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Sam Kass talks White House Thanksgiving with NBC's David Gregory

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11/22/2011 09:08


Assistant WH Chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass on Thanksgiving at the White House, My Plate and how he and the First Lady want to help kids be healthier.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – November 22, 2011 — In a special Thanksgiving edition of the “Meet the Press” online feature, “PRESS Pass,” White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass gave David Gregory an inside look at the First Family’s kitchen and talked about his special advisory role in the Obama administration. As the Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food initiatives, Kass has been a high-profile advocate for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign and other children’s health programs. His goal while in the administration is to have a “transformative impact” on the health of the country, particularly children.

Kass spoke with David Gregory about how much the White House should be involved in child nutrition, saying that in schools, “it’s clear we have a responsibility to ensure that there are good standards that are based on science.” But he admitted to being bewildered on one government food policy: Congress’ decision that pizza can be called a vegetable.

“You’re going to have to ask [Congress] … for the answer on that one,” he said.

Kass, who prepares everything from state dinners to the Obama family’s private meals, revealed what excites him most as a chef and talked about the rewards of cooking healthy from the First Lady’s garden. David also got some insight into the first family’s kitchen, where, Kass says, vegetables are non-negotiable and the Obama children have to fend for themselves when it comes to snacks.

For the White House Thanksgiving, though, he says “we just try to have fun.”

The full transcript is below and embeddable video is online here:

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Mandatory Credit: NBC News’ “PRESS Pass”

GREGORY: I just want to start by pointing out I wouldn’t normally wear a full suit here, in the kitchen, but a) this is the First Kitchen, and you’re in your dress whites here, so I mean that’s formal —

KASS: You know, this, this is my nice coat —

GREGORY: So I do have to ask you as we look at the White — is this, is this the whole White House kitchen? I mean is this where everything happens?

KASS: This is where all the magic happens. And it’s pretty amazing; it is quite small, at least to me–

GREGORY: It is small. I mean I’m looking around — I mean it’s bigger than my kitchen but it’s still small. So whether you’re cooking for the first family, or whether you’re cooking for a state dinner, it all was staged out of here.

KASS: It’s all staged out of here, and you know this is an historic building, right, so we can’t change any walls.


KASS: But when this kitchen was built, state dinners were closer to thirty people, as opposed to say a hundred and fifty or even up to three hundred. So this is what we have to work with and Chef Comerford and the team makes it happen — and it’s an amazing thing to see.

GREGORY: Let me first talk about you, because it’s interesting: You can be in your chef whites, but you’re also spending part of the day wearing your suit, as an advisor in the White House on a lot of these nutritional issues. I mean this is a unique role that you play.

KASS: It is. It is a unique role, and it’s a real honor to be able to work with the First Lady and the broader team, and we’re trying to improve the health and nutrition of the country particularly as it pertains to our youngest, our youngest kids, so it’s been a great honor.

GREGORY: Well let’s talk more about that in just a minute, but I do want to talk about what everybody’s talking about, which is: over Thanksgiving, and the Thanksgiving meal, this first family in particular is so committed to nutrition on a national scale and certainly in their own home. Does that also pertain to Thanksgiving or is it as much of a celebration of historical eating as it is for most families?

KASS: Thanksgiving is about a celebration, and enjoying food and family and coming together and really enjoying that whole, that whole process. So we really, we just have fun and enjoy really traditional dishes, just like dishes that are being eaten all over the country — and the same way that they’ve been eating in their family for, since long before they got here. So it’s about fun and enjoyment.

GREGORY: And let me ask you more generally: I mean is Thanksgiving to you, is the Thanksgiving meal a celebration of American food? Is that how you view it?

KASS: Oh absolutely. I mean I think Thanksgiving, you know, it comes from a celebration of the harvest, right – as the original, from way back when — and for us, being in the White House, y ou know we just had a great harvest with a bunch of kids from the area and the First Lady and we’re going to be using some of that produce for the Thanksgiving dinner here. But it is about tradition, and it is about togetherness and eating as a family and celebrating all that we have to be thankful for. And I think that is at the core of it, and you know personally I’ll say it’s my favorite holiday for that very reason — that it’s just about being together and enjoying delicious food and being able to not worry about it and just eat and eat.

GREGORY: What, what particularly interests you as a chef at this stage and working here? What is it that excites you the most about food? I should say what kind of food excites you the most — whether cooking it or thinking about it.

