Haley, a 7-year-old golden retriever, and Lucky, a 4-year-old powder-puff Chinese crested, not only make regular appearances on the show—either meandering across the kitchen or helping themselves to a moment of affection or a rare floor scrap—but also have co-starred with Zien at events such as "Sam LIVE!," a presentation that drew hundreds to the Rolando area's Joan B. Kroc Theatre in February. The dogs sat politely on a loveseat onstage while Zien interacted with the audience. The crowd loved them, Zien said.
Haley is also featured on the TV show's introduction. And for those who have navigated to the "Cooking Guy" website to snag a recipe, the retriever's face is most likely a familiar one—the banners on several pages of the site feature a close-up photo of her Precious Moments eyes and golden snout.
If you ask Zien, he'll tell you his dogs—in addition to his wife Kelly and three teenage sons—are just as much a part of his TV show as he is. Simply put, Zien loves his dogs, and it shows. On his Facebook page, which will have likely surpassed 19,000 fans by the time this story prints, Zien has posted almost as many wall photos of Lucky and Haley as he has of himself. From shots of the two curled up together on the couch to a screenshot of Zien Skyping with the dogs, the shared moments almost always garner at least 100 "likes."
"People really feel like fans when they can track everything about the show," said Zien during a recent interview at his home. "They really feel like they know the dogs."
This interview began with a 3 p.m. arrival at the Zien house, nestled at the end of a neighborhood street that dead-ends at the Los Penasquitos Canyon, where he takes Lucky and Haley for daily walks. Zien answered the door in a black T and his signature black, rectangular glasses and offered a warm welcome, a tour of the kitchen and, of course, a walk with the dogs.
The first thing he mentioned was that he had postponed the dogs' dinner, as to not have "messy" faces in the photos.
The 'Kool-aid house on the block'
"They usually eat at 2:30 p.m.," he said. "And they don't understand Daylight Saving Time." (This interview happened to take place on DST weekend.)
Zien's kitchen is bold and pristine, comprising zebra-wood veneer cabinetry and red glass-tiled walls. But given that Zien's home contains a celebrity kitchen with a signature sliding-door, frosted glass "skinny pantry" that's not very deep but covers a floor-to-ceiling area about the size of a garage door, the house itself is far from pretentious. Zien's neighborhood is peaceful, and he is friends with all the neighbors on his street. He said he looks forward to the summertime, when all the dogs and people on the block get together and hang out—he's referred to his place as the "Kool-aid house on the block" a time or two.
"I am so lucky that I get to work from home," Zien said.
And Zien's workplace, of course, is dog-friendly. While Zien heads the kitchen, shooting episodes with his crew, the dogs are also on point. Haley sprawls out like a rug in the middle of the floor, right by the kitchen, and Lucky usually lies comfortably on top of the couch, with a perfect view of his Dad in the kitchen. Sometimes, though, Lucky can be a "lurker," Zien said.
"He scopes out the kitchen and waits for food to drop," said Zien. He added that he doesn't make a habit of sharing cooking scraps but sympathizes with the dogs: "Imagine if you ate the same thing every day," he said. "You'd get bored."
Haley and the burrito
Whatever happens in real life also happens on the show, whether it be the dogs playing with a toy or someone ringing the doorbell. On one episode, in which Zien taught viewers how to make his healthful version of a chimichanga (a usually fried burrito that he baked instead), Haley sneaked half a burrito outside and ate it. While the incident was comical, Zien warned on camera, "Honey you can't have that. It's not good for you."
The TV cook breaks barriers. He's been known to curse in the kitchen; he cooks freely with bacon even though he's Jewish; and he turned some heads in 2008 when he asked Kathie Lee Gifford to shut up when she was interrupting him during his cooking segment on the Today show. He makes crazy food like mashed-potato tacos, potato-chip sandwiches and Cap'n Crunch-seared tuna, and he's been called out for touching the dogs and continuing to handle food without washing his hands.
"I even put the dog on the counter once," he said. "I'm sure that day we lost viewers but at the same time gained viewers too… Hey, we're dog people. It's not like were in here running a restaurant."
Groundbreaking photo shoot
During the walk in the canyon, the dogs followed closely behind Zien, except for when they approached neighbor Peg to greet her and her pup when they happened to arrive for a walk too.
Lucky answers to many a nickname—"Bunny," "Shortie," "Boo Boo"—and Zien calls Haley "Face," a name he said he doesn't have an explanation for. The dogs always come when he calls, and they sit on command. Even during the photo shoot for San Diego Pets, the dogs sat contentedly with their Dad—and surprisingly, Zien said that was his first photo session with the dogs.
Between his books, TV shows, regular appearances on Today and photo shoots as the spokesman for Newcastle Brown Ale, Zien has gotten used to a demanding schedule over the years. But he has always made time for those twice-daily walks with Lucky and Haley. And despite the thousands who used to tune in to Just Cook This! with Sam the Cooking Guy on Discovery Health or ran out to buy Just Grill This! when it hit bookstores last month, it's obvious who Zien's two biggest fans are. Haley and Lucky truly worship the ground he walks on.