Sam Zien is just a regular cooking guy
By Tim Parks
Viewers of “Sam The Cooking Guy” are well-versed in his everyman approach to all things culinary, with nary an air of pretension in his presentation, or a need to send his audience off on a wild scavenger hunt when it comes to items he uses in his recipes.
But, Zien didn’t intend to become “The Cooking Guy.” In fact, he was subscribed to keep working his job at a drug development company and firing up his grill for the occasional family BBQ.
However, he did end up quitting his job after a trip to Tokyo saw him return with an idea for television, as he explained to me.
“It wasn’t supposed to be a cooking show in the beginning,” he said. “It was supposed to be a travel show; it was sadly derailed by the events of 9/11. I had a crew lined up and we were going to shoot some demo kind of stuff and come back and try to turn it into something. Then 9/11 happened and it changed a lot of things for a lot of people.
“For me, it just changed the fact that there was a very good chance that no one was going to buy a travel show September 12th on of that year; especially from somebody that had very little travel experience, and absolutely no TV experience,” Zien recanted. “The concept for the travel show was regular guy shows you how to go someplace that you normally wouldn’t think you could go.”
Then Zien posed a question to himself of “What if it wasn’t travel, but something else I could be encouraging with?” And, out of that internal query came the answer.
“Cooking came out of it, not because I was a chef or a cook; I wasn’t,” he said. “I did very little cooking around the house, my wife really did most of it. I did the grilling because I felt like that was my responsibility. I know I fucked up more food on the grill than I actually turned out right.”
Undeterred by his relative inexperience and armed with an attitude of “If I can make it with my limited skills, anybody could make it,” Zien made a demo tape, which he admits was “pretty bad,” and sent it out without having any showbiz connections.
“It was me doing it by myself; pushing to have someone get a sense of what my stuff was and what it could be,” he said. “And that’s where it’s got to come from; it’s got to come from you.”
Unfortunately, some industry experts who received his demo weren’t getting the sense of what he was trying to accomplish, and he was told he “didn’t stand a fucking chance” from one.
Now armed with 12 Emmys under his belt, Zien does have something to say to his early detractors.
“I just say what makes them think that they know every thing? I don’t know everything, they can’t know everything – Oprah’s the closest we’ve got to someone knowing everything.”
As for the aforementioned statuettes, he said that being the recipient of one shy of a baker’s dozen is “pretty cool.”
“Of course you want love and acceptance from your peers, which is a nice thing,” Zien said. “But really what you want is people coming up to you on the street saying, ‘Hey, we made that buffalo chicken pizza the other night, we loved it, and you know what? We don’t cook, and now we feel that we can cook.’ That’s what I like.”
It’s that humble approach, along with his “big in taste and small in effort” approach to teaching TV viewers how to streamline the cooking process, which led to him being featured on a local morning news show twice a week, prior to his current gig.
Also, having a sense of humor intact is another way to set himself apart from other TV chefs.
“Absolutely, and I think it’s a couple of things,” Zien professed. “I’m not trying to be funny; I’m just being me. I think that’s really the key for anything you do. I made a joke once that I’m not very bright, so me having to remember what my TV persona is and when to use it, and what my social persona is and when to use it; I don’t have to keep those two things separate anymore.
“In the beginning, I think I was trying to be what my vision of what a cooking person on TV was. It took about six months, but I eventually found my voice and now I can’t shut myself up.”
Speaking of shutting up, or rather a “please, can I talk,” Zien made somewhat of a stir (yes, that pun was intended) when he objected to Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb talking over him when he went on “The Today Show” for a cooking segment, and was then brought back on a few weeks later with the show’s etiquette expert to hash out the on-air squabble.
“Here’s the thing that I feel about Kathie Lee Gifford,” he explained. “I don’t think she was trying to be anything; that’s just who she is. And, whether you like it or not, I think you kind of have to appreciate somebody who is themselves.
“It was more awkward the second time than it was the first time,” Zien said. “The second time, if you notice she puts her fingers underneath my armpits and said, ‘Are you sweating? Are we making you nervous?’ Holy crap! Was she kidding with that?! Well, look at what they do, they have different names for their days – Wednesday is ‘Winesday.’ But it is what it is, and when I go back now, I don’t go back to Kathie Lee and Hoda, I go back to Al Roker and the others.”
Or, Zien can literally just stay home in San Diego and film another episode of his show, and he gave us his recipe for the show’s success.
“I think I have the ability to put things into plain, simple English,” he remarked. “And in this case, it happens to be cooking. I like to look at something and say, ‘What’s the easiest way that I can do this?’”
Zien will be showing people the easy way around the kitchen with his appearance at the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival, which is happening from November 17-21st, and he shared his favorite aspect of the event.
“I love the fact of being able to walk around and try a whole bunch of different things all in one spot,” he replied. “My favorite way to eat when I go to a restaurant; I would rather have three appetizers than a giant pork chop and a bucket of mashed potatoes, but the point is you can get little bites from a whole lot of places. Plus, there’s all kinds of great wines to try.”
Another off-shoot of his TV show is Zien taking pen to paper, and fingers to keyboard, on a series of cookbooks, with his third, Just Grill This, due out next year. He let us in on how he researches the “unconventional ideas” that become recipes for both his books and his show.
“I think my brain just works unconventionally at times,” he admitted. “It’s not like I’m researching unconventional stuff; it’s just kind of the way that things go into my head. It’s not relegated to the kitchen; I like to take cauliflower, the whole head of it cut thick in slices, and put that whole thing right on the grill.”
While Zien has found his own way as a TV chef, he did admit that “plenty of chefs could kick my ass all over a kitchen,” and cited two that have informed his own television persona.
“I credit Graham Kerr and Julia Child for some subliminal influencing of my life, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.” he stated. “If you go back to the early days of Graham Kerr, he was completely him and not trying to be anybody else. Julia Child, if she made a mistake, she talked about the mistake; if something fell apart in the show, she fixed it and would continue to go on.
“Now skip to ‘Sam The Cooking Guy;’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cut myself on the show and left it in,” he said. “I finished a show one day, and this will probably lose me viewers, with a bunch of wadded up paper towels in my left hand, because I had cut myself so badly. It wasn’t the prettiest television, but hey, it was me.”
For more information about Sam The Cooking Guy, log onto thecookingguy.com. And to purchase tickets for The San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival, type worldofwineevents.com into your favorite search engine.
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