Sam "The Cooking Guy" Zien was telling a neighbor recently about an upcoming trip to Tijuana he was taking in his new role as a culinary ambassador for the Baja California Ministry of Tourism when he got some parting advice.
"Don't get shot," Zien remembers his neighbor joking.
"That's exactly the mindset I'm trying to change," Zien said.
With the title of Baja Cooking Guide, Zien has been tapped to use his trademark everyman's approach to food to convince San Diegans that it's safe to cross the border to explore the burgeoning food and wine scene in Tijuana, Ensenada and the Guadalupe Valley.
While foodies have been flocking to Baja for its taco carts, chef-driven restaurants and noted wineries, the region is still struggling to overcome fears that it's too dangerous to visit.
"The reality is, I don't think the cartels are interested in me eating at a food truck in Tijuana or drinking an oh-so-lovely wine at Monte Xanic in the Valle (de Guadalupe)," Zien, 55, said in an interview Tuesday at which he was accompanied by David Strausser, the Binational Advisor for the Baja California Ministry of Tourism.
Zien doesn't speak Spanish and he proudly shuns pretentious "chef speak." So why choose him to promote culinary tourism in Mexico?
"He's an average Joe and he speaks to average Joes," Strausser said. "We wanted somebody who people can relate to."
Tourism to Baja plunged a half-decade ago, as Tijuana's drug wars dominated the news. As the region's food and wine scene developed — and tourists from Mexico City to Madrid discovered it as a gastronomic destination — Americans started traveling there again.
Average San Diegans have been slow to cross over, Zien said. He recounted how he was invited to shoot some episodes of his "Sam The Cooking Guy" show at the destination spa and resort Rancho La Puerta, in Tecate.
"I told my two producers … we'd be staying at a luxury spa, getting treatments and everything, but they refused to go," Zien said.
While his new ambassador role will find him traveling to Mexico more frequently, his biggest responsibility will be to tout Baja food and wine in general and establishments that carry the Outstanding Host logo specifically.
Strausser said the Outstanding Host program, run by the Secretary of Tourism, recognizes places that meet strict quality guidelines. (See outstandinghostbaja.com for information.)
Zien stressed that he isn't being paid to be the Baja Cooking Guide.