Zien was back to square one. Instead of travel, he decided to try a cooking show.
“There seemed to be an opening there,” he says. “Like I thought there was an opening with travel. Travel always looks like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous kind of stuff, expensive, complicated, something that regular people can’t do, and I felt that cooking was sort of the same.”
Zien called up his crew, and they got to work shooting a demo. Once it was completed, he began to send it around to TV stations.
“I just asked everyone I knew, ‘Do you know anybody in the TV business?’ ” he says. “I never got anybody that anybody knew really, really well, but I got a few names [of people] that I sent my tapes to.”
The response was disappointing.
“This guy at Tribune Media, he said on the phone, ‘You don’t have a fucking chance,’ which was very hard to hear.”
Zien sent the demo out to a few more stations in San Diego, and his show was accepted by the local Fox affiliate. In 2002, they began to air two-minute segments twice a week. The County of San Diego station, County Network Television, offered to pick up a half-hour version. A year and a half ago, Cox took over the show and has aired it ever since.
“The county is government,” Zien says, explaining the switch in venue. “It’s not a commercial venture. The opportunities, unfortunately, with a commercial station, are greater. This is a career, so I was trying to grow myself, and that meant all kinds of things. [Cox was] going to put the show on before the Padre games and build the audience and…” He pauses. “It was tough, because the people that worked on the show, mostly one person at the county, was great,” he continues. “I loved her work, we did great shows together, and you know, it’s not like I left there mad at anybody, it was just time to grow. That’s all it is.”
Zien’s success has snowballed. Last year, he was approached by the Discovery Health Channel, which broadcasts nationally on cable networks. They were interested in doing a version of his original, more health-oriented show. The result is Just Cook This with Sam the Cooking Guy, still shot in Zien’s kitchen, only with a different crew.
“It’s not that the recipes are ridiculously nuts-and-grains health oriented,” Zien says, “but the attitude of the show is, if you cook for yourself instead of eating out and [using] premade [packaged foods from the supermarket], you’d be better off.”
Just Cook This shoots several shows at a time, occasionally in exotic locales. Two months ago, they shot in Hong Kong, which was, ironically, the first destination for Zien’s thwarted travel show.
The audience for both versions of the show, Zien says, is quite varied.
“A couple stopped me at the supermarket [and] said they’re big fans,” he recalls. “[They were] at least [in their] mid-60s, potentially 70s. And then there’s the mom who will stop with an eight-year-old and say, ‘One of your biggest fans.’ And everything in between.”
Zien also has a large male fan base.
“In the beginning I used to think [the audience was] a lot of guys, and it is a lot of guys,” he says. “I don’t know if more guys watch other cooking shows, I just know that my style is just sort of normal.”
Normal is something Zien seeks to champion. His recipes have minimal ingredients, usually take less than 20 minutes to make, and are often — as with Fabulous Jane’s Treat, meatballs in a special grape-jelly-and-chili-sauce marinade, served on this day later on set — creative and tasty.
Zien’s favorite thing to make is something he calls Crispy Salmon.
“I take a piece of salmon, like a little salmon fillet, no bones, and I put it in a really hot nonstick pan, fleshy side down,” he says. “It’s been seasoned well with kosher salt and pepper, and I cook it for about five minutes, until the top gets really crispy, and then I flip it over and give it another couple of minutes on the other side.”
Season it with green onions and maybe a little — a little, stresses Zien, who loves the taste of salmon on its own — Sriracha (rooster sauce), and you’ve got a meal. “It’s great,” Zien says. “I really like salmon. It’s good for you, there’s not a lot of fat in it, and the fat that is there is the right kind of fat. I could eat salmon almost all day long.
“I just want people cooking,” he continues. “I eat something and I say, ‘That’s really simple, I think there’s a simple way to make that.’ I just want people cooking. And a lot of the emails I get are from people saying, ‘Never used to cook, and I’ve been watching you a while now and I can’t believe the stuff that I can do.’ And that’s the greatest thing somebody could say.”
In addition to the two versions of his show, Zien has also been named the spokesman for Newcastle Brown Ale — both last year and this year — and is featured in a promotional booklet that includes cooking suggestions as well as photo-advertisements for the beer. He has authored a book, Just a Bunch of Recipes, that comes out in March and has a grilling device featured at Target stores, the Aroma FlipGrill. There is also a full line of Cooking Guy merchandise — T-shirts, sweatshirts, even knives emblazoned with his logo — available on his website.
The collective emphasis is to just get out and cook.
“It’s not that people can’t [cook], they just don’t. They don’t think they can,” he says. “They watch too many fancy cooking shows, where people use perfect everything, ingredients that come from bizarre little specialty stores. I’m not trying to say I’m a chef, ’cause I’m so not. I’d say most chefs in San Diego, or anywhere, could totally kick my ass.”