Part 1: Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien on his start in TV, cooking, charity & more
This Friday, May 11, from 6:30 – 9:30, Mama’s Kitchen will be hosting a delicious and delightful fundraising event. Mama’s Day will feature more than 50 chefs offering distinctive tastes ranging from San Diego’s finest restaurants to the city’s top of the line hotels and catering companies, who will graciously prepare delicious samples for nearly 600 attendees. Guests will enjoy food, live music, and fun throughout the evening while dining on distinctive dishes graciously prepared and served by executive chefs from some of the region’s top restaurants. Television chef Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien will be hosting the event at Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine. We sat down with San Diego’s very own Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien to talk about how he got his start in cooking. Zien opens up about his experience in the food and TV industry in the beginning of his now successful career. Zien also discusses his relationship with Mama’s Kitchen and why giving back is so important to him.
SD Entertainer: Let’s get started. In the spirit of full disclosure, I need you to know that I’m one of your probably earliest fans…
Sam: I thought you were starting with something bad.
SD Entertainer: No, no. One of the biggest reasons for that is the fact you had the stones to tell Kathie Lee and Hoda to be quiet on the Today Show. So that makes you my personal hero… [see the clip here]
Sam: It’s funny. When most people bring that up, they’d go, “you told them to shut up” and I go, “You know, interestingly, I never said shut up.” All I said was, “Please be quiet.” You got it right.
SD Entertainer: I think that was awesome. The look on Kathie Lee’s face was absolutely priceless!
Sam: I’ll tell you a secret. Telling them to stop talking was my 2nd time on the Today Show and I’ve been back 10 other times. So anytime that I went back Kathie Lee Gifford treated me like a dear friend. Whenever I would see her, she was sweet. She would give me a hug, air kisses (because everybody’s got makeup on). But Hoda Kotb treated me like I’m a pariah.
SD Entertainer: That’s interesting…
Sam: I think it’s simply because, you know, this was a few years back. Hoda wasn’t nearly as experienced, and I don’t think she understood television like Kathie Lee did. Kathy Lee did TV a long time and really understood what it was about, and understood that, at its core it was about entertainment. And that day was an entertaining day. And clearly from the Today Show’s point of view, if it wasn’t entertaining, they wouldn’t have had me back that many more times.
SD Entertainer: It’s been 15-plus years since you’ve been doing a full 30-minute show. You’ve got 15 or so Emmys. You got three cookbooks, you got your own ‘merch’ for goodness sake; you’re like a rock star, man. It’s been quite a journey. Let’s just talk about, the beginning of your food journey. Walk the readers through how it began.
Sam: It was back in in 2001; I was like many people. I went to work, I did my job, but I hated it. I know there’s a lot of people that do what they do for a living and they do not enjoy it — and I was certainly one of those people. But I was also one of those people that never, never grew up knowing what I wanted to be, you know, there was never, “I want to be a pilot or an accountant or a teacher, bus driver.” I didn’t have any ideas. The crazy thing is, you know, we send our kids off to college, the tender age of 18 or so, and we’re asking them to make decisions that presumably will be something that they will do for the rest of their life. They barely know themselves as people yet and now they’ve got to make these life decisions. And so that was me; no idea.
I fell in and out of a lot of things. I followed my brother in a few different businesses, just for lack of my own ideas. And in 2001 I was the director of operations at a biotech company in Carlsbad — and miserable. When I say miserable, I would sit in my home on the weekends going through the San Diego Union/Tribune help wanted general section looking for some type of printed inspiration. I would run my fingers down the help wanted columns and I almost half-expected that my finger would hit a job title; hotel night auditor, dance instructor, you know, warehouse foreman. And I’d get like a little tingle, like God was telling me that’s what I should do. Obviously, that’s not a way to find a career.
And so, I was sitting in my office one day and I said, “You know what, I’m miserable. I’m okay at what I do, but I don’t love what I do.” I stumbled upon the idea of a travel show. I liked the idea so much that I quit my job — with my wife’s encouragement. But you must understand my wife agreeing that I should quit biotech and go start a travel show didn’t mean she thought it was a good idea. In fact, she thought it was a terrible idea, but she knew how unhappy I was, and she thought I needed like a career ‘kick-in-the-ass’. And if I quit the job and try to start a travel show, in her mind, if it wouldn’t work in two months, I’d have to find something else. And then I’d be really forced to find something that I’d like. That was her plan and it sort of partially worked, except it didn’t work for the reason she thought it worked.
SD Entertainer: When did that change?
