Carmel Valley’s ‘Sam the Cooking Guy’ continues to sizzle with new book ‘Just Grill This!’
By Karen Billing
Sam Zien, better known as “Sam the Cooking Guy,” likes to say that cooking is a lot like riding a bike.
“The more you do it, the better you get,” said Zien. “I fully believe that. People always think that they can’t cook, but it’s just that they don’t cook.”
With his third book, “Just Grill This!”, Zien encourages people to conquer the sometimes-intimidating skill of grilling. With his trademark tasty simplicity, the book offers up more than 120 recipes, going far beyond just burgers and dogs—grilled baguette French toast anyone?
Zien has lived in his Carmel Valley home for 16 years and it serves as the set for his TV show that airs on Fit TV. Two episodes per month are shot in his kitchen, which underwent a renovation two years ago to include a spacious teak wood countertop, colorful tiled backsplashes and every shiny, dream kitchen appliance you could think of.
Zien became “Sam the Cooking Guy” in 2002. His previous gig was completely unrelated to cooking or TV at all — he worked as director of operations in a biotech company. He left the job to pursue television, originally planning to do a travel show.
“I liked the idea of a regular-sort-of-guy showing you how to do something you didn’t know how to do,” Zien said.
His travel show plans were derailed by 9/11 and he was in search of something else a regular-sort-of-guy could show people how to do. A self-proclaimed “student of TV,” he happened upon a cooking segment on a local news show that he thought was pretty boring.
“That needs to be better,” Zien thought, and in a flash decided a cooking show was the direction he’d head, even though up until then his wife Kelly had done all the cooking — he had been in charge of the grilling, which he said was mostly “the burning.”
To avoid being boring on TV, Zien kept his delivery natural, honest and “100 percent me.”
“I was not very good in my early TV appearances compared to now. It took me awhile to find my voice and comfort zone,” Zien said.
Zien began appearing in regular TV cooking spots on San Diego television and then his new career took off from there. Zien is an 11-time Emmy Award winner and the host of “Sam the Cooking Guy,” which is broadcast on Cox Channel 4 in San Diego and appears in syndication nationwide. His latest show, “Just Cook This with Sam the Cooking Guy,” premiered on the Discovery Health Channel in September 2007 and now airs on Fit TV.
He went on to appear on “The Today Show,” saying the word ‘frickin’ as he prepared enchiladas with Natalie Morales. Morales would tell him it was the first time the word had been used on “The Today Show” and yet he booked his second appearance a half an hour later.
Next month, Zien will appear on “The Today Show” for the 10th time.
In Sam’s kitchen, he always keeps it simple—his motto being “small in effort, big in taste.”
“I stay away from fois gras,” he said. “That’s why God invented restaurants.”
Ingredients are few and the recipes are uncomplicated and presented with Zien’s humor.
Sometimes the most basic things he’s done were the most popular, like a show he did on how to hard boil an egg.
These days, when Zien is grilling, he’s no longer burning. The book is filled with recipes for grilled sandwiches, vegetables, beef, seafood, desserts, hot dogs, burgers, rubs and sauces, as well as tips and tricks of the trade.
His number one tip? Bring the heat.
“I don’t think people cook with nearly enough heat,” Zien said. “You need a lot of heat and I think people are scared to use it. “
With the right amount of heat, Zien can cook a steak perfectly with five minutes on one side, four on the other.
To name just a few of the mouth-watering recipes featured in his new book, there’s sesame grilled meatballs, grilled romaine salad, steak and mashed potato quesadillas, bacon wrapped hot dogs, blue cheese stuffed sliders, Mexican chicken on a Mexican beer can, and cedar planked salmon.
Zien doesn’t forget about dessert either—the book also includes mango dessert tacos and G.B.F. (grilled bananas foster).
His new book, “Just Grill This!”, also uses the same funny, conversational style that Zien uses on TV—he wrote every word of the book so it reads as though he’s talking to you.
On the recipe for a grilled catfish sandwich, Zien writes: “it’s like a bit of the South right where you are. Unless you’re already there, then it’s like…oh never mind.”
Along with photos of the food in the book, there’s plenty of shots of Zien’s family in the kitchen with him, the dogs too, a nod to the importance of the father of three’s family in his life.
Kelly doesn’t cook anymore. Zien does it all, including keeping his 16-year-old son well fed. Zien said the Torrey Pines High lacrosse player eats “40 times a day” and he enjoys preparing every bite he eats.
Zien said he believes in families and couples, especially, cooking together.
“When I autograph a book to a couple I always write, ‘Cook Together-always,’” Zien writes in the book. “I think being together in a kitchen, the fun, the hassle, the casualness of the whole thing, whatever it is, is good for two people. I mean, doing things together is obviously good, but the kitchen often becomes one person’s domain and that just shouldn’t be.”
Zien said he has no plans yet for book number four, but he is starting on another venture, a new TV show on PBS called “The Great American Chefs Tour.” Zien will serve as host, going around the country to spotlight standout chefs in different cities. The chefs will prepare a signature dish in front of a live audience as Zien does his best Ryan Seacrest, only slightly edgier.
The first taping was done on April 7 at San Diego’s House of Blues, featuring Chef Matt Gordon of Urban Solace, Chef Isabel Cruz of Isabel’s Cantina, Chef Anthony Sinsay of Harney Sushi, and Chef William Gustwiller of Eclipse Chocolat.
Although “Sam the Cooking Guy” has taken him to New Zealand, Fiji, Hong Kong and Vancouver, with the new show, Zien will finally get a taste of the travel show he always wanted.
“I’m a lucky kid,” he said.
The book is available through all booksellers. To learn more, visit thecookingguy.com.
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