Sam Kass in the White House garden (top) Kass with students (below) (Photos by Lynn Sweet)
WASHINGTON — A lot of lives have changed since Barack Obama won the presidential election one year ago last Wednesday, none so much as the life of Chicago’s Sam Kass, the engaging, shaved-head assistant White House chef and food initiative coordinator, a crusader for healthy eating who has shot to fame in the almost 10 months the Obamas have been in the White House.
It’s not so much his cooking — when we talked, Kass did not name a signature dish or style, instead emphasizing his overall food philosophy — but his work on the White House kitchen garden and nutrition programs, signature projects of first lady Michelle Obama, that has vaulted him from the food section to the news pages.
Last spring, he landed on People magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful People” list, and during the summer, he was part of President Obama’s golf foursome on Martha’s Vineyard.
Kass, 29, comes out of the local-food movement, and his menu is often inspired by what’s ripening in the White House garden. His unusual dual roles mean he works in the White House kitchen and with White House policy advisers dealing with food and nutrition issues.
“My focus as a chef,” Kass told me, “is to make sure that anybody that I am feeding, that I am sort of safeguarding the health of whoever it is that I am cooking for. And I think enjoyment and pleasure is definitely obviously a wonderful component of eating, but the reason we eat is for nourishment No. 1, first and foremost.
“So I try to make sure that the food is beneficial, that everything on the plate is beneficial and it is delicious. I also try to cook based on relationships as much as possible with the people who are growing the food and people [who are] involved in the process.”
Around the White House, you can see Kass in his cooking whites — or in a suit.
In Washington, you could, as I did one Saturday morning, run into him at a neighborhood farmers market. I met Kass before the Obamas’ first big dinner last February, for the nation’s governors, when Mrs. Obama gathered students from a local cooking school in the White House kitchen for a teaching preview of the meal.
Kass explained the fine points of the salad.
“On the bottom is watermelon radishes that are grown very close to here. They’re really big and beautiful,” said Kass. “And it’s a citrus salad, so we carve our oranges and grapefruit. And then our lettuces are mixed with ice plants, which grow really well through the winter. And we have crystal lettuce, and they’re very — basically the same variety of plant, and with Sicilian pistachios that have been lightly candied, and a honey citrus vinaigrette. So it should be very tasty.”
Kass was the Obamas’ personal chef who launched his home-cooking business, Inevitable Table, from his Pilsen residence, in 2007. He also volunteered last year as a chef at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum “Re-thinking Soup” project.
He is part of a University of Chicago network that takes in the Obamas and many of their close friends and associates — some, like Kass, who ended up in Washington.
Kass attended the U. of C. Lab School for high school and some of his elementary years. His father, Robert, a fifth-grade teacher at Lab, taught Malia Obama last year. His mother, Valentine, who lives in Alexandria, Va., is a science educator at the National Science Foundation who, while at the Museum of Science and Industry, was the director of Omnimax productions and programs.
White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett knows Robert Kass from her days when she served on the Lab School board. Susan Sher, Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff, is a past chairwoman of that board.
Karen Duncan, the wife of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is a former Lab School athletic director who is now working with Kass on encouraging schools to serve healthy school lunches.
Kass, she said, “was a great baseball player for U-High when I was the AD there. He used to race off campus to the baseball fields during the day to rake them so the games could be played. The next time I saw him raking was in the White House garden.”
“He wanted to be a professional baseball player,” recalled Larry McFarlane the dean of students at U-High. Kass, after graduating high school in 1998, played baseball on a scholarship at Kansas City (Kan.) Community College. He later transferred to Triton College in suburban Chicago, eventually receiving a degree in U.S. history from the University of Chicago in 2004.
“One summer while I was at the U. of C., I worked at a restaurant in Chicago, 312 Chicago, and that kind of started me getting interested in food,” Kass told me. “And my last semester at U. of C., when I was getting my history degree, was spent in Vienna, and while I was over there finishing up school, I was taken in by a restaurant over there and that is where I ended up staying doing my training.”
In 2003 and 2004, he cooked under chef Christian Domschitz at the Morwald im Ambassador in Vienna, Austria, a restaurant described in a Frommer’s review as “one of the best and most stylish in Vienna.”
By 2005, Kass was back in Chicago, in the kitchen at Avec, where Koren Grieveson is the chef. Kass was a line cook. “He could put together whatever kind of cuisine he wanted to,” she said.
Kass, who is single, moved to Washington earlier this year.
His policy work has had him meeting with victims of foodborne illnesses, speaking at the D.C. Central Kitchen and doing healthy-food demonstrations at area schools. He was also featured in a White House video about the kitchen garden. Kass played a central role in developing the garden.
Kass works with Jocelyn Frye, Mrs. Obama’s domestic policy adviser.
“Sam has been really terrific,” said Frye, “in part because what he helps us think about is how these issues operate in the real world, that is the sort of the practical experience he brings to the table. He’s worked in the kitchen, he’s worked with families, he understands what is realistic to say to people in terms of healthy eating and what seems sort of out of bounds.”
Said Frye, “I think he is always a good sounding board for a lot of ideas that maybe fly across the table, but you know he is one of the people who always helps to bring us back to reality.”