Sam the Cooking Guy Lets Loose
San Diego’s celebrity cook talks horror stories, Today show etiquette, and his weird taco joint
Sam Zien was the worst cook on TV. That was the whole idea of his show, which became a hit in San Diego. What would happen if a tech sector burnout who couldn’t cook worth a damn learned his way around the kitchen while you watched? The idea paid off. His show won a bazillion local Emmys, landed him guest spots cooking on the Today show, and a few weeks ago he opened his own restaurant in Little Italy.
Of course, Sam was very different from other horrible cooks. He is one of the funniest people in every room. And he’s not shy. On his first Today show appearance, he told hosts Kathie Lee and Hoda to pipe down. “Please! Can I talk?” he said, shaking his hands near his head like a frustrated old man yelling at traffic. The clip went viral.
It’s been 17 years since the first episode of Sam the Cooking Guy. Sam is now a very good cook and a cookbook author many times over. As he explains it, the menu at his restaurant, Not Not Tacos, is basically what a white, Jewish, Canadian man would put into tacos. Pastrami. Mac ’n’ cheese. Mashed potatoes. Curried egg salad.
I’ve known Sam for years. We both started in TV at the same San Diego studio. We once did a gig together in Dallas and our plane got a bomb threat midflight (you can read about that ordeal here). This week we caught up. He told me his TV audition horror story (bright orange shirts still send his wife into PTSD), how he became a YouTube star, and what it’s like cooking on the Today show set, among many, many other things.
This interview contains strong language.
Troy Johnson: What happened to the TV show? Why aren’t you on TV?
Sam Zien: Here’s the thing. I am on TV. All the time. I say, if you like me, great, because I’m on TV a lot. If you hate my fucking guts, great, because I’m on TV a lot. I come across myself on Time-Warner or Spectrum more often than I need to. I never watch; I lived there. They decided to stop the show, then I went away didn’t shoot anything for a year. Then they called and did one more season. It’s been two years since. Now I mostly focus on doing events for brands like Chosen Foods, Bumblebee Tuna, and Bed Bath & Beyond.
TJ: Is YouTube your new TV gig?
SZ: YouTube is where the emphasis is now. It’s given me so much more exposure. It all started because my son Max said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting? You always like radio and talking. What if we did a hybrid cooking show with you sitting at your desk?” So we set up a desk at the table we have in the kitchen. We put mics on it, called it The Sam Live Cast because it was streamed live. People could respond through social and ask questions. We’d be talking about Chinese New Year and being a Jewish kid and things I’d like to eat, and then cook something. Then I’m making beef chow fun and people can ask, “Was that black vinegar? What if I don’t have that?” So, we really liked that. We did about 20 to 30 minutes and then it just grew; it went to as long as an hour or an hour 15.
TJ: And then?
SZ: Then we realized people weren’t watching live. That’s the whole beauty of the internet. You get video on your own terms and your own time. So why are we going through this extra effort and work and fucking with our own schedules? Yes, there were a handful of die-hard loyals, but a few hundred people watching live doesn’t make a dent. Thousands of people would watch it after the fact. So we said “Fuck it, let’s not live stream it anymore.”
TJ: And your videos got shorter and shorter?
SZ: About a year ago Max said, “We have to make a change; it’s too long. They’re just too damn long. An hour isn’t great entertainment.” Some people would watch the whole thing, but they might be 90 minutes. Who’s sitting in front of their computer for that long?” So I told Max, “Dammit, boy, you make an excellent point. Shorten it. How long?” He said, “Maybe five minutes.” I might’ve shit myself a little when he said that. My heart palpitated, my eyes got a little watery. But I said, “Okay, let’s test it.”
TJ: It worked?
SZ: Dammit if the views didn’t start to go up. And up, and up and up. Whatever we posted yesterday already has about 20,000 views. How do you not like that? He sent me a statistic that said in the last 28 days there’ve been almost a million and a half views. And 23,000 new subscribers in the last month. We’re now pushing 125,000 subscribers. Six months ago we probably had 20 to 30 subscribers. Of course I remind him it was my idea. I’m a father and I’m supposed to do that shit.
