Part 2: Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien discusses his start with 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 flourishing career. Zien also discusses his relationship with Mama’s Kitchen and why giving back is so important to him.
If you have not read Part 1 of our exclusive interview with Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien, you can check it out here.
SD Entertainer: Then you became an author.
Sam: Yeah, I had a year with the show on Discovery Health, and a publisher from New York asked if I be would be interested in writing a cookbook? And I said yes, and I wrote one. And within two months after it came out, they bought the next two.
SD Entertainer: Yeah, I know; my wife and her friend stood in a long line to get a signed copy. Like I said- ‘rock star’…
Sam: Nice! Anyway, I continued with Cox until a couple years ago. Just finished our last season with them last September, I think, and maybe and the last shows we shot finished airing a couple of months ago.
SD Entertainer: You’re also in 25 TV markets, aren’t you? Plus, your YouTube channel is getting hot…
Sam: We’re in 25 markets, yeah. So, now all those shows are available, and they’ve got a storehouse of Sam the Cooking Guy shows to play all the time. And as far as YouTube — We’ve had an online presence for six years now and it’s really starting to catch on. We’ve got 45,000 subscribers, which considering that we had like 18,000 maybe four or five months ago, is kind of amazing…
The only thing I really wanted, was to be happy in my work. That was it. And what you see on TV is exactly who I am.
SD Entertainer: Well, you absolutely seem to love your work now…
Sam: Like I told you earlier, the only thing I really wanted, was to be happy in my work. That was it. And what you see on TV is exactly who I am. There’s only one version of me; if you hung out with me on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon, I’m the same guy you see on TV. If you hate me on TV, you’re probably not going to like me in real life. If you like me on TB, you’re going to like me in real life because I’m no different. The one thing that drives me crazy is when somebody says that I’m trying to be cool or trying to be something I’m not. I’m never trying to be anything except me. And if it works, fabulous. If it doesn’t work, then dude, change the channel quickly.
SD Entertainer: Is the normal internet negativity that goes with celerity a challenge at times?
Sam: In the beginning, honestly, I would sit, and I would write these people back and try and help them understand what I was trying to do. And one day my wife said to me, “Why does it matter what that person thinks? You know what you’re doing. And your goal is to get people to cook. And how often do people come up to you in a store or at Costco, or on the street and say, ‘You know what? I cook because of you.’ [I didn’t think I could cook.] ‘Your style is encouraging, you’re goofy… But I now cook because of you and I have you to thank.'” And I really sat, and I thought about that a little bit and realized she was right. My wife is way brighter than I am.
SD Entertainer: You know, you should marry that girl…
Sam: (Laughing) Yeah, I probably should…
SD Entertainer: Share a favorite story; something that happened on the show over the 15 years that viewers would find interesting.
Sam: Remember, initially, I didn’t cook, really. The only cooking I did, was maybe to grill something because I was a guy and we’re supposed to be able to do that. My skills weren’t very good at the beginning, and clearly over 15 years have gotten a lot better. But in those early days, my kitchen skills were not all that great, and my knife skills were particularly bad, especially if I went a little quick.
Once, I lost the tip of my index finger on my right hand cutting some a piece of fish… I think it was seabass.
So, once, I lost the tip of my index finger on my right hand cutting some a piece of fish… I think it was seabass. It was cut so badly that I had to finish the segment with a giant wad of paper towels in my hand with my hand kind of behind my back because it wouldn’t stop bleeding and I had to finish the segment. So, the funny part was, after any segment would be shot, the cameras would go down, I’d clean up and prep for the next segment. I didn’t have anybody doing it with me. And there were a couple other people there; a camera person and a producer, so when the cameras would go down they would eat the food and then I would clean up.
So, they’re just finishing this very delicious sea bass and one of the crew says, “You know, you can probably take that tip of your finger and have it put back on.” Then I realized I’d never found it and we were never sure if it was part of the cuisine that day.
Is that too gross a story to tell? Suffice it to say, if I had a restaurant, I wouldn’t serve that fish. People would also write in and tell me they were watching and in the middle of cooking, I’d pick up my dog, pet the dog, put the dog down and not wash my hands. I don’t respond to those anymore, but I would write them back in the day and say, “OK, it’s a house. It’s not a restaurant. Anybody that’s associated with the show has dogs, and does the same thing. If I had a restaurant, we wouldn’t have dogs.” I also wear flip flops a lot when I shoot because I like them. I wouldn’t wear those in a restaurant.
SD Entertainer: Speaking of restaurants, let’s talk about your soon-to-be-opening restaurant Not, Not Tacos in the Little Italy Food Hall. Are you on schedule?
