Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sam Kass Bio: White House Senior Policy Advisor For Healthy Food Initiatives

*Updated, Dec. 20, 2011 from the original blogpost in 2009:
President Obama and First Lady Obama brought their own personal chef, Sam Kass, a Chicago native, to join the kitchen staff at the White House in 2009, which was publicly announced by Mrs. Obama's spokesperson, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, on Jan. 28, 2009. Kass was given the title of "assistant chef," and he also had the title of Food Initiative Coordinator, but this wasn't revealed until after the groundbreaking for the First Lady's Kitchen Garden in March of 2009. In July of 2010, Kass was promoted to Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, news first reported on Obama Foodorama which went on to create global headlines. The title change was to better reflect his duties at the White House, where Kass is the only individual who does double duty as a member of the residence staff and the Executive staff. Kass entered the White House at age 28; his birthday is in April, and he will be 32 in 2012. (Above: Kass at the White House, in the Kitchen Garden, in 2010)

CLICK HERE for links to all posts about Kass.

Kass works as an assistant chef under Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford in the White House kitchen, and in his role as Policy Advisor he oversees all elements of Mrs. Obama's food initiatives. His wide-ranging job includes supporting Mrs. Obama's advocacy for better school lunches, her healthy eating/nutrition/fitness campaign, her work with anti-hunger initiatives and food banks, and the White House Kitchen Garden. He is the architect of many components of the First Lady's national Let's Move! campaign, formally launched in February of 2010. Kass is the chief ambassador for the campaign after Mrs. Obama, and travels widely to promote it. In 2011, he made more than 24 appearances at food policy conferences, trade shows and school visits across the US. This included traveling to Chicago with Mrs. Obama for the first-ever Let's Move Food Desert Summit, a key component of the campaign.

During his White House tenure, Kass has met with Members of Congress, Mayors, Governors, farmers, food manufacturers and grocers, and food policy advocates from across the political spectrum in his role as Senior Policy Advisor. In 2011, he was named #11 on Fast Company's list of "100 Most Creative People In Business," cited for his "major victory" in creating Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! partnership with global grocery giant Walmart, the largest private sector commitment for the childhood obesity campaign. The campaign had expanded exponentially by the end of 2011; an overview is here. (Above: Kass speaking at Partnership for a Healthier America's first-ever national childhood obesity summit in November of 2011)

And yes, Kass still cooks for the First Family in the evenings. He also travels with the First Family on summer and Christmas vacations, and is a golfing partner for the President.

The Kitchen Garden...
Kass still oversees Mrs. Obama's internationally famous South Lawn Kitchen Garden, which is the subject of her forthcoming book "American Grown," which will be published in April of 2012. As of 2010, the Kitchen Garden had produced more than 1,400 pounds of crops from 1,100 square feet on the South Lawn. The garden was expanded in Spring of 2010, and is now 1,500 square feet, with a total crop production of more than 2,400 pounds by the end of 2011. (Above: Kass and Mrs. Obama in the Kitchen Garden)

Students from local elementary schools have joined Mrs. Obama for each public harvest and planting, events that occur in the Spring and Fall. High-profile chefs have also been invited to participate. Links to all Kitchen Garden posts.

There is also a Beehive beside the garden that was started under Kass's direction, overseen by beekeeper Charlie Brandts, a White House carpenter. It is the first ever on White House grounds. Kass has managed the student and adult volunteers who regularly work in the White House kitchen and in the garden, and gives tours of the garden for adult visitors, media, and school groups, as do the other White House chefs.

The garden is officially managed by Jim Adams, who is now chief horticulturalist at the White House, and maintained by Park Service employees with the help of volunteers. It is meticulously maintained, and visible to tourists from the access road behind the White House. The gardeb is also on display during the annual Fall and Spring White House Garden and Grounds Tours, where thousands of visitors line up to walk by and view Mrs. Obama's signature project up close.

The education of Sam Kass: The six-year plan...
Kass did not attend culinary school. He was a baseball star in high school, and had aspirations to join the Major Leagues. He is a leftie, and played outfield, and was a star hitter in both high school and college. He attended the University of Chicago Lab School for high school, and graduated in 1998. His father, Robert Kass, was a fifth grade teacher there, who taught Malia Obama during her last year in attendance, before President Obama's election. Current Education Secretary Arne Duncan's wife, Karen Duncan, also worked at the school as an Athletic Director, and she joined Kass in working on better school lunch programs in the early part of the Administration. (Above: A photo of Kass from 2007)

Lynn Sweet, Washington Bureau Chief for Chicago Sun-Times, had the first exclusive Kass interview after he arrived at the White House, and detailed his educational history. Kass attended two different community colleges in his bid to get into the Major Leagues: In 1998, Kass played baseball on a scholarship at Kansas City (Kan.) Community College, and later transferred to Triton College in suburban Chicago. He transferred to the University of Chicago after giving up his baseball goals. He majored in US history, and received his degree in 2004.