TJ: So it’s as good or better career-wise than local TV?
SZ: Now we’re making more money than we did with local TV. It’s not tons of money, but it’s a nice side benefit. I can say what I want, do what I want, don’t have someone in management saying, “You can’t say ‘crap’ on TV.” I had a TV exec tell me that. “You said, ‘Holy crap that’s great’ on an episode. You can say it, but we’re going to bleep it.” I told him that’s an awful idea. You know when I say “Holy bleep” the viewers aren’t filling in the blank word with “crap.” They’re going to fill it with “shit” or “fuck.” So I guess he was making my stuff better.
TJ: What’s next on YouTube?
SZ: We’re reaching so many more people all over the world. Now Max is saying, “Look, we know how popular travel is on YouTube. You love Asia. Let’s go shoot. I love the idea of you being in the middle of a busy street cooking with people all over the place. I also like the idea of searching out a dish and teaching people about it. Eating something cool and then showing my take on it.
TJ: Why haven’t you gotten a national TV show yet?
SZ: I don’t know. My agent called me once and said, “Good news is a major TV network is looking for a host. Bad news is the audition is tomorrow in New York.” So I hopped on a plane that day. On my way to the audition, I see a shirt I like in a store window. It’s bright orange. So I buy it. I’m thinking, “I’m looking good for this; I’m gonna stand out.” Another guy is in there not wearing an orange shirt. In my head, I’m already writing him off. Go home, loser. I got this one. As I’m walking down the hall to the audition room, my fucking heart starts beating like a sonofabitch. I’ve never auditioned for a thing in my life. The door slams shut and it’s just me under a spotlight in front of the production crew. I have the worst case of dry mouth I’ve ever had. Like, my tongue doesn’t work. The production assistant looks at me and says, “Would you like a glass of water?” I didn’t have to ask. I’m convinced they can see my heart beating in my stupid fucking orange shirt. I down the water so quickly, she says, slowly, “Do you need more?” There’s legitimate concern in her face. I walk out of the audition. I’ve booked a hotel because I didn’t know if they’d name me the host and maybe need me the next day. The hotel is a 20-minute drive, and I walk the entire way in the pouring rain to punish myself. It was the saddest thing. When I get back to San Diego, I open my bag and my wife points at the orange shirt and goes, “What’s that?” I tell her. She says, “Um, think that might’ve had something to do with it?” Now every time I see an orange piece of clothing, Kelly says, “Don’t.”
TJ: That’s happened to me. Brutal. And you’d already done plenty of national TV. You never know when you’re going to freak out.
SZ: Honestly. So uncomfortable. I’ve been on the Today show a thousand times. I’ve been in front of 1,500 people. Nothing scares me. But the second that door shut, I almost shit myself. I’m sure a little pee came out.
TJ: You’ve cooked on the Today show a bunch. What’s that like?
SZ: It’s an amazing experience. They take really good care of you. It’s not like going on local TV, where you’re schlepping everything. They plan it all out way in advance. They get your recipes and discuss them with their culinary people. If you’re going on a Monday, you have a meeting on set Sunday at 3 p.m. The producer says, “Okay, you’re going to make enchiladas. What’s the first thing you’re going to do?” They put a Post-it note on the counter that reads, “Place bowl here.” They say, “Okay, you’re going to be with Al Roker; let’s give him a job.” You do, and they make more Post-it notes for Al. You go through all the steps, like, “So you’re going to open the oven, we’ll take the finished enchiladas and you’ll have your finishing conversation. Let’s go choose your plates.” …Now, this is something.
TJ: Plates are something?
