You’ll not find Sam Zien, known as “Sam the Cooking Guy,” cooking in a restaurant or local pub. Instead, you are more apt to discover him when flipping through the channels on TV. This fourteen-time Emmy winner is a firm believer in “food that is big in taste and small in effort.” He’s the guy who shows you the easy way to cook and who provides tips.
Unlike the majority of chefs I’ve interviewed, Sam did not know at an early age that he wanted to cook. As you read my interview with him, you may be surprised at how a bright idea, perseverance and determination can lead to unimaginable results.
Maralyn: When did you start showing an interest in cooking and how did you get started?
Sam: This might sound ridiculous, but I didn’t really show an interest in cooking until I literally started cooking on TV. But first a quick rewind. I was miserable at my job as the Director of Operations at a biotech company and had an idea about hosting a travel show on TV–essentially encouraging people to try new locations instead of going to the same place all the time. So I quit–lined up a small crew and was all set to go to Hong Kong and Tokyo to shoot some demo footage when 9/11 happened. And while that day changed many other people’s lives much more significantly than it changed mine, it still changed mine because I couldn’t go back to biotech, and no one was buying a travel show in the days following 9/11–especially not from someone who’d barely traveled and had no previous television experience. So I sat at home trying to figure out what to do and happened upon a horrible cooking segment on the local news one morning and thought, “Someone could really do that better.” So I called the crew back, switched from travel to cooking. But since I barely cooked, I stuck with super simple things my wife regularly made. The idea was to encourage people to make things they didn’t. We shot a demo and sent it out and two months later, I was on a local station twice a week during the morning news with a 90-second cooking segment. From there, it grew into a half-hour show, three cookbooks through a New York publisher, a series on Discovery’s Health channel, fourteen Emmys and a dozen visits to the Today Show. All this because I was merely looking to be happy in my career.
Maralyn: What was your family’s reaction to your career choice?
Sam: Because I had no culinary background, they thought I was absolutely out of my mind and tried to talk me out of it. In fact, one of my brothers asked me, “What are you going to do when it doesn’t work?” Not if, but when.
Maralyn: What is your favorite comfort food?
Sam: Eggs, and particularly poached eggs and on pretty much anything. There’s just something about a runny yolk that I find really comforting. And I have to admit to having a huge fondness for brisket hash with a couple of poached eggs–that’s the perfect comfort food to me.
Maralyn: Do you have a favorite dessert?
Sam: I’m a fan of pound cake. I like a slice of it, buttered, then flat grilled with almond tequila whipped cream and fresh fruit on top. Simple, but so very good.
Maralyn: What is your favorite type of food to prepare?
Sam: Easy question, it’s anything Asian. My pantry is full of miscellaneous ingredients, sauces, whatever. It’s really interesting how adding just one or two different ingredients can change your whole food world.
Maralyn: How do you personally view presentation?
Sam: It’s not everything, but it’s right up there behind taste. I mean, who wants to dig into a gross looking pile of something no matter how great it tastes? And I believe in the less is more theory. I find some chefs add way too much to their plates.
Maralyn: What is your favorite cooking utensil?
Sam: Guess that would have to be a knife – without it, you can’t do anything.
Maralyn: If you could provide one or two tips for prospective chefs, what would you say?
Sam: Cook as much as you can, anywhere you can. It’s all about perfecting your craft, and the only way to do that (no matter what your craft) is to do it all the time. I basically didn’t cook when I started, and now many years later my skills are way, way better.
Maralyn: I know you have won Emmys, but how did you come to work with Finlandia, and what is your role with them? Many of our readers are not aware of how chefs work with corporate advisers.
Sam: Finlandia reached out to me to help spread the word when they first brought their crazy good butter to the U.S. I don’t think they were looking for a fancy chef, but rather they were interested in finding someone who made things that regular, everyday people can make themselves, and that’s what I do. I don’t speak like a chef, and I don’t cook like a chef. No fois gras, no truffles–just really great, simple ingredients that you probably already have. And that’s where butter comes in–in fact, I call it the ‘forgotten’ ingredient. People will buy a great steak, amazing veggies or a beautiful piece of fish and then use crappy butter on it. There’s a huge difference that you don’t realize until you start using great butter.
Maralyn: Do you cook at home a lot?
Sam: I do virtually all of the cooking at home and love it. I’ll cook anytime and really for anyone. We love entertaining.
Maralyn: What are the highlights of your career, your “ah-ha” or “wow” moments?
Sam: Geez, there are a few. My first Today Show appearance was pretty special – especially since right after the show ended, they invited me to come back three weeks later. Also, when a large publisher in New York approached me about writing a book, which became three books. And when the Discovery Channel asked if I wanted to do a series on healthy cooking–and they didn’t even know I had a TV show–they thought all the content on my site was shot for the web only. The message is you never know where something will come from.
