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Two decades ago, Sam Zien was at a crossroads in his career.
Aspiring to leave his 9 to 5 and become a content creator in the travel space far before it was trendy, the devastation surrounding the 9/11 attacks put his plans on hold.
Dejected and confused, Sam saw a piece of content that was so inspiring it changed his life forever.
“I came across a really horrible in-studio cooking segment that was so bad,” recalls Sam with a laugh. “That was the light bulb. Maybe I could do it better?”
20 years, 15 Emmys, five cooking books and three million subscribers on YouTube, it turns out Sam was right.
Affectionately and professionally known as Sam the Cooking Guy, the real-life restaurant influencer who serves as the face of Graze, Not Not Tacos and two Samburger locations has flipped the food industry on its head by simply being himself.
A man of many hats and few cares, Sam has defined conventional wisdom by creating concept restaurants that serve mashed potato tacos and popular videos that teach young men how to cook.
“I think you learn more when you’re enjoying it,” notes Sam. “YouTube is a really simple concept: it’s not about you, it’s what your customers want.”
While Sam admits it took him seven years to discover this simple truth, the proof is in the pudding as Sam is teaching the world how to cook simply by teaching them to make things they can actually make.
Sometimes, this even includes the top dishes at his concept restaurants.
“Our number one taco is Korean short rib taco,” Sam says of Not Not Tacos. “It’s been for all three plus years we’ve been open. It’s always been number one, and I’ve done it on YouTube. I’ve shown people how to make it and it’s still number one.”
Fearless? Maybe. Smart? For certain.
Case in point, while terms like ‘disruptor’ get thrown out often in marketing meetings or on LinkedIn posts, Sam is truly that glitch in the matrix we call the food space.
His secret ingredient? Being himself.
Since having the gumption to do a better job of creating a cooking show than the in-studio one he saw on the local morning news, Sam’s been able to leverage his on camera and in restaurant success by being the same Sam day in and day out.
“Authenticity is everything,” Sam states. “The world didn’t need another Bobby Flay or Emeril, they needed somebody unique. There’s no TV Sam versus non-TV Sam.”
Though Sam speaks without censor and shoots from the hip when it comes to his concepts, his heart has always been with that of the customer.
As anyone in the hospitality industry knows, this is when the best work is done.
“I feel like we’re really teaching people how to cook,” Sam says of his channel. “I get that comment every day and it really makes me happier than anything.”
From cringing at a local cooking show in 2001 to having his own hit in 2021, Sam the Cooking Guy isn’t afraid to share a reaction and he isn’t shy to take on a challenge.