SZ: Yeah. You go downstairs to the main floor, where they basically have a Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and Macy’s Home Store of anything you could ever possibly want to serve your food on. You could say, “I’m thinking a 16th-century Chinese plate with little yellow dots.” They’d say, “Yep, we got them right here.” When you see what you want, you just point at it. You’re not allowed to touch it. New York is all union, and the union guy’s gotta take it off the shelf. If you try to reach for it, they say, “Whoa whoa whoa… what’re you doing?” I’m there one day, and there are some guys unpacking Martha Stewart’s shit for the next day. They’re union. One of ’em says, “Yo, if you bust one of those plates you’re gonna get fuckin’ killed.”
TJ: Why’d you open a restaurant?
SZ: Because I found people who could do it with me. Honestly, I couldn’t pull it off myself. I’d looked at properties with one of the guys from Grain & Grit over the past few years. There was something wrong every time. It was the classic Goldilocks. This space is too big. This space is too much money. Don’t like the view. But it wasn’t the spaces, it was me. I couldn’t make myself comfortable running a restaurant. It wasn’t until I was sitting with these guys about being the PR face of Little Italy Food Hall, doing the marketing and radio interviews, and I suggested the idea of Not Not Tacos. They said, “Hey, wait a minute, that might work. We have a group who can handle the parts you can’t.” So I can almost have my cake and eat it, too.
TJ: So it’s a partnership.
SZ: In the end, I brought my side of things. The food, the branding, the personality, the nonsense. They brought the experience of how to build it, set up, staff, do the HR. I’m not good at that stuff. I’m not allowed to pay bills in my house anymore. Kelly had to take that job 15 or 20 years ago. We almost got sent to prison because there’d be a stack under the bed. Finally she said, “Maybe that’s not your forte.”
TJ: The recipes are all yours, though?
SZ: C’mon. That stupid shit? Definitely. A food blogger referred to it as a “gimmicky menu.” I said, “Look, I didn’t throw stuff together to be ridiculous or get attention. If I wanted to do that I can just go run around naked, which nobody really wants to see. These are things I make all the time.” Pastrami in a taco is a version of one I’ve been cooking for a long time. Mashed potato tacos I do at almost every event. Same with the Asian salmon. The shrimp taco has been my wife’s favorite for years. These are real things I like to eat. Call it gimmick, but we don’t need more Mexican tacos in San Diego, especially from this Jewish Canadian boy. My strengths happen to be foolish food that people like.
TJ: A couple months before opening your restaurant, your leg exploded. What happened?
SZ: I was fucking around on the beach and went to run after my kids. I took two steps and it was like the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. I went down like a sniper shot me. Just went splat. The pain was awful. I didn’t realize what I’d done for four days because I kept walking around on it. It was the size of an elephant and colors I hadn’t seen on human skin before. So I go to the doctor and find out I tore my Achilles. He told me that when this happens to football players, it’s a 90 percent chance they never play again. I had surgery. Still got a little bit of a limp, and I will for at least six months.
TJ: What scares you about a restaurant?
SZ: Kelly’s fear was, “Are you going to be okay with other people cooking your food? You’re not okay with the way people eat your food. You make something and you want it eaten now.” That’s what scares me. What if they don’t eat it right away? Then I’ll probably get sad. You gotta eat it right away. The cheese is hot and melty and not coagulated. I walked by the other day and a woman is eating the Smokey Pork + Mac taco and… she’s eating it with a fork. So I stop and I say, “What the hell are you doing?” Here’s the thing. Any food person will tell you this. Unless you take a bite of the entire thing, you’re not getting the benefit of what those different layers do, the way the mac is a bit spicy, but when eaten with the pulled pork and onions and sour cream, it’s balanced. You should try things the way they were designed. If not, you may as well stay home. You’re going to a restaurant because you like what they’re doing. Take a bite of the taco. So I asked the woman if I could have her fork and I threw it away.
You can try Sam’s weird tacos at Not Not Tacos, Little Italy Food Hall, 550 West Date Street, notnottacos.com. Listen to his interview on our podcast, Happy Half Hour, and check out his YouTube act here.