Maralyn: Do you focus on using local products?
Sam: We’re fortunate in San Diego to have access to many great local growers and products. And whenever possible, I’ll use their stuff, whether it’s fruits, vegetables or proteins. It’s not just about the quality, which I find very high, but also the care taken by the local folks in growing and raising the products.
Maralyn: How do you work with local growers, if you do?
Sam: Since I don’t have a restaurant (I’m just a TV cook), it’s mostly on a personal basis, as in not mentioning on a menu what farm something is from.
Sam was nice enough to share a few recipes developed in partnership with Finlandia Imported Butter. I tried Finlandia butter last December for the first time and was quite impressed.
Finlandia Butter – Recipes
Recipes Courtesy of: Sam the Cooking Guy in partnership with Finlandia Imported Butter
Sautéed Butter Carrots
Can anything be better then these simply cooked carrots?
- 1 pound baby multi-colored carrots, halved lengthwise
- 3 tablespoons Finlandia Salted Butter
- Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon chives, finely diced
- Slice carrots lengthwise, and trim green at the top, but leaving about ½ of the green at the top.
- Heat a large skillet on medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of the butter and the carrots.
- Begin to cook, slowly and season to taste with salt & pepper.
- Turn over every so often to get color on all sides.
- Cook until crisp/tender – and when they’re almost done, add remaining butter and chives.
- Plate and serve.
Herb & Garlic Compound Butter
Incredible on a steak, grilled fish or even chicken. Talk about versatile.
Makes about a cup
- 8 tablespoons Finlandia salted butter, softened
- ¼ cup fresh herbs, finely chopped (up to you, but pretty much anything will work: oregano, rosemary, parsley, thyme, cilantro, sage, chives)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- Mix all ingredients in a small bowl.
- Put in the middle of a 8×8 sheet of wax paper, roll up like a cigar and twist ends in opposite directions to form a tight tube.
- Either refrigerate for use or freeze to store longer.
On a Benedict…of course. Asparagus, why yes! But how about drizzled on salmon or even on Sunday morning breakfast potatoes? Now you’re talking…
Makes about a cup
- 10 tablespoons Finlandia salted butter
- 3 egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Melt butter on low heat in a small pot – don’t let it burn.
- Into the blender, put egg yolks, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and cayenne.
- Blend on medium speed about 30 seconds.
- Once the yolks have lightened in color, turn the blender down to low and slowly drizzle in melted butter.
- Blend until everything is mixed.
- Turn off blender and taste – this is the time to add more lemon juice if necessary.
Not making this is an insult to everything that’s right in the food world.
Serves 4, as an appetizer
- 2 artichokes
- 1 lemon
- ½ stick Finlandia salted butter
- Cut the stem off the artichoke bottom so they sit flat, and about 1 inch off the top of each artichoke.
- Cut the point off each leaf.
- Place artichokes in large pan with water about halfway up each choke.
- Cut one lemon in half, and squeeze both over artichokes in the pan, and drop in the lemons.
- Bring to a boil, turn down and simmer covered for about 45 minutes, or until you can pull off a leaf quite easily.
- Melt butter in small pot – so simple, so right.
- Remove from water, turn upside down to drain, cool slightly and serve with butter.
- Remember after you’ve eaten the meat off the leaves, eat the heart – which sounds quite cruel but isn’t. It’s only delicious.
Ham, Dijon & Grilled Cheese
Makes 2 sandwiches
- ¼ cup softened Finlandia butter
- 1 large clove garlic
- 4 slices sourdough bread
- 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 4 slices Muenster cheese
- 8 thin slices smoked ham or Black Forest ham
- 4 slices Havarti cheese
- Put butter and garlic in a small pot and melt slowly over low heat.
- Warm non stick pan over medium heat.
- Build sandwiches: bread, Dijon, Muenster, ham, Havarti, bread.
- Using a paint brush, butter one side sandwich and cook face down in pan over until golden brown.
- Butter top, flip and cook until also golden.
- Slice and serve – as if that wasn’t obvious.
Finlandia Poached Shrimp
Serves 4, as an appetizer
- 2 sticks, or 14 ounces Finlandia salted butter
- One pound 16/20 shrimp, peel and de-veined – room temperature
- Kosher salt & fresh ground black pepper
- Parsley chopped for garnish
- Slowly melt butter in a medium pot.
- Add shrimp so they are covered with butter – if not all will fit covered, repeat this step.
- Cook until shrimp are just done – tender, juicy but not overdone – probably 3-5 minutes total.
- Serve in a bowl seasoned with salt & pepper and garnished with the chopped parsley.
- And fine, if you had a little bread you could always dip that. Just saying…
When you try some of Sam’s recipes, let us know what you think. The butter does make a difference. We’d also like your feedback on his TV appearances, when you see him in action.