WASHINGTON (AP) — Sam Kass has a to-die-for job as personal chef to the Obama family but whipping up their meals is probably the least important part of his portfolio.
Kass, 31, also has a fancy title as White House senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives. And that’s put him out front this month as the first lady marks the second anniversary of her campaign against childhood obesity.
Kass has traveled the country to promote Michelle Obama’s eat-right-and-exercise-more message, demonstrating along the way the pivotal role that he’s come to play in helping establish policies that affect what millions of school kids consume each day and in trying to influence the American diet.
When Mrs. Obama was asked during a recent interview what was next for her “Let’s Move” initiative, she quickly passed the question to Kass.
“What you got?” she demanded.
“We’ve got stuff,” he promised her. “You’re going to be busy.”
On a recent trip with Mrs. Obama, the assistant White House chef was seemingly everywhere: emceeing a “Top Chef” school lunch competition, moderating a round-table discussion between the first lady and parents, briefing reporters on federal nutrition initiatives, and more.
Kass, with his distinctive shaved head, wears a broad and relentless grin and speaks with an enthusiasm that’s infectious as he gives shout-outs to people and programs that are “amazing,” ”incredible,” and “powerful.” He has a knack for popping out just the right statistics about obesity, nutrition and exercise.
But no matter what his policy duties may be, five days a week Kass retrieves his chef’s coat in the afternoon and heads upstairs to fill the Obamas’ plates with healthy and appealing meals at 6:30 p.m., when President Barack Obama cuts short whatever’s afoot in the West Wing to head home for dinner.
There’s no need to consult with the first family on menu options — Kass knows their likes and dislikes by heart.
Kass is discreet about what he feeds the family, often batting away questions with a “top-secret” dodge. But he says the family “walks the walk” on healthy foods, eating balanced meals often dictated by what’s in season in the White House garden. With, of course, the occasional splurge to keep the kids happy.
Mrs. Obama, for her part, says her girls “can’t stay out of the kitchen when Sam is cooking.”
Among the health-conscious recipes Kass has talked up in recent months: seared tilapia with fried rice and broccoli and carrots, garden herb-roasted chicken with braised greens, broccoli soup, sweet potatoes and greens, and cauliflower gratin. His healthy snack suggestions include warm grapefruit with honey, and banana boats stuffed with raisins, nuts and crushed whole grain cereal.
The star power that comes with his chef’s jacket only helps reinforce Kass’ message about the importance of eating right. One minute he’s demonstrating how to make turkey lasagna with spinach on morning TV or chatting with Elmo about healthy school lunches, and the next he’s discussing new standards to improve meals on military bases or working with Wal-Mart to reduce the sodium content in packaged foods.
“We’re seeing real changes, both big and small, happening all over the country, and incredible partnerships and people stepping up in ways that we just never could have foreseen,” Kass says. “And this kind of effort has just been inspirational and gives us a lot of hope that we can truly overcome these problems in the years to come.”
It’s a measure of Kass’ growing stature that he’s gone from People magazine’s “most beautiful” list in his first year in Washington to Fast Company’s “most creative people in business” list in 2011.
Tom Colicchio, New York restaurateur and co-host of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” says Kass’ passion for healthy eating and knowledge of the issue make him a natural for his dual role.
“He knows this stuff inside out,” Colicchio said. “It’s not him latching on to some trend. He’s taken the time to learn it and understand it.”
When more than 500 chefs gathered on the White House lawn in 2010 to launch the “Chefs Move to School” program, pairing up chefs to work with individual schools, “that came directly from Sam,” says Colicchio. “This is something he cares deeply about.”
Walter Scheib, White House chef for 11 years in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, says it’s a “wonderful thing” that Kass’ cooking has become secondary to his policy work.
“It’s way overdue that chefs be involved in that component,” says Scheib. While past White House chefs might offer occasional behind-the-scenes advice on nutrition matters, Scheib says, “We were always thought of as, ‘Go back in the kitchen and be quiet.'”
Kass’ relationship with the Obamas began when he cooked for the family in Chicago before the 2008 elections. He was a history major in college, who discovered a love for cooking during a summer job at a Chicago restaurant. He finished his college years abroad, and ended up training in Vienna with an acclaimed Austrian chef.
Back in Chicago (where his schoolteacher father taught Malia Obama in fifth grade) Kass worked at the Mediterranean restaurant Avec before opening a private chef business, Inevitable Table, that promotes “a healthy lifestyle that focuses on the quality and flavor of food to encourage good eating habits.”
These days, Kass mixes plenty of cooking with his advocacy: He’s fixed honey crisp apple salad at the Agriculture Department cafeteria, served Elmo a burrito bulging with peppers, lettuce, rice and beans, and prepared Swiss chard frittatas for children on the White House lawn.
He doesn’t see much of his basement apartment as he juggles the roles of cook, policy wonk and family friend — even golfing with the president when the family vacations on Martha’s Vineyard and in Hawaii.
He’s also a big advocate for the White House garden, often helping troupes of schoolchildren harvest its bounty and teaching them about healthy eating.
At a child obesity conference last summer in California, Kass told about fretting over nightmare scenarios before hosting a group of schoolchildren for a summer harvest of broccoli, kale and other vegetables — an event that was to be observed by a sizeable press corps. He worried about the fallout if just one child set a vegetables-are-yucky tone that would derail the event.
“I didn’t sleep at all the night before,” he confessed. “One kid with some broccoli that they didn’t like would be a national disaster for us. … Everything we’re doing would’ve been set back two years.”
Instead, Kass found himself having to rein in a girl who sneaked off to a back bench to stuff her face with fresh-cut cauliflower.
“It’s the only time in my professional career that I’ve ever had to ask a child to please put the vegetables back on the plate,” he recalled to laughter, before turning serious.
“These kids were engaged in some part of the process of what it meant to grow and eat food,” he said. “And that little thing is absolutely critical to making the connection and having the foundation that kids will build on in the future to live healthier lives.”