KASS: Right, well in dual roles I probably have a couple different answers for you on that. But I think in terms of the cooking and as a chef, what excites me every day is being able to go down to the first lady’s garden and being able to cook out of that. I mean it’s just such an honor, number one, but two, as a chef, it’s the best way to cook. I mean I can go down and pick whatever looks the best and is the most ripe, and then bring it up here and be putting it on the plate in thirty minutes. And that’s, there’s just, that’s just exciting — every day – ’cause there’s always something new getting ready to be harvested in the garden, so that’s just been great.

GREGORY: And that is a great model for a lot of people who can eat that way, but one of the challenges you face and the First Lady faces is that so many Americans are not in a position —

KASS: That’s right.

GREGORY: To, you know, go into their garden and cook that for dinner, because — you talk about food deserts, where fresh fruit and vegetables is not available for families to cook, whereas fast food seems to be everywhere.

KASS: Right. You know, we talk about choice and choice being you know the essence of what the First Lady is trying to, trying to work on here. But for families that don’t have any fresh food in their — or any kind of healthy food in their neighborhoods, the notion of choice just doesn’t mean anything to them. So we’re working very hard to try to ensure that all communities really have access to healthy and affordable food. Just this past summer the First Lady had a major announcement with, with retailers both big and small to target their growth and expansion in fifteen hundred locations across the country in the next five years. According to the companies this would, this will impact 9.5 million people — families who do not have access to healthy and affordable food — by either building new stores of refurbishing old stores that don’t have food to make sure we’re bringing in healthy food to these stores. It’s going to have a transformative impact for these families and make it much easier for them to make those healthier choices for, for their kids.

GREGORY: You’ve also, we’ve talked about the food pyramid and how the government revises those guidelines. What should the dinner plate look like?

KASS: Right. The the ‘My Plate’ has just been this great breakthrough. And it’s something that the First Lady had always said – ‘We need to give simple tools that make sense, and that are applicable to people’s lives.’ And while the pyramid, you know, was great and had its, had its strengths, we don’t eat off pyramids, and being able to put this in a plate form provides a framework that we can just see what is what is a plate should look like. But it’s open to the interpretation of any chef, and I say that in the most broadest terms — all parents are chefs right? They’re cooking every night for their families — to interpret this in a way that is delicious and creative and makes sense to the cultures and traditions of any family or community. So that’s why this has been so exciting and the response has just been overwhelming, it’s been great.

GREGORY: And so the key to your plate is what? In terms of getting the best nutritional value for particularly young people.

KASS: Yeah and eating balanced meals essentially. If every, if everyday we’re eating basically balanced meals with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, some good protein, some dairy: Then you know then our kids are free to do what they want and not for parents to not worry about them. So, you know, as a kid goes to a pizza party or has a, you know, splurges on the weekends, it’s no big deal. It’s if where kids are eating in that manner day in and day out is when they start to run into trouble.

GREGORY: But typically, I mean even like the old food pyramid, you want to see a lot of green on that plate.

KASS: A lot of green, a lot of leafy greens, dark orange vegetables, some whole grains, we’re really on the way if we’re doing that.

GREGORY: I have to ask: My colleague Mika Brzezinski on Morning Joe has been so upset about the news in the past couple of weeks, that somehow Congress came to the agreement that pizza was a vegetable. Can you help me understand how this could possibly come to pass?

KASS: You’re going to have to ask them for those, for the answer on that one. You know, we’re working really hard to try to make sure that their standards are reasonable and that schools can achieve them, but also that are supporting the health of kids. So that kind of decision I’m going to have to say, the Hill is where you’re going to get the answer for that.

GREGORY: What about what’s happening in schools? Where do you think is an appropriate place for government generally, and for the administration given the First Lady’s concern about this, to have the best possible impact on what children are eating in schools?

KASS: I would say, you know the First Lady’s said this a lot — that government has a role to play here certainly. But most of the answers to the challenges we face when it comes to our kids’ health are going to come from the country — from citizens and teachers, parents, community leaders, business leaders, and not really from from the government. We do have a role to play and I think schools is one of the places where it’s clear we have a responsibility to ensure that there are good standards that are based on science, that really help make sure our kids are getting the food that they need. You know we’ve done a lot. The passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act that the First Lady championed along with leaders on the Hill and lots of people from around the country is is is doing a lot of that work. But the First Lady also is championing the Healthier U.S. School Challenge, which is a challenge that has very high standards around both what’s being served but also physical activity and nutrition education. We’re seeing incredible response to this all over the country — schools are working so hard to on their own raise their owns standards and meet these really high benchmarks, and that has been amazing. So we’re working to be supportive in any and every way we can, and it’s happening all over the country. Everywhere we go we run into a science teacher who has built a garden and is doing curriculum, or we run into a food service professional who’s just taken it on his or her back to just make some big changes and educate their kids about how to make a better choice even in the cafeteria line. Story after story like this. So it’s just been great.

