Saturday, March 8, 2008 | Before he started his television show, Sam Zien said he didn’t have much of a clue how to cook.
The Carmel Valley resident said what he did know was that the cooking spots shown on local television channels were stuffy, over-produced and boring. He decided to mix up the cooking show concept and invited a film crew into his own kitchen, where, he said, he started his cooking career from scratch.
Zien throws out all the condescending stuff, trading it for self-effacing humor and simple food that just about anyone could make. He focuses on recipes you won’t normally see in cooking shows: everything from scallops to potato chip sandwiches. In real life, Zien is just as excitable as he is on-screen. He waves his hands animatedly, punctuates his answers with funny anecdotes and, unlike his television persona, mixes a liberal dose of expletives into his banter.
The result: “Sam the Cooking Guy,” which airs on 4SD and other channels around the country, and a forthcoming cookbook, titled “Just a Bunch of Recipes.”
We sat down and talked to Zien about the worst food he’s ever cooked, bizarre ingredient successes and why he’ll never eat grilled duck gizzards again.
How many bad mistakes do you edit out of your show?
I make a lot of mistakes, but we almost never edit them out.
There was one interesting mistake. We did a tuna show, we did a thing in Mexico, 45 minutes south of here where they farm the big blue fin tuna that they ship to Japan.
I thought it would be good to show people how to sear a piece of tuna, because some people really f— it up. They don’t have enough heat, the tuna’s too cold, they cook it too long, so I thought I’d just show people how to sear a piece of tuna with nothing on it. I made a nice little rectangular block and seared each side of the tuna and, less than a minute later, I was done.
Then I wanted to show how to do it with a coating of some kind. So the coating I came up with was Cap’n Crunch — crunched up Cap’n Crunch, crunched up really fine on the tuna. Then I made a mayonnaise-mustard little chili sauce dip and it was really good. It sounds bizarre, but the sweetness of the Cap’n really worked with the tangy mayo with the mustard in it.
It was perfect the first time I made it, the night before, just perfect. Then I made it on the show and I didn’t crush up the Cap’n Crunch enough. I cooked it and when I went to cut into it, it just fell apart. It didn’t cut very nicely.
It killed me that I’d done that. It felt like I had done a disservice by not doing it the right way. So, we left that mistake in, then we sort of backed the whole thing up, to the point where I was putting it in the Cap’n again, and I said “You have to make sure that you crush up the Cap’n enough, because I’ve heard that if you don’t crush it enough, it won’t cut properly when you cook it.”
So we leave the mistakes in, because the mistakes are the things that make me human and the mistakes are the things that make people come up to me and say “You know what, I can do your stuff — you’re just like us.”
Don’t you also sometimes run mistakes in the credits of your show?
At the end of the day, it’s still a cooking show, so you have to have the right amount of steps, the right amount of instruction, to teach somebody how to do something.
If there’s a few good f-ups along the way, if you can fit them in, that’s fine. If they don’t fit in, you can roll them in the credits.
Have you ever tried any bizarre combinations of ingredients that worked out fantastically and shocked you?
The tuna, Cap’n Crunch, mayonnaise, mustard and chili sauce — that surprised me, in a good way. I came up with the sauce first, and I knew I wanted the dip to be this little mayo-mustardy dip. I knew it was going to be sort of tangy and tart, and I knew that, because of that, I’d need something to counteract that. So I chose Cap’n Crunch.
What about combinations that really didn’t work?
Well, I really like jarred black bean sauce. So I tried a black bean pizza — complete f—— disaster. The other thing I made, that I did on the show, was I did a pizza show and I did three or four pizzas. The last one, I had an idea about the night before, so I said to the camera “We’re going to try this, because I think it will work.”
I like a fried egg — it’s a fancy chef thing to take like a quail’s egg and fry it and serve it on a scallop or something. Well, I like a lot of Asian stuff. My boys and I like just a bowl of steamed rice with a fried egg on top. It’s really good with Japanese mayo, it’s killer.
So I had an idea about a pizza with fried eggs on top with runny yolk. You take the pizza out of the oven, you cut the yolk, it runs all over. It would be great.
So I cracked the eggs on the pizza and I stuck it in the oven and it came out like rubber. At the very end, I ended up taking the last few bites just flinging it into the sink because it was horrifying.
I did a viewer recipe show. People always send in stuff, and if I do a viewer recipe on the show, I always say it’s a viewer recipe. I say “We’re going to learn something today.” The point is, you have to try recipes before you test them out on company.
So I’ll have three recipes and I’ll do them all for the first time, I have not tried them. Well, none of them really worked very well. They sucked really bad! But, at the least, it was great entertainment. I knew one of two things would happen: The recipes would be great — great show. Or the recipes would be bad — potentially better show.
Invent a recipe now that you’ve never made before. You have to cook entrees for two people and you have $10 to spend on ingredients.
Jeez. You’re making me reach way back, into the back part of my mind. What the hell has been kicking around back there?
