By Peter Rowe
Here’s the thing about Sam Zien: He fails.
As business manager for a San Diego biotech firm, he failed to adopt a corporate image: “I was always the guy who wanted to be more funny than serious.”
In the summer of 2001, he quit that job to launch his own TV travel series. Another recipe for failure: “I had neither travel nor TV experience.”
If the show ever had a chance, 9/11 rocked the travel industry. Sam the unemployed guy let his wife support their family of five — thanks, Kelly! — and sat on the couch, watching TV. Then he came up with a new scheme.
Today, the 51-year-old Vancouver, Canada, native is nearing his 10th anniversary as “Sam the Cooking Guy.” His half-hour show has a devoted following. He wins Emmys by the colander and is in demand as a guest cook at charity events.
And as the cameras roll, he fails beautifully.
He’s taping a show in his Carmel Valley, Calif., home. His regular producer, Michelle Mattox, is on maternity leave but has stopped in with her 1-month-old daughter.
Sam, the father of three, cradles little Lola. As the camera moves in for a close-up, Lola spews a stream of white, fermented goop across Sam’s black sweater.
Sam fails. And it’s great TV.
Kelly Zien insists that the camera does not lie.
“He’s exactly the same,” she says of her husband, “on camera and off camera.”
They met in Vancouver when he was 22 and she was 19, each the youngest member of their respective families. They fell for each other quick and hard — the engagement was announced two years after their introduction — but they are not mirror images of each other.
She loves sports. He doesn’t.
She enjoys light, healthy foods. He’s all about comfort dishes.
They moved to Arizona and then to San Diego, where Sam sold real estate in the go-go 1980s.
“I was always good with my mouth,” he said.
But Kelly sensed that his destiny lay somewhere beyond the MLS listings. “I always knew he had the creative talent, that he had to do something in the (entertainment) industry.”
He filmed a sample cooking segment late in 2001 and shopped it around San Diego’s TV stations. The handheld camera jitters, the star scowls, the whole segment is as appetizing as liver and onion ice cream.
But at the local Fox affiliate, news director Alberto Pando saw something he liked. Soon, Sam was filming short segments for Fox.
The show grew and moved. In 2006, “Sam the Cooking Guy” began its run on Channel 4. Cox doesn’t have the reach of Fox, but the show is seen in San Diego, Orange and Imperial counties; Phoenix; Tucson, Ariz.; and Macon, Ga.
“People say, ‘What’s your style of food?’ I say, ‘Easy.'”
Even as a TV rookie, Sam knew what he didn’t want.
His show would be fast — no excruciating 30-second takes of someone stirring batter.
His show would be casual. “Here’s what I’ve learned — you can’t make it simple enough.”
His show would be unscripted and shot in his home. His sons would walk through the kitchen — Zach is now 17, Jordan 19 and Max 22 — and dogs would roam in and out of shots. Sam drops ingredients on the floor and yelps in pain after stuffing his mouth with hot-from-the-oven food.
Why? “The answer is simple — because I do the same thing when I’m totally alone and there are no cameras around. It may not be the brightest move, but it’s what I do.”
That last quote comes from Sam’s third book, “Just Grill This!” (Wiley, $19.95). The first, “Sam the Cooking Guy: Just a Bunch of Recipes,” was published in 2008 after Sam spent 10 days agonizing over the book proposal.
His editor’s response: “Not only do you not know how to write a book proposal, you’re gonna need help writing the book.”
But Sam resisted efforts to saddle him with a ghostwriter. He wanted the book to echo his voice. It may not be the brightest move, but …
But he’s not trying to create high art on the page or in the kitchen. He’s a cooking guy, not a four-star chef, someone who makes blue cheese-stuffed sliders and Cap’n Crunch-crusted ahi tuna, someone who spills mustard-and-lemon-peppered lamb chops on his kitchen floor before his TV audience.
“Why?” he moans. “Why must it be like this? Why do I have to be that person?”
Why must he be that person who fails on camera? Why not? Works pretty well for Sam the Cooking Guy.
CHINESE GRILLED SHRIMP
10 wooden skewers
1 cup Asian salad dressing — one with sesame and ginger would be ideal
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound large shrimp, shell on and deveined (see note)
Put the skewers in a casserole dish and cover with water; let soak for about 30 minutes. Put the dressing and pepper flakes in a bowl, and mix well. Add the shrimp, stir to coat well, and let sit for about 20 minutes. Preheat the grill. Skewer the shrimp up through the tails so they stay straight. Grill for 2 to 3 minutes per side, until done. Serve with shrimp still on the skewers.
Makes 10 skewers
Note: To devein shrimp with shell still on, you will need a shrimp de-veiner, a knifelike tool that can be purchased at a kitchen supply store.
Peter Rowe writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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