007, donates all the profits from his Beach Bar & Grill airport restaurants (in Maui, New York, Las Vegas and Cleveland) to children's charities in those communities.
"What I really like to do is help families with terminally ill children that have run out of insurance or don't have insurance," he says. "I go through the local children's hospital, and they find families with terminally ill children who are down and out. Some of them don't even have a car to get back and forth, so we'll provide transportation. In Hawaii, for instance, we'll fly them and their parents to Honolulu for treatments, sometimes once a week, and we'll put them up in a hotel overnight, or fly them back the same day. I like to take care of kids, man, so that's what I do."
He also likes to support food banks. For the past nine years, whenever he is on tour, he writes a check for $2,500 to the local food bank in every town he plays. "If I have a day off, I go down and present the check, and I try to give food away. I see a lot of families with kids and multiple jobs, and I talk to them. I've become enlightened to the fact that everything has become so expensive in this world that a lot of people have to go to a food bank to make ends meet, so they can pay their car insurance this month, or make the mortgage payment. I really like food banks because they help a lot, they're always great, and you get a lot of bang for the buck."
Hagar's giving philosophy is summed up in the title of one of his signature songs, "Right Now." In 2011, he told Samaritan magazine, "I don't want to write a check for a million dollars where it goes in the bank; I want to give a dollar to somebody and have it go right into their pocket. I want to put food on the table… There are people that need immediate help...The day I write the check; the next day I want to have someone benefit from it."
Hagar's down-to-earth nature permeates the atmosphere at El Paseo. The casual dining spot feels homey and intimate, with a separate bar and dining room flanking a meandering path that leads to a verdant, sun-dappled courtyard. On Sundays starting at 5pm, the restaurant hosts Paella on the Patio ($28/person), with options for meat and seafood eaters as well as vegetarians, plus salads. The meal is delicious and unpretentious, particularly paired with the housemade sangria blanca. Other standout menu items include the charred tomato gazpacho, Spanish octopus, and the Mt. Lassen whole red trout ($45) with prosciutto, tomato couscous, frisée, and dehydrated olives.
El Paseo is open for happy hour and dinner seven nights a week, starting at 4pm. // El Paseo, 17 Throckmorton Ave. (Mill Valley), elpaseomillvalley.com