"I couldn't imagine a more beautiful spot to be cooking with you." The words are spoken by Sam Zien (better know as Sam the Cooking Guy) to Baja Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero as the cameras start rolling to record a special episode of one of Zien's cooking shows.
We're at an intimate gathering on Tuesday morning on the roof deck of Via Corporativo, one of the tallest and most-prominent skyscrapers in Tijuana, where Zien and Guerrero are taping an episode of one of Zien's shows in front of our small audience. The entire city of Tijuana and all of its beautiful, gritty glory is on display in the background. San Diego is also visible from atop the roof deck, which is apropos because this is a bi-national event intended to bring together San Diego and Tijuana, and therefore the U.S. and Mexico.
Zien is Baja California's newly appointed Culinary Ambassador, and is in northern Baja for a few days to film two, thirty-minutes episodes of his TV show that will feature some of the best restaurants, chefs and food from the region. Zien's Sam the Cooking Guy show takes a raw and hands-on approach to cooking, which is also representative of Zien's personality. This unique style has earned him 14 Emmys and three cookbooks.
Zien is kicking off his Baja tour by filming this cooking segment with Guerrero, who is one of Baja's top chefs. Instead of Zien doing the cooking, as he normally does on his show, he's taking a back seat and letting Guerrero lead the episode by making a few of his signature Baja Med specialties.
The atmosphere is casual and fun (anyone already familiar with Zien's cooking show knows that he likes to keep things authentic and spontaneous) with both Zien and Guerrero drinking local wine and beer as they cook. "This is Mexican breakfast," jokes Guerrero as they cheer with their wine glasses and start preparing the dish in front of the cameras. Zien stops during filming to grab a few snapshots with his iPhone of the food as they're making it. He's genuinely impressed and pleased with Guerrero and the dish that he's preparing.
Chef Guerrero is known around this region as the creator of the famous term "Baja Med" cuisine in Baja California. "I wanted to put Baja California on the map," says Guerrero. A former lawyer and a self-proclaimed vagabond, Guerrero has a renegade attitude that can be seen in everything from his cooking to his camouflage chef's jacket to his motorcycle helmet lying on the ground nearby. Guerrero has five highly-acclaimed Baja restaurants: La Querencia, El Taller, Almazar, El Colegio and La Esperanza. His Baja Med cuisine is a blend of Mexican, Mediterranean and Asian flavors with an emphasis on using fresh, local ingredients.
This week, Zien will visit a number of Baja chefs and restaurants in Tijuana, Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe, filming episodes that will appear later this year on channel 4 in San Diego as well as on his website (as do the rest of his episodes).
The man responsible for appointing Zien as Baja California's Culinary Ambassador is David Strausser, Special Liaison for the Ministry of Tourism of Baja California. "He's not paid for his position," says Strausser of Zien. "He gets paid in tacos. This is all genuinely from his own heart." And it is clearly an honest enthusiasm that Zien feels for the region, the people and the food. He fights vehemently against the stigma of friends and neighbors in the U.S. who have warned him that he shouldn't go to Mexico.
"This type of thinking [about Mexico] has got to change," says Zien. "People need to see what's going on down here." And Zien is planning on doing just that with his shows about Baja. By visiting some of the great restaurants and wineries in the region, he wants to show people in the U.S. how the region has changed and developed over the past few years. He wants to share the sophisticated culinary, wine and beer scene with his viewers, and assure them that they can have the same experience that he can.
"I want my viewers to see the show and say 'Sam is an everyday guy and he had a really great experience. I could do that.'" Part of his appeal to viewers, and the reason he can have an effect in his position as Culinary Ambassador, is that Zien doesn't speak Spanish, and before his new role, wasn't an avid Baja traveler. He wants to show people in the U.S. that if he can go to Baja and have these experiences, they can do it too.
"There's a new generation that wants to come but doesn't know how. We have to show them the way," says Guerrero. "We have to reconstruct the relationship between these two cities and countries." And Zien is working to do exactly that.
Zien is working with the office of tourism for Baja California as well as Baja California's Outstanding Host program. The Outstanding Host program works with restaurants, hotels and campsites to certify them as establishments that are commendable and worthy of business from tourists. The businesses are vetted and then also have to pass inspections from the health and consumer departments. Director of the Outstanding Host program, Carlos Valenzuela Davalos said, "With this program we're bringing the best of the best to the tourism sector."
In talking to Zien about the Baja California culinary scene, what seems to affect him the most is the genuine warmth and hospitality that comes along with eating at a Baja restaurant. When going to a restaurant in Mexico, the chef and staff want you to have a unique and enjoyable experience. They won't bring you your check until you ask for it and won't rush you out of the restaurant. They aren't in the business of turning tables like they do in the U.S., they're in the business of providing their customers with a special and generous meal and experience.
"Like this guy," Zien says pointing to Guerrero, "Not only does he show up today with the ingredients to make the dish for the episode, but he also brought along beer, wine and ribs! Now that's Mexican hospitality."
Guerrero smiles, "It's our way," he says. "We are always giving food. Because in our families, it's our tradition."
[i]Jennifer Kramer is a writer for Discover Baja. For over two decades, Discover Baja Travel Club has been the ultimate resource for people traveling the Baja California peninsula. Discover Baja provides discounted premium Mexican auto insurance and other Baja travel benefits to its 15,000 members. Members receive discounts on hotels, restaurants, camping sites and RV parks throughout Baja. For more information, please visit www.discoverbaja.com. Follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.