Wednesday, November 04, 2009

White House Chef/Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass: The New York Times Profile

A very good piece on Sam Kass, with some fun personal details
The White House kitchen is having a big media week. Last night assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass and Executive Chef Cris Comerford were on NBC's The Biggest Loser, and Kass also made a cameo in the new HBO documentary on the election. Yesterday it was announced that First Lady Michelle Obama and Comerford will appear on Iron Chef America in January.

Today, a New York Times story about Kass becomes the third ok'd by the White House. Times writer Mark Bittman got the first one for Men's Health, and there was another one two weeks ago that Ob Fo didn't bother to mention due to the fact that it was riddled with inaccuracies. The new Times piece was written by writer Rachel L. Swarns, who knows her White House stuff; she was one of the co-writers of the recent big Times story on Mrs. Obama's family roots.

"White House Chef Wears Two Hats" is a good look at Kass's dual role as both chef and food policy wonk in the Obama White House, and there are quotes from former White House Exec Chef Walter Scheib III, Dep. Ag. Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who has a close relationship with Kass (and recently cooked with him at USDA's cafeteria); Senior Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes, who is part of the food policy team that's crafting Mrs. Obama's Healthy Kids Initiative at the White House; and Dan Barber, the award-winning New York chef who owns Blue Hill, the restaurant at which the Obamas had their New York Date Night (Barber's also an Ag wonk himself). (Photo: Kass at a recent White House event for breast cancer; he's also an activist on that issue, something that's not mentioned in Ms. Swarns's story)

Two quibbles: Swarns notes the MidAmerica CropLife Association as a critic of Mrs. Obama's garden, which has become an easy fallback for reporters. There have been plenty of other critics of the Kitchen Garden, and the single letter put out by CropLife many, many months ago is a tired trope to keep tossing in front of readers. (Kass at the White House, listening to Mrs. Obama speak at the Healthy Kids Fair)

Also, Jeff Stier, of the American Council on Science and Health, who *has* had a good, vigorous run publicly discussing and criticizing the Kitchen Garden, and is also quoted by Swarns, and he asked to go on the record here that he's not solely funded by big food companies, as Swarns notes in the story.

Stier's organization is a non-profit, with funding from a wide range of individuals and corporations, and is a "consumer education consortium concerned with issues related to food, nutrition, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, lifestyle, the environment and health."

Stier notes that funding for his group from "big food makers" makes up less than three percent of the budget, and that he's also "an avid gardener and produce enthusiast." That being said, the Times story is a very good read, and it's reprinted here in its entirety, as part of the official Ob Fo archive.

Update:
Late in the afternoon, the Times corrected their facts about Mr. Stier's funding in the online version of the story, but didn't note that they'd corrected it.


White House Chef Wears Two Hats
by Rachel L. Swarns, New York Times, Nov. 4, 2009

Twice a month, President Obama’s senior policy advisers gather at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to hash out strategies for improving the health of the country’s children. Among the assistant secretaries, chiefs of staff and senior aides sits an unlikely participant: a bald, intense young man who happens to be the newest White House chef.

His name is Sam Kass. And when he’s not grilling fish for the first family or tending tomatillos in the White House garden, he is pondering the details of child nutrition legislation, funding streams for the school lunch program and the best tactics to fight childhood obesity.

Part chef and part policy wonk, he is reinventing the role of official gastronome in the Executive Mansion. Indeed, Obama administration officials describe him as a vital conduit to the first family. “How do I get to the first lady, how do I try to transmit ideas and messages to her? Sam Kass,” said Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy agriculture secretary. “He’s been a real ally when we talk about farm to school.”

Mr. Kass, 29, forged a close bond with the Obamas while cooking for them and their children for about two years before they moved to Washington and has golfed with the president on Martha’s Vineyard. Behind the scenes, he attends briefings on child nutrition and health, has vetted nonprofits as potential partners for White House food initiatives and regularly peppers senior staff about policy matters. (“Do we have a toxicologist who specializes in colony collapse disorder?” Mr. Kass asked in a recent e-mail message about the Department of Agriculture’s position on honey bees, Ms. Merrigan recalled.)

For some former White House officials, this is nothing short of astonishing. Walter Scheib, the executive White House chef during the Clinton and Bush administrations, called Mr. Kass’s involvement in public policy unique.

While he is steeped in all matters locavore and was a moving force behind the White House garden, Mr. Kass has no formal culinary training and has never run a restaurant or hotel kitchen. (He graduated with a history degree from the University of Chicago and honed his culinary skills at Avec, a Chicago restaurant, before becoming a private chef.)

In recent months, Mr. Kass has emerged as one of the most high-profile promoters of Michelle Obama’s healthy living agenda. He has baked Swiss chard frittatas for students on the White House lawn, prepared chicken salad with red onions and toasted almonds at the Department of Agriculture’s cafeteria and sprinkled crab meal and ladybugs — instead of chemical fertilizers and pesticides — on the first lady’s garden.

“You look around our country and you see that we have a lot of major challenges, the origin of which is food,” said Mr. Kass, who wore a suit and tie instead of kitchen whites during an interview in the East Reception Room of the White House. “It’s not a big step to think about a) What am I doing? How is that affecting this problem? How am I helping?

“Cooking for people’s pleasure is obviously a nice thing to do,” he said, “but the No. 1 reason we eat is to nourish ourselves and take care of ourselves.”

Mr. Kass’s title is assistant White House chef and food initiative coordinator. Friends say he cooks primarily for the Obamas, while the executive chef, Cristeta Comerford, handles most formal gatherings. “He really has been put in place for a different role, for advising the first lady, for being the face of the place,” Mr. Scheib said. “It’s great that someone who is still physically in the kitchen, chopping, dicing, roasting, physically cooking, not just talking about cooking, would be part of that discussion.”

But after reading yet another mention of the young chef’s physique, Mr. Scheib warned that the buