Cooking for the First Family
When I think about what the President and his family are eating for dinner on a typical night, I imagine the kinds of meals I rarely get to eat: broiled lobster tail or roasted pheasant or even something exotic that I’ve never even heard of.
“The Obamas love good food, but very simple – they didn’t want anything fancy,” said Sam Kass, former assistant White House chef. “The kids ate their vegetables, but the thing they loved was mac and cheese. You have to remember, the White House is where they live. They didn’t want to feel like they were eating at a restaurant every day.”
I don’t know if I’m relieved or disappointed to learn that the Obamas are just regular people.
Kass left the White House in late 2014, and now devotes his time to helping American families eat healthier and live more active lives. He does a lot of traveling to share his health message, including an upcoming visit to Durham.
But how did Kass end up preparing meals for the most powerful man in the world in the first place? What is Kass’ food history?
From Chef to Adviser
“Growing up, my family was pretty typical,” he explained. “We ate very simple meals, things like broiled fish, potatoes, a lot of broccoli and cauliflower, sometimes with some melted American cheese. Nothing fancy, ever. I’m afraid I don’t have any great stories about a grandmother who taught me how to make gnocchi or other fancy dishes.”
Connecting with the Obamas was more a matter of geographic chance than anything else.
“I had known the Obamas from when I was in high school, we lived in the same neighborhood,” Kass explained. Kass enjoyed cooking as a child, making breakfast in bed for his mother on Mother’s Day, helping out at dinner time. “But back then, my dream was to be a professional baseball player, not a chef.”
During his college years, Kass spent a summer cooking at a Chicago restaurant, despite no formal training up to that point. After college, he went to Vienna and apprenticed at one of the city’s finest restaurants.
“They kind of taught me everything I knew then, and they really kick-started me into learning,” Kass said. “I was there for a year-and-a-half, and I got to travel around the world, learning more about cooking.”
He reconnected with the Obamas shortly after then-Senator Barack Obama had announced his intention to run for president. In 2007, Kass was offered a job cooking at the family residence in Chicago several days a week. Then it was on to Washington and one of the most coveted cooking jobs in the world.
Kass was appointed as senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives, in addition to cooking for the First Family five nights a week and feeding dignitaries at special events.
The White House Garden and Let’s Move
“Basically, I was in charge of developing all of the administration’s policies on food, helping the First Lady start the White House Kitchen Garden, and launching and running the First Lady’s ‘Let’s Move’ initiative,” Kass said. “If it was food-related, I was engaged.”
The White House Kitchen Garden is a project that brings Sam Kass particular pride.
“The Garden was something the First Lady and I had discussed back in Chicago,” he said. “We really wanted to help Americans feel connected to the food they eat, highlight where our food comes from, how it’s grown, to help people truly value what they’re eating.”
Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative was an extension of the Garden project.
“Let’s Move is the First Lady’s effort to try to ensure that all families have what they need to raise their kids in a way that supports their health,” Kass said. “I think it’s too hard right now to make healthy choices, in tandem with the fact that we’re bombarded with powerful marketing about the least healthy choices. Families aren’t set up for success.”
Kass thinks the farm-to-fork movement can play a very important role in helping families succeed in health, as farm-to-fork not only helps people understand the connection between the food they eat and living a healthy life, but also contributes to the sustainability of our planet.
“People have lost their connection to food,” he said. “When you start considering health issues in the context of climate change and sustainability, you understand why regional food systems that are strong and vibrant are so critical to the long-term health of our country.”
A Catalyst for Healthy Food Options
Now that his term at the White House has ended, Kass intends to focus on helping families make changes that can bring better health.
“I want to be a catalyst for creating a food system that supports the well-being of families,” Kass reflected. “I’m doing a lot of strategy work with young entrepreneurs, I’m writing a book, I’m working on some television projects. I’ve got a lot of things going on.”
Another thing Sam Kass has going on is his participation in the 2016 Farm to Fork Weekend, organized by North Carolina State University’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems – a partnership of NC State University, the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and NC A & T State University – and the WC Breeze Family Farm.Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina is the presenting sponsor of the weekend’s events, being held June 3-5 at several locations. Kass and James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing will prepare a dinner of farm-fresh ingredients at the Durham Hotel in downtown Durham on the evening of June 4.
Tickets to Farm to Fork Weekend events are available online.