Sam the Cooking Guy gets creative with tuna

What do you get when you put Carmel Valley’s Sam the Cooking Guy together with San Diego-based Bumble Bee Seafoods? How about such tasty snacks as jalapeño tuna brown rice bites and ginger soy tuna lettuce wraps?

The idea behind this new collaboration is to show that tuna can be used as an ingredient for much more interesting and even cool dishes than tuna noodle casserole or a tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread.

That’s why the locally-based seafood company decided to jazz things up by bringing on celebrity cook Sam Zien as a sort of culinary ambassador for the flaky white fish that comes in a can. Bumble Bee wants millenials to see tuna as a hip, healthy alternative to higher fat and higher calorie foods.

“We want to communicate our message of health and wellness to a younger audience,” said Chris Hartig, Bumble Bee’s senior digital marketing manager, who is working on the collaboration with Zien, known from TV and online shows as Sam the Cooking Guy. “We’re working hard to reach that younger audience through digital means and Sam’s going to be a big part of that (now and) in 2018.”

Zien, who insists he’s a cook, not a chef, concedes that some people don’t think tuna is cool. “But it’s frickin’ delicious,” he said. “It’s just good when you do the right things with it.”

The joint marketing effort between Zien and Bumble Bee was launched in August, after being planned since late 2016, said Hartig. So far, Bumble Bee has set up a web page featuring Zien and his recipes, as well as a series of videos featuring the TV cook touting Bumble Bee’s tuna. In mid-September, Zien went on Facebook Live to demonstrate how to make his tuna recipes and take questions from viewers. The full video of the live event can also be found on the website

Zien built a following by cooking simple meals that can be prepared quickly and efficiently, even by those who don’t have a lot of experience in the kitchen. His TV show airs on Channel 4 in San Diego, and on about 25 stations across the country. He also produces a shorter online show, that can be found on his website

“I’m about encouraging people to get in the kitchen and cook,” said Zien, 58, a long-time Carmel Valley resident who tapes his cooking shows in his own home kitchen. He and his wife, Kelly, have three grown sons, all of whom attended Torrey Pines High School.

Zien’s motto, “food that’s big in taste and small in effort,” translates into relatively simple concoctions that people can enjoy making themselves.

He has created several dozen recipes that include tuna for the Bumblebee marketing effort, which are showcased on the seafood company’s website.

His twist on the familiar tuna melt sandwich is a grilled cheese with tuna, using garlic butter to grill the bread. Then he finishes the sandwich by stuffing potato chips in the middle, providing a healthy crunch.

The recipe categories include simple and healthy – think albacore tuna frittata and tuna pesto avocado toast – and quick meals, which include tuna and dill Greek pita pockets, cheesy tuna fish cakes and Spanish tuna and asparagus salad.

The collaboration began when Zien met the company’s president, Chris Lischewski, at an event, Zien said. The two chatted and Bumble Bee turned to Zien when it was looking for ways to appeal to a younger demographic through digital media.

“Having a cool ambassador like Sam really helps us get out message out,” said Hartig. Other elements of Bumble Bee’s digital media strategy include social media blogs by high-profile millenials, sometimes called “influencers,” who also demonstrate recipes using tuna.

“There’s so much that can be done with our solid white albacore products, (the recipes) are not very complicated at all. It’s an ideal food,” because it offers 25 percent of the daily recommended protein total for adults, at only 60 calories per serving, Hartig said.

So far, Bumble Bee officials said, the marketing campaign with Zien has been a big hit.

“We are proud to be working with him in our home town,” said Dave Melbourne, Bumble Bee’s senior vice president for consumer marketing and corporate social responsibility.