Sam: Because before we got a chance to go away and shoot the demo footage 9/11 happened and nobody, nobody was buying a travel show in the early days following 9/11, especially from a guy who had barely traveled and had never been on TV. So, I just sat and I watched TV and I came across a horrible cooking segment at a local station. Like, it was so bad. It was a talented chef, but he did not have the gift of gab or any entertainment ability in his bones, and it had a horrible shooting style. Instantly I went, “Wait a minute, I could do that better…”
She said, “The only thing, sweetheart, is that you can’t cook.” Solid point.
When my wife came home, I told her the idea. Again, she supported me, but with one issue. She said, “The only thing, sweetheart, is that you can’t cook.” Solid point. But I decided I would try and do things that are encouraging. I’ll be my own weakest link. If I can make it, anybody can make it. The idea was, instead of watching the chef that I saw that day, make something over the top and saying, “Holy crap, that was great. Let’s go to that restaurant or that hotel, the idea was that people would watch me and say, “That looks good, but also easy.” So, the basic idea was to encourage people…
SD Entertainer: So, what happened next?
Sam: I called in the little crew that we were going to go use to shoot some demo footage with the travel show. They came into my kitchen and we shot a segment with this dish, a salmon dish that my wife had always made up to that point. I sent it out to a couple of local TV stations and tested it with a couple TV-related people outside of San Diego whose names I just sort of cobbled together. Nobody liked it at first.
Everybody had the same conclusion, I was a little odd, but they liked my oddity and they liked the food.
But then a guy from a Fox station at the time, called me up and he said he wanted to speak with me. And I went in and he told me while he was watching it, he was thinking, “I like this guy, he’s kind of awesome. Clearly, he isn’t a chef because he wasn’t using chef terminology and wearing the clothes and acting the part, but I got what he was saying, and I thought he was funny.” So, he had a couple people from the newsroom come in and watch and everybody had the same conclusion, I was a little odd, but they liked my oddity and they liked the food. He asked if I would like to do a cooking segment a couple times a week.
SD Entertainer: I’m sure there were big bucks involved at that point…
Sam: He didn’t offer money and I didn’t ask for money because I knew — I knew I needed them more than they needed me, even though they kicked the cook off the air to put me on the air. For a year I did two 90 second segments twice a week, Mondays and Fridays. They would come to the house, and shoot the segments, and then they would edit them. And at the end of a year, won a couple Emmys. And my response was like, “Huh? You can win Emmys for like 90 seconds of television?” But yes, of course there was a category for it, I found out. Then it became a half hour show that aired on that station and on the county television network that normally would play things like board of supervisor meetings and, stuff like that.
SD Entertainer: That’s where you won a couple more Emmys, right? Then you left that local station, right?
Sam: It aired on both those stations, this half hour show, and that won a couple more Emmys. Then I left the local station, because the general manager was, just a just a piece of shit. Just a horrible human being. By the way, a couple years later when he was fired, you could hear anybody that had ever worked for him let out a giant sigh of relief all over San Diego. He would say one thing to you and then something else behind your back. He promised I eventually would started getting paid for the 90 seconds of TV twice a week and when the half hour show from came on, he told me personally I would get paid every time it aired, whatever it was, a couple hundred bucks, or something. Certainly, nobody was getting rich, but at least I would get paid.
Well, the first paycheck I got once the half hour show started airing, there was no money on it. So, I called accounting at the station and a very lovely woman told me she would need his signature and we’d get it all set up. I called him directly and he told me he never said that. I said, “Like, well I sat right in your office. You went to your flip chart, you wrote the money for the show.” He told me he didn’t know what I was talking about. And I knew I didn’t want to work for a guy like that. But I knew if I told them I was going to quit, he would tell me that was my last day, and not to come back, because that was the kind of guy he was.
And remember, this was, you know, 15 years ago; this is 2003, I guess. Social media was not nearly as popular. And I felt like if I got just pulled off the TV, nobody would know where I was. I needed to handle it on my own terms. I was going to leave the show at the county station because they were doing an amazing job with it. So, one day on the air, just as the segment was ending I said, “Well, I’ve got some news; next week will be my last time here.” And, of course, by the time I went home, I’d gotten an email telling me to not bother ever coming back. But at least I tried to take myself off the air.
SD Entertainer: How long before you ended up on Cox Cable and the network?
Sam: I stayed at the county and we did another couple of years there. Then I went to Cox. In that time, Discovery Health Channel came along, and I had a series on there until Oprah literally bought the network and all the programming on it. She kept most of the programming for just a few months and then started getting rid of it and never picked up my show because I think she or her people felt like my show was just a ‘guys cooking show’, which it clearly isn’t. I’ve always said is, more guys watch my show than generally watch cooking shows, but the predominance of my audience is still female.
SD Entertainer: Then you became an author….