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.”
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.”
The shoot wraps and Fabulous Jane’s Motor Home Meatballs are scarfed up by the crew — save for Witek, who is skeptical of the grape jelly content — and Sam’s 16-year-old son, Jordan. Zien sprinkles sesame seeds on top of the remaining meatballs and offers around a set of bamboo skewers.
“I don’t try to make things complicated,” he says. “I try to make it easy, big in taste, small in effort. Four, five ingredients, and I make it look pretty and I make it taste great, and I make something you would want to make yourself.”
“And that,” he concludes, “is what it is.”
— Rosa Jurjevics