GREGORY: And along with that, a big part of the campaign is Let’s Move, and being active and for kids as well as grownups to be active, because any of us know who try to live a fit life that you’ve got to get the eating right but you’ve got to — that level of activity has to always be there. One can’t go without the other.

KASS: That’s absolutely right. And you’ll see in this next year we’re going to really focus a lot on making sure our kids are getting the activity we need. Right now, you know, the average American child is in front of a screen for about seven hours a day. And so long as our kids are sitting in front of a screen for seven hours a day, we’re going to have some real challenges in making sure that they’re going to reach their adulthood, you know, in a healthy place. So we’re going to really work to inspire the nation, to work with mayors and other key stakeholders to provide better access to play, better access to being physically active, both in schools but then also in the community. So we’re going to work hard on that.

GREGORY: So let me ask you a few quick ones. On the topic of Thanksgiving, is there a standout food for you that you like to eat or cook or both?

KASS: I’m a stuffing and gravy kind of guy.

GREGORY: Oh there’s the fitness right there.

KASS: Hey, come on, look it’s Thanksgiving, right. We’ve got to enjoy ourselves, you’ve got to blow it out.

GREGORY: And what’s the secret to your stuffing and gravy?

KASS: Oh, well I mean I keep my gravy real simple. You just take the drippings from the turkey, a little flour, some herbs, a little shallot, a little onion, you’re good to go. I keep that really simple. But I love in stuffing, some cranberries, some nuts, like pecans, and any kind of herb you throw in there. And whatever you do, whether you go bread or you go rice, you’ll be good to go.

GREGORY: We’ve talked about grains. Like some hot grains right now that are being used in cooking. You know, great for your families instead of cooking rice, you can cook your kids some other grains — talk about em, what excited you?

KASS: There’s lots of great options out there that are really affordable and we just need to learn you know, practice, to practice cooking with them, cause you know we haven’t cooked with them a lot. Couscous can be made in five minutes — whole wheat couscous is literally done in five minutes; it’s available in most stores, it’s very cheap. Cracked wheat — also really delicious, easy to cook, it’s great. Brown rice, we always, you know, I always try to cook with brown rice whenever possible.


KASS: There’s also farro. Farro is a great grain, really good whole grain and lots of nutrients, lots of fiber, becoming more and more available. It’s a really old grain, it’s actually one of the world’s oldest grains.

GREGORY: And you can make it like risotto.

KASS: Yeah, I make it like risotto all the time. Or you can cook it just like rice –there’s lots of ways to use it. But we’re trying to, yeah, families are experimenting and coming up with new dishes all the time. It’s really exciting.

GREGORY: What is a house standout, a White House favorite that you’ve cooked, you or the team have cooked?

KASS: Oh that’s, that’s top secret information.

GREGORY: That’s classified information?

KASS: There’s no way I can disclose that. Oh a standout, I don’t know, what’s a standout? You know, we, to be quite honest with you, we just try to cook balanced meals, there always has to be a vegetable on the plate ,and it always has to get eaten — that’s for sure, that’s non-negotiable. And we just try to keep balance, but we also make sure we’re having fun. We have kids in this house and so you know, we throw them a bone every once and while, give ’em something that’s fun now and again–

GREGORY: Do you keep anything in the kitchen here for any late night snacks, or it’s just like the leftover farro?

KASS: Yeah they’ve got to fend for themselves.

GREGORY: They’ve got to deal with that. What about when you really get to let loose? A state dinner, a time when you really want to be creative, what really gets your juices flowing as a chef and for that kind of setting?

KASS: Oh you know, look, it just depends on the season. I think a lot of times we really try to cook with what’s the weather, what’s the season like. So today it’s cold and rainy, well you know that would be more exciting to get the soups, the squashes, we did, Chef Comerford did an amazing squash dish, squash soup, for the Korean state dinner that was made with squash from the garden. It was actually planned as a part of a three sister’s garden, with the corned beans and squash that some young kids planted with us. So that was amazing. We got so excited about that. It’s really fun to watch that whole process translate into a state dinner, I mean it’s just been amazing.

GREGORY: Chef Kass, thank you very much.

KASS: It’s been such a pleasure.

GREGORY: Happy Holidays.

KASS: To you as well.

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