Sam Zien is a regular guy. He’s a husband, he’s the father of three teenage boys, and he has two dogs, an orange Labrador and a Chinese Crested.
He also happens to have both a local and national televised cooking show.
Zien’s show, Sam the Cooking Guy, emphasizes food made easy. It helps that it’s shot, with few exceptions, right in Zien’s own kitchen. His family, including the dogs, Haley (the Lab) and Lucky (the Crested), are often featured as extras, assistants, and/or tasters.
On the day of filming, Zien’s crew — Jorge Corrales, the cameraman, and Michelle Witek, the production manager — assembles midmorning. They’re dressed stylishly but casually in jeans and T-shirts, and they confer around Zien’s dining table, discussing the particulars of the day’s shoot.
The theme, they collectively decide, is “stuff you can make when you get home from a fancy dinner and the food was really terrible and you come home really hungry.” Zien, it seems, has been to many of these and is well equipped with solutions; an omelet, “red beer” (a mixture of beer, Clamato, Worcestershire sauce, and pepper), Frito chili (mixed right in the Fritos bag), and Fabulous Jane’s Sweet and Sour Motor Home Meatballs. Witek records the selections in a binder emblazoned with the Sam the Cooking Guy logo, executed in a jaunty, handwritten-style font.
She and Corrales set up the lights, two big boxes lined with white reflective material and lit with a single bulb, as Zien, who is going to enter in a suit as though just returning from a party, rushes upstairs to change. Karla Gascoigne, Zien’s assistant, spruces up the kitchen, getting it ready for the shoot.
The kitchen is the main set, unless the show is taken on the road, and it is not what Zien refers to as the “traditional cooking-show kitchen” usually found in a TV studio equipped with all the bells and whistles. Zien’s, while large enough for a family of five, is smaller than one might expect for a professional cook, with marble-top counters and hand-brushed red walls. It’s elegant but user-friendly, a style that lends itself to the laid-back format of the show. A thick, round butcher block sits center stage, next to a half-moon-shaped knife-holder that houses the various-sized knives that Zien uses during the shoot. At the back of the kitchen, ornamental jars filled with pickled items and condiments and bottles of vinegars line a small shelf above the stove.
“When I decided to do this cooking show, around the end of 2001, I went looking for another kitchen to shoot in,” Zien says. “[I] never dreamt I could use my own. And it was a week before [the first shoot] and I was sitting here and I hadn’t found a kitchen yet and I looked up one day and said, ‘The show is about cooking for regular people. I’m a regular guy, I have a regular kitchen, I’m going to use my kitchen.’ ”
This, it turns out, suits Zien just fine — “Look how far I have to go for work!” he jokes — and if someone happens to come to the door, they become a part of the episode, giving the show an improvisational air.
The kitchen set is a hub of activity. Witek and Corrales fiddle with the lights as Gascoigne scrubs down the white porcelain sink. Zien, in his suit and trademark chunky black glasses, changes a light bulb in the bank of tracks over his head. He mumbles in mock annoyance that Emeril Lagasse, the celebu-chef of the Food Network, never has to do his own scut work. Zien unplugs the phone on the counter, and Carla gives the butcher block one more once-over with a dishrag, and they’re ready to go.
It’s clear from the first take that Zien has this down to a science. His banter is well timed, quick but never rushed. He makes his entrance in suit and flip-flops and does a few takes of flipping on the kitchen lights, miming that he has just come home from a wretched formal affair. Once this is done, he changes into a plain green T-shirt and fires up the stove. He begins the show with his goat cheese and frozen spinach omelet.
“I’m going to teach you to make a proper omelet,” he says, addressing the camera; Corrales steadies his shot while Witek watches the monitor, taking notes as the shoot progresses.
With only one chance to capture the actual cooking process, Corrales follows Zien to the stove to peer over his shoulder, then returns to the butcher block as Zien tilts his pan toward the camera to show off the finished product.
After the camera stops rolling, Zien fries up another omelet and dishes it out to the hungry crew. It’s delicious egg flavored by the spinach and goat cheese but not too gooey. And, as Zien promised, it took under six minutes to make.
Though no one would ever know it, there was a time when Zien did not consider himself much of a cook.
We are sitting on his back patio after the shoot. Zien says, “I cooked a little bit here around the house, but my wife Kelly did most of it.” He was “less than thrilled” with his biotech job and a few years ago began to seek a way out. Turning his sights toward television, his first idea was to do a show about travel. Everything was set to go with Zien and his crew, a group that had done corporate video work for his previous employer, and they were planning to film the first episode in Hong Kong.
“I quit my biotech job to try this travel idea,” he explains, “shooting complicated places and making them not look complicated, and we were a month away from going and shooting some demo footage when 9/11 happened. Nobody was traveling anywhere. I had no job, because I’d just quit, I had no go-to job, and I decided I had to come up with something else I could do, and in a hurry.”