Sam: Yeah, we are in construction right now. Looks like it’s on schedule to open, I think the 25th of June. But it depends on some bigger pieces that are, that are attached to the Piazza della Famiglia in general. The Piazza is, of course open, and you can go walk on it now and it’s beautiful. The fountain there is gorgeous.
The last thing San Diego needed was another Mexican taco shop, especially from a Jewish/Canadian like me.
SD Entertainer: It sounds like a very interesting concept.
Sam: Well, the last thing San Diego needed was another Mexican taco shop, especially from a Jewish/Canadian like me. So Not, Not Tacos will serve tacos in the sense that the food will be served in a tortilla, but they’re not Mexican tacos. There won’t be carne asada or carnitas or any of that stuff. There’ll be things like, like a spicy Asian salmon, a meat loaf taco, or pastrami with coleslaw, melted cheese, crispy onions, and an over-easy fried egg on top. Curried egg salad with tomatoes and bacon in it. We’ll do come interesting things that you normally wouldn’t find, that have been amazingly well received in our taste tests. Somebody asked me recently, “Are they tacos or are they not tacos?” And I said, “Well they’re not, not tacos.” It’s a whole conversation.
SD Entertainer: Sam, you’ve also developed a reputation around town of really having a heart for giving back. Share a little bit about your feelings on that.
Sam: My dad and my mom did a lot of that stuff. I’ve always felt it’s important. You know, we’re one world, we all got to get along. Some of us have more than others. Some of us have less, some of us are in situations that are not all that great, some of us have physical needs. There’s diseases which must be beaten. There’s no shortage of organizations that you can attach yourself to. I’ve always felt that if you have a face, well everybody has a face, if you have a well-known face or a recognizable face, the more you should do. I mean, when the public sees people that have a recognizable face supporting good causes, I think it makes them feel like they should do stuff too. All these things matter and apart from helping either sell tickets or being an MC or a culinary host like I will be at the Mama’s Day event, I’m also completely making out because they are a lot of fun, I get to meet great people, eat the food and they’re all great. You know, we’re relatively big city but we’re still a little community and there’s a lot of stuff that be done here. We’re all affected by something at some point in our lives, so get involved early. And feel pretty damn good about yourself…
The point of Mama’s was to get food to people that were fighting these horrible diseases. Thirty years ago, HIV and AIDS we’re decimating the population. And if you had it, what you needed was nourishment to fight it. You needed certain foods in your body to help your body fight. It was never based on money. It was based on whether you could get the food into yourself or not. Three meals a day, seven days a week. I mean, it’s amazing.
SD Entertainer: You’ve worked with a Mama’s Kitchen before, so you’re familiar with the organization and what they do. Share your thoughts on that.
Sam: I’ve worked with a lot of organizations and the people are nice, but the people are Mama’s Kitchen are amazing, and they always have been from the day that I got involved. I don’t know how many years it’s been that I’ve been involved with Mama’s. I’m the culinary host for Mama’s Day but I also do the Pie in the Sky sales for them at Thanksgiving. They’re just the warmest, most wonderful group of people ever.
You know, their whole mission — the entire mission, and I don’t know if everybody knows this, but the point of Mama’s was to get food to people that were fighting these horrible diseases. Thirty years ago, HIV and AIDS we’re decimating the population. And if you had it, what you needed was nourishment to fight it. You needed certain foods in your body to help your body fight. It was never based on money. It was based on whether you could get the food into yourself or not. Three meals a day, seven days a week. I mean, it’s amazing. It’s amazing that as HIV and AIDS has started to diminish a bit that Mama’s didn’t just, you know, go away or slow down on what they were doing. Now they’ve included cancer in the whole mix and it’s the same concept.
One of the things that you need when you’re fighting any kind of disease, your nutritional levels have gotta be up. You need to be strong in your body to fight off these diseases and that’s what Mama’s Kitchen is there for. I’ve been in there doing stuff when the volunteers come in the morning, packing the bags and putting meals together. The drivers are coming in and getting their deliveries and doing their thing and it’s fantastic. I think one of the parts I like about it most, not only are they delivering a meal, but the person that gets the meal also gets that warm touch from somebody coming into their home. You don’t just show up on the doorstep, they knock on the door, they take it in. And a lot of times that little hello, those little things really make a huge difference.
SD Entertainer: Sam, I really appreciate your time. I look forward to seeing you in Friday on May 11th at the Mama’s Day fundraiser.
Sam: Say hello to your wife for me. Tell her I’m thankful that she’s a fan.
SD Entertainer: She’ll be with me Friday night because she wouldn’t let me go without her, so we’ll stop by and say hello.
For more information on Mama’s Day, click here or read SD Entertainer’s Story on Mama’s Day. Plus, don’t miss Part 1 of the exclusive Sam the Cooking Guy Interview here.