For locals and Mexican nationals it is no news that Baja California is becoming an important destination for all things food and beverage. The region's signature Baja-Med cuisine, craft beers, and wine have garnered national and international praise. The boom has spurred new-found vitality for cities that just five or six years ago were struggling through a surge in violence that had taken a heavy toll on tourism, which had already significantly dwindled post-9/11. But, for many people north of the border, the wonders of Baja are still vastly unknown.
This is where Sam the Cooking Guy comes into play. Sam Zien is a self-touted "everyday guy" who just happens to have 14 Emmys. He prides himself on making cooking casual and simple, dropping the chef lingo and teaching "the rest of us" how to cook. Cooking is only part of his focus. His original focus was travel. Similar to his cooking style, he is interested in "travel for the regular person" without all the glitz and glamour. He quit his day job sought to become a traveling TV guy filming a show to encourage people to travel to complicated places in such a way that would make sense.
Much like Baja, Sam's life plans changed after 9/11 forcing him to put the travel part on the sidelines and focus on the cooking alone. Still quite an ambitious goal for a guy with no culinary training or television experience. Sam progressed from a 2-minute cooking segment on local news shows in San Diego to a nationally syndicated show on Discovery's Health channel and a published author of three cookbooks.
This week, Sam spent three days in Tijuana, Ensenada, and Valle De Guadalupe in a tour organized by Baja California's Ministry of Tourism in conjunction with the Outstanding Host program. Carlos Valenzuela, Director of Tourism Assistance and the Outstanding Host program, aims to help the culinary industry attract more tourists from Southern California and believes that a person like Sam can help appeal to people like him. According to David Strausser, Binational Advisor of the Baja California Ministry of Tourism, tourism is up in Baja, but mostly consists of Mexican-Americans that already have some familiarity with the region. Baja's goal is to expand the tourist base and attract people that may not speak the language or feel comfortable day tripping across the border.
During the tour, Sam visited an assortment of places ranging from urban food trucks to fine dining restaurants, including Foodgarden, the Culinary Art School, Telefonica Gastro Park, and Mision 19 in Tijuana. In Ensenada, he spent time at Hussongs Cantina,Ophelia, Monte Xanic, Muelle Tres, and Boules among other places.
I chatted with Sam as he was driving back from Ensenada after the three-day trip south of the border. "I knew the food scene would be good, but it totally exceeded my expectations on so many levels". He said that if he were to describe it in one word, it would be "spectacular". Sam had visited Tijuana before, but his recent visit opened his eyes to things he had never seen before. "It is not just the food, it's the service too. In San Diego people do their things well but, here, there is more of a love that goes into it it's the experience. It's the people."
Sam became interested in Tijuana and Baja a couple of years ago when he was invited to participate in the Tijuana Innovadora summit as a speaker, "that is when I realized what they were trying to do to change the perception of the city".
"I'm a food guy. San Diego has lots of Mexican food. But, I tried things down here that I had never even seen before. On my trip down here, I didn't have a single enchilada once; I didn't even have a fish taco despite the fact that Ensenada has great fish tacos, there was just so much more to try." He remarked on the beauty of the Valle de Guadalupe, with places that he states are "as beautiful or nicer than places in Temecula".
He told me that the day before he came on his trip, upon learning of where he was about to go, his neighbor jokingly remarked "don't get shot". According to Sam "THAT is the mindset that needs to change. The reality is you can go anywhere in the U.S. and get shot. It is not happening to people like me having dinner in the Valle."
Oddly enough, as I was chatting with him on the phone he remarked that they were just passing through a "serious military road block", which was the first he had seen despite having spent three days in the country.
I asked him if this fazed him at all to which he answered, "I understand the need for stuff like that. I get it. "My only concern about coming down here is that I don't speak the language and that I might get lost. Other than that, no, I feel 100% safe."
I asked him if he would still visit Baja without the tourism ministry entourage by his side. "Absolutely", said Sam. "I want to help Baja by bringing a regular person's take on things. I already have a list of four of five places I'd like to visit on my own with friends and family." Sam will also be filming two episodes of his show in Baja. Sam has received the title of "The Baja Cooking Guide" from the Baja California Ministry of Tourism, and will be using his brand to promote Baja.
Time and again our conversation kept coming back to the experience of dining in Baja. "I just came from Ophelia's I could have sat there for another couple of hours." Sam states that he is a believer in traveling some place you haven't been when you go on vacation, and that language barriers or getting lost is part of the experience of traveling. His goal is to help people like him that don't speak the language and aren't familiar with the region feel comfortable about spending the day or weekend in Baja. He wants people from San Diego and So-Cal to see Baja California as an option for a day trip or for a weekend getaway.