Paul Gilbert is known for his melodic, often frenetic guitar work in Mr. Big and Racer X. But beyond his passion for fretboard pyrotechnics, he’s a culinary aficionado who loves cooking at home and on the road. We spoke about his passion for food for the Grammy.com feature “Musicians’ Extracurricular Activities” and went further in-depth for A.D.D. If you want some musical inspiration from Mr. Gilbert while you shred on the cutting board in your kitchen (as long as you’re not veggie or vegan), you could listen to his “Cooked Chicken Jam”.
When did you first develop a passion for cooking? Have you ever taken any culinary classes?
I’ve always liked to eat. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where most people were pretty unadventurous with food, but my parents were both great cooks and would try just about anything. One of the only times that I can remember my dad getting really mad at me was when I whined about some food that my mom had made. He said, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to finish it. But you should at least try it. And quit whining!” That seemed reasonable to me, and when I would finally try things, they all turned out to be good.
I did take some cooking classes in high school. Boys weren’t really supposed to take them. I had to risk being made fun of. But I knew that I was going to move to Hollywood to go to guitar school. And I knew that my parents wouldn’t be there to cook for me, so I thought that I’d better learn how to do it myself. But really my best education was a Chinese cookbook and wok that my mom sent to me for my 18th birthday. I just followed the directions as closely as I could, and like magic, I had spicy peanut chicken in my kitchen. Soon I was cooking with all kinds of ingredients that I had never tried before — squid, leeks, ginger root, shiitake mushrooms — and I just kept going from there.
What are your three favorite dishes to cook and why?
Three? Let’s see… My wife always asks for my breaded scallops with cocktail sauce. I usually cook some asparagus to go with it, and a cucumber and tomato salad with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
I’ve had good luck with my pan-fried gyoza dumplings. I chop and boil some cabbage, then squeeze out all of the water and mix it together with minced chicken or pork, some baby onions, soy sauce and sesame oil. Put the filling inside dumpling wrappers — I used to make them from scratch, but the pre-made ones are pretty good and take much less time — then fry them in a little bit of oil. After they’re slightly brown, throw in some water and quickly cover them so they finish cooking by steaming. The dipping sauce is Chinese chili oil, white Japanese vinegar and soy sauce. These are good.
Maybe my last specialty would be pies. I made some peach-nectarine-blueberry pies that were so ridiculously good. I don’t know if I could make it happen again. I think I just got a really good batch of peaches. Oh, and I almost forgot my three-cheese sauce on home-made, hand-cut pasta. I haven’t made that one in a while. I think it’s time!
If you could design a guitar with a food theme, what would it look like and why?
I have a Kikusui sake guitar already, although that’s a drink, not a food. But it’s so cool! The knobs are made from the bottles caps of the sake, the pickguard has the same design as the label and there is a gold flake Kanji symbol that says “Kikusui” in Japanese. If I had to make a food guitar though…hmmm, a lobster might be good. Or maybe some French baguettes lined up.
“I did take some cooking classes in high school. Boys weren’t really supposed to take them. I had to risk being made fun of.”
Are there any chefs you greatly admire?
My parents, my wife. My favorite sushi chef, Ike-san, in Pasadena. And just about every chef in Japan. I lived in there for a couple of years, and the food over there is just ridiculous. And it’s not just the Japanese food. Some of the best French, Italian, Chinese and Spanish cooking that I’ve ever had has been in Japan. But in a way, it’s not the chef’s ability to cook that I admire. It’s the chef’s ability to shop. I don’t want fancy cooking where the food has been manipulated into some unrecognizable sculpture. I just want fresh food, prepared with love. One of my favorite dishes in Japan is a live squid where the meat of the head — I think that big long part is the head — is cut up into bite-size sashimi. It’s very simple, and it couldn’t be fresher. In fact, the eyes and legs of the squid still have enough life in them to be moving around a little bit. And it’s good. I admire that chef, and I thank that squid.