During summer break when he was a junior in college, Kass worked at 312 restaurant in Chicago, and his interest in food began. He spent the second semester of his senior year at a U of C program in Vienna, Austria, and while there he started to work at Mörwald im Ambassador, a restaurant described by Frommer's guide as "one of the best and most stylish in Vienna." Kass apprenticed under acclaimed Chef Christian Domschitz.

Kass then returned to Chicago, where he worked at the restaurant Avec, as well as their sister restaurant Blackbird. Almost simultaneously, he opened Inevitable Table, a private grocery shopping/cooking service, and it was under this umbrella that he first started working for the Obama family. A very busy fellow, Kass was also the executive chef at Jane Addams Hull-House, where he ran "Rethinking Soup," a soup-kitchen/community-center project, which sought to be a kind of intellectual salon combined with free lunch. (Above: Kass cooking at a USDA luncheon in September of 2009)

More background material on Kass, from a February, 2010 update to the original post that appeared here:
Kass has become the White House liaison with USDA, and he works closely with both Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan on a variety of projects and initiatives, including USDA's Know your Farmer, Know Your Food program, which seeks to re-localize food sourcing, and encourage farm to school feeding programs across the United States. Re-framing the federal feeding programs, ending child hunger, and making large inroads into America's obesity epidemic among adults and children are goals of the Obama White House, and USDA is crucial to this, since nearly one in four Americans is deemed "food insecure," and a huge percentage of USDA's budget is devoted to federal feeding programs. (Above: Kass listens to Mrs. Obama speak about breast cancer during an event at the White House in 2009

The Farmers Market BY the White House, which opened on September 17, 2009, and the Healthier US Schools Challenge are two of the joint projects between the White House and USDA, with Kass as a liaison. The Challenge has been a USDA program since 2004, and has about 650 elementary schools participating nationally, but Mrs. Obama and Sec. Vilsack are working to expand it to middle and high schools. The White House Farmers Market ran this year until Oct. 29, and is scheduled to return in the Spring of 2010. It's about two blocks from the White House, and no, produce from the White House Kitchen Garden is not sold there. (Above: Kass at a White House Breast Cancer awareness event)

Since the White House Kitchen Garden was planted in April of 2009 and rapidly gained global attention, the White House has been experimenting with new ways of messaging better food and health habits without raising the ire of reluctant citizens. This has included Youtube videos, public appearances, speeches by Mrs. Obama in which she laces in food policy, and inviting a series of high-profile guest chefs to the White House. Visitors have included Jose Andres, Bobby Flay, Maricel E. Presilla, Michael Psilakis, Mario Batali, Spike Mendelssohn, Art Smith, Alan Wong, Todd Gray, and Ellie Krieger. Chef Marcus Samuelsson was invited to be the guest chef for the first Obama State Dinner, held in honor of India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on Nov. 24, 2009.

Prime time television has entered the mix; Kass and Comerford welcomed the cast of NBC's competition reality TV show The Biggest Loser into the White House kitchen on Nov. 3, 2009 and Mrs. Obama and Comerford have shot an episode of Iron Chef America, which will debut on January 3, 2010. A video preview is here. Everything you could possibly need to know about the White House edition of Iron Chef America is in this post, including links to recipes made on the show. Team White House won, and the program not only advocated local and sustainable food sourcing, and highlighted the Kitchen Garden, but it also set a ratings record for Food Network.

Since President Obama's inauguration, every element of Obama food activity has become something of an object of national fascination, whether it is Obama date nights at restaurants, harvests from the White House Kitchen Garden, the latest goings on in the White House pastry kitchen, Mrs. Obama's professed love of French fries, or President Obama's public burger runs. A concurrent theme has emerged on the internet, in which Kass has become a fantasy crush-object for millions of females. The White House essentially kicked this meme off, however, because Kass joined other members of the Obama administration on People magazine's 2009 100 Most Beautiful People list for 2009--the first White House chef ever named to the list.

As Kass's public presence has grown, so has the attention paid him for things other than policy. But it's his policy work that Kass will ultimately be remembered for, because 2009 has seen the start of a national paradigm shift in food, with Mrs. Obama and the White House at its center.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama, except for old Kass photo from 2007