I’ll start off this by saying, if you don’t know Sam the Cooking Guy, he’s pretty much a local celebrity in San Diego, CA. From his awesome cooking show to his now three restaurants, he’s kind of a local legend. I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing him – along with trying his newest restaurant Eats by Sam located in Seaport Village.
Sam The Cooking Guy
Let me backup for all of you who don’t know who Sam the Cooking Guy is and give you his background and why he’s a local (or not so local) celeb. Sam Zien, his real name, worked in the biotech industry before deciding to quit one day (we’ll get into the story in a minute) to start his own travel company in 2001. That didn’t work out as planned thanks to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, so Sam The Cooking Guy was born.
Fast forward to almost 10 years later, he’s an icon. He’s personable and makes the time for all his fans. No wonder he’s a local celeb!
Sam The Restaurant Guy
As he now has three restaurants in San Diego, I’ve started hearing him referred to as both Sam the Cooking Guy and now Sam the Restaurant Guy.
Casual taco restaurant located in Little Italy’s food hall where you won’t find the typical carnitas, pollo, or carne asada in any of the tacos. These are Sam’s tacos, the way he knows best.
Located just across the Little Italy Food Hall at the Piazza della Famiglia, Graze is a restaurant, bar, and bottle shop. From my favorite charcuterie boards, to apps, and flatbreads, there’s seriously something for everyone and every appetite.
And now EATS by Sam
EATS by Sam is a multi-concept culinary co-op offering delivery, takeout, and on-site dining. Due to our current era of face masks and sanitized environments, EATS by Sam focuses on contactless ordering and payment systems with hopes to eventually be a full-fledged restaurant and bar complete with the cutest VW van inside.
EATS is currently home to its first concept, Samburgers, which has his face on the bread. I indulged in the “Not So Basic Basic Burger” with plant-based meat topped with american cheese, sautéed onion, drive-thru sauce (it’s a secret, but in case you’re “allergic” it’s mayo, ketchup, mustard, sriracha, pickles)….along with tater tots. SO FREAKING DELISH!
Sam the Cooking Guy Interview
I went to meet up with Sam himself at his new restaurant EATS, and as I walked up he was chatting with a guy who came to Orange County on vacation but has been a long time fan so on his day where he had nothing planned, he decided to make the trip down to San Diego just to try his restaurant. I forget where the guy was from, but it was somewhere in the Midwest/East Coast where it was already cold out. Sam – who’s very busy, made time to thank him, talk about his latest recipe, and just have a chat. WHO ELSE DOES THIS?!
How did you come up with Sam the Cooking Guy?
Sam was working in the BioTech field and he decided to quit his job to start his own travel company. Then as soon as he quit, 9/11 happened and people were scared/hesitant to travel. He was watching a local news segment on KUSI where they had a chef on, making butternut squash soup. It was hard to follow, and the chef seemed to be overcomplicating the recipe. Sam found the jargon the chef was using wasn’t what people who weren’t in the business would understand. The chef was talking about creme fresh, but what he didn’t mention was if you didn’t have it at home, you could use sour cream. Little bits like this was what Sam thought the chef was missing. After all, wasn’t the whole point of this segment to get people into their kitchens cooking?
This segment was supposed to be so viewers at home could follow along and make the recipe themselves. This was not happening. He thought he could do better and Sam the Cooking Guy (as an idea) was born.
Sam’s wife came home and he told her the idea, she immediately said…”….but you can’t cook”
Sam aimed to share simple, yet delicious foods on his show where people could watch the show, and then make the food themselves. What I found to be amazing that he said was, “Yes, most people can make a dish that’s good at home, and yes, it will be better at a restaurant. If you go to a restaurant and love a dish, then ask for a recipe two things will happen. If they’re a good restaurant and know it, they’ll give you the recipe because of that fact alone. If they’re an insecure restaurant, they won’t tell you the recipe.”
— try it for yourselves folks.
What made you transition to restaurants?
Mike DiNorscia, the CEO of Grain & Grit Collective, approached Sam when G&G was planning to open the Little Italy Food Hall. They imagined he could be the face of their marketing program. But somewhere along the way, Sam proposed the idea of Not Not Tacos, and with the Grain & Grit restaurant experience, they joined forces with Sam being the face of the brand and responsible for the food.
Not Not Tacos are gringo tacos, not the tacos from your local taco shop. They’re not Mexican inspired, but he’s not Mexican. He’s a Jewish Canadian. He does what he knows, and what he knows he can do well. They’re things like Korean Short rib, Smokey Pork & Mac and even Nashville Hot Chicken.
Izzy’s Pastrami with muenster, cole slaw, dill pickle, horseradish mustard, and crispy onions and Smokey Pork + Mac with mac-&-cheese, sautéed onions, sriracha, house made here piggy piggy rub, sour cream, and green onion. Are you drooling yet? Because I am.
With Not Not Tacos, they learned how to marry his face and food. He loves restaurants because he gets to create the food and just does his thing while Grain & Grit runs the restaurant. His advice: focus on what you can do well.
Do you have a favorite/go to recipe you like to cook?
The salmon in his new cookbook, Sam the Cooking Guy: Recipes with Intentional Leftovers is his fav/go to.
Why? It’s only 3 ingredients – salmon, chili, and sesame oil. and salmon is his favorite food because it’s healthy, has good fats, he eats it a ton, and eats it in a ton of different ways. It’s such a versatile food that you can eat it raw to broil and everything in between.
Sesame Chili Salmon
Makes 4 Servings/ 15 minutes
4-6 ounce salmon filets
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
6 tablespoons sesame chili oil
1/4 cup green onions, chopped fine
- Put salmon on a plate, season well with kosher salt and pepper, and cover with chili oil. Let sit 5 minutes if you have that, if not – no big.
- Heat a non-stick pan really well (until almost smoking), turn on your fan, and add salmon face down
- Let cook without moving it until you see it has cooked approximately 1/3 of the way up the side.
- Carefully flip it over, and repeat – it will take less time on this side, but depending on how thick your salmon is, it should probably be about 5 -6 minutes total both sides.
- I like to serve it on fresh steamed rice with the green onions as garnish.
His wife, Kelly, loves his crispy salmon and she makes him make leftovers of it so she can have it on a salad for lunch the next day.
Basically, if you haven’t heard of Sam the Cooking Guy I just changed your life. You can recreate his recipes so so easily – and they’re delicious. So you’re welcome.
~ XOXO, the newly inspired Chef, Amanda // Blonde out of Water