I’m a big scallop fan, so I’ll start with scallops. I’ll do the big ones. If you buy them frozen, probably a big bag of like 30 of them is going to be 10 bucks, but I’m not going to use 30 of them, I’m going to make four scallops for each of us.
I’m going to season them, well, defrosting them first. I’m going to serve them with some bacon. That’s one of my favorite things, I really like bacon. So I’m going to dice up some bacon small and get it kind of crispy. Then I want something a little bit sweet in this too. Bacon’s going to be the savory part, but let’s try and get all the senses here.
So, what would be sweet that would go nice with this? Something I might drizzle over the top? Not balsamic — won’t be sweet, um … cream.
OK, what we’ll do is we’ll take some cream, heavy cream, and simmer it in a little pan, with a little bit of onion, cut up in the pan.
I’m going to have to make this now, to see if it going to work out.
So, a little bit of cream, onion in a pan. I think I need about a third of a cup of cream, and get it so that it starts to bubble and thicken.
I’m going to take a can of Niblets corn. I’m going to drain it really well and I’m going to heat up a wok. Then I’m going to drain it and start to sauté it, until it starts to get a tiny bit brown around the edges, then I’m going to throw the bacon in with that.
So now I’ve got corn and bacon, and maybe a tiny bit of diced red pepper in that too, to make it look pretty. I want to add one more thing. I want to put the sauce on the plate, then the scallop, then this little confetti mixture of the corn and the bacon and the red pepper on top of it. So what will go in there? Shit!
How are you cooking the scallops?
I’m going to sear it. I’m going to take a non-stick pan and fry the scallop, season it with salt and pepper.
I’ll get the pan hot, with a little bit of peanut oil, then the scallops will go in — maybe like a minute a side. The cool thing about a scallop is when it looks beautifully brown, it’s ready to flip.
So, the cream thing’s kicking my ass. If I let it do its thing enough, it’ll thicken, so — ooh! A little chili sauce, a tiny little bit of Sriracha — you know, the rooster sauce — a little squeeze of that, in the cream. It’ll change the color of that to pink, that’ll be on the bottom of the plate, with the seared scallops on top, so they’re sitting nicely on top of each other. Then the little red pepper-bacon-corn thing on top of that. That sounds good. I like that!
It’s spicy underneath, the corn will be sweet on top of that, the bacon adds a bit of smokiness, it would be good!
What do you think is the most underrated ingredient?
I love shrimp. Frozen shrimp is underrated.
Frozen cooked shrimp or frozen uncooked shrimp?
Frozen uncooked. Frozen cooked — blow! Not worth f—— buying. They just end up being the same ugly pink stupid thing that stores sell in the holidays, all wound up in that circle with the weak-ass sauce you dip in.
I could create five or six different meals in a row on a couple of bags of frozen shrimp. People don’t realize, most of the time, that what they’re buying in the stores that look like fresh shrimp, have been previously frozen. They almost always have, unless you’re buying right from the guy at the docks.
If you were imprisoned and you had to eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Served the same way, exactly the same?
Exactly the same meal.
It would be a seared piece of salmon, seasoned well, with lots of chopped up green onion on top of it and on top of a bowl of rice. Because I know I wouldn’t get fat on it, I know it would fill me up. I’d get a little carb from the rice, a lot of protein from the salmon, and I love salmon.
If you had to design a food torture for yourself, so that you had to eat the same thing for the rest of your life, as a torture?
We just shot a show in Hong Kong for the Discovery Health Show. It’s about to start airing on Thursday nights at 8.
We went to a nighttime street food vendor market. I ate duck, I ate fish balls. They made me cut out a line as I was taping. I said, “I didn’t even know fish had balls,” and they made me cut that line out. Discovery Health is a little conservative.
But then we ate duck gizzard. Do you know what gizzard is?
Yes, I do.
Well, I didn’t know. And that’s OK, because I’ll eat chicken feet at dim sum.
But I generally don’t like things that are very gelatinous, I can’t handle that.
Well, this gizzard, grilled, on a stick, looked OK. But, as I started to put it in my mouth, I got the smell first, then I took a couple of chews, and it was game over. It’s not an organ issue. I like liver, I’ve had heart, body parts, tongue, I’m OK with all that stuff. I think it was because this was duck, this was duck gizzard. And it was probably packed with protein and was really, really good, but who wants it — ugh! I can conjure the taste up right now.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever made?
That egg pizza was pretty awful. I put thyme on it, which was just a horrible mistake, and the eggs were, like, rock solid.
There aren’t too many things that I make that I hate, really. I get slightly more adventurous with pizzas than most things, but I’ll eat pretty much anything.
How do food snobs respond when you do stuff like open a Fritos bag, fill it with microwavable chili, cheese and hot sauce, and eat it out of the bag?
Here’s what I say. I’m not trying to play on the show for anyone other than people that dig the show, regular, everyday people, and those guys all love it.
I believe, and I don’t really hear about it very often, but I’m sure there is a group of people out there that is really offended that I have the show, for more than one reason. I touch my dogs and I continue to cook, I drop shit and I pick it up and I use it and, for me, for the crew — they’re all OK with it.