Carmel Valley resident ‘Sam the Cooking Guy’ hosts safari group in South Africa

By Kristina Houck

Carmel Valley’s Sam Zien regularly shows locals how to cook simple recipes, but now several South African students know how to make his American sliders. A visit to a cooking school was one of Zien’s stops on a 10-day excursion through South Africa with his wife and a small group of fans.

“When I say that my heart is still warm from that day, I truly mean it,” said Zien, also known as “Sam the Cooking Guy.”

Zien taught students how to make mini burgers with a fried egg, bacon, crumbled blue cheese and grilled onions. Then he and his fellow group members prepped food and helped the 18- and 19 year-old students make a variety of local dishes, including chakhchoukha, a lamb stew.

In addition to preparing the “hearty” food, Zien spent time talking with the students and answering their questions.

Eziko Cooking School is dedicated to teaching underprivileged youth how to prepare for a career in food. To help raise money to support their tuition, the students created a restaurant out of shipping containers where they serve traditional African cuisine to the local community and to visitors.

They asked Zien many questions, including how to stay motivated to follow their dreams — a question he found “fascinating.”

Zien used to work in the biotech industry before leaving his job to pursue television. His cooking segments on San Diego TV became an Emmy Award-winning half-hour show. He’s since launched another series on Discovery’s Health channel and written three cookbooks.

“I changed what I did,” Zien said. “I reversed my position in the ocean, turned my boat around and went another way. I could see it in their eyes — they wanted that.”

The visit to the school in the Langa Township was just one of many stops on the trip, which was organized by Aardvark, a Solana Beach-based company that offers customized itineraries to 15 African countries.

The idea for the trip came after the Ziens met the owner of Aardvark at the San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival last year. Zien has hosted three cooking-themed programs on cruises to Mexico and Alaska, but said he was ready for a new adventure and his wife, Kelly, had always wanted to visit Africa.

“Aardvark turned out to be absolutely amazing,” Zien said. “They put together just this incredible trip.

“I wasn’t expecting what I found there.”

After the itinerary was finalized and five others registered for the “Savory South Africa: Food, Wine and Wildlife,” the couple visited family in London for three days before flying with the rest of the group members on Oct. 11 to Cape Town in South Africa.

The trip began in Cape Town where the group toured the area, from the penguins at Boulder’s Bay to the top of Table Mountain. Because the trip focused on the country’s food and wine, the group also enjoyed wine tastings at famed estates in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, visits to chocolatiers and cheese makers, and a meal at the Tasting Room.

The group’s final stop was the Tanda Tula Safari Camp in the private Timbavati Reserve on the edge of Kruger National Park. During the four-day safari, the group spotted elephants, giraffes, lions, leopards, hyenas, zebras, warthogs and other wild animals.

“It’s everything in the “Lion King” that’s the “Circle of Life” — right there in front of your eyes, not on a screen,” Zien said.

From the cuisine to the wildlife, Zien said he enjoyed the entire experience, especially getting to know the people of South Africa as well as his fellow travelers.

“The spirit of the South African people is just wonderful,” Zien said. “And it was cool to see other people enjoying stuff and to hear their viewpoints. It heightens your own excitement.

“It was really special, really special. I’d do another hosted trip in a heartbeat.”

For more information about Sam the Cooking Guy, visit

For more information about Aardvark Safaris, visit