By Jennifer Kramer
In case you needed more proof that Baja’s culinary scene is on the brink of explosion, Baja’s department of tourism recently appointed a Baja “Foodie Ambassador” to help spread the word to gringos who haven’t yet received the memo about the bourgeoning food scene in northern Baja. Sam Zien, of Sam the Cooking Guy, is the newly appointed ambassador who will be helping to make that bridge.
Sam recently took his first trip down as the official Foodie Ambassador to check out Tijuana, Valle de Guadalupe and Ensenada for a few days in order to “look with open eyes.” He went to a number of popular foodie spots like Food Garden, Telefonica Gastro Park, Boules, Ophelia, Monte Xanic and La Cocina de Doña Esthela. While this trip was just about exploring and eating, later trips will involve filming for shows about Baja which will eventually run later this year.
Sam hadn’t been down to Baja in a few years and found himself pleasantly surprised. “I was not expecting the casually elegant food – in terms of preparation, plating and flavors.” It was this combination of great food in an unpretentious environment that seemed to really catch his attention.
“In Tijuana, I could swing a cat over my head and let it go in any direction and there’s no way it could not hit good food.” He says. “Not that I would ever swing a cat over my head…”
If you aren’t already familiar with Sam through his TV show on the Discover Health Channel, his livecast internet show or any of his three cooking books, it’s this warm humor and casual approachability that has made him so popular. “I’m a regular guy who likes to cook,” he says about himself. Well, a regular guy who also happens to have 14 Emmys. He also has a raw and relatable genuineness to him, which has been pivotal to his popularity and success.
It’s this same genuineness that Sam’s going to bring to his new role as Foodie Ambassador. People easily relate to him. He’s a regular guy, who doesn’t speak Spanish and is just getting into the culinary scene in Mexico. He’s going to make Baja accessible to everyone. He’ll help people understand that Mexico isn’t scary and that there’s also really good food. If Sam can spend the day exploring the pasajes of Tijuana and navigating the dirt roads of the Valle de Guadalupe, anyone can do it.
When Sam talks about the food scene in northern Baja, he uses terms like “casual sophistication,” “relaxed but elevated environment,” “European casualness,” and “really good, honest combinations of flavors.” It’s very clear that he’s genuinely taken with the quality of the food and the easy elegance of the restaurants in northern Baja. “You can go from Mision 19 to La Cocina de Doña Esthela to Boules and everything runs the gamut.”
What most impressed him about his recent Baja trip was how inviting and different it is to eat in a restaurant in Mexico rather then a restaurant in the U.S. U.S. restaurants seem to be concerned with getting customers in and out in a fairly quick manner so that they can have more customers over the course of an evening and make more money. That’s opposed to the Mexican way of lingering over a long and wonderful meal with friends and family, without ever feeling rushed by the restaurant. Sam picked up on this distinct difference rather quickly “It’s like they’re welcoming people to their homes – they want them to have great food and a great experience.” That’s more important to Mexican restaurant owners than making more money.
He talks of a particular experience with Esthela, the proprietor and namesake from La Cocina de Doña Esthela in Valle de Guadalupe, where she didn’t charge for the meal once she learned who Sam was. Sam insisted on trying to give her money, but Esthela was even more insistent, saying that the meal was “from her heart.”
Sam is hoping that his shows will help convince those who still need convincing to get back down to Baja again. He’s optimistic that people will view his shows about Baja and see the amazing food, the welcoming people and warm culture and will say “let’s go look again.”
Sam’s shows on Baja will be airing later this year. We’ll be sure to keep you posted. For more information: www.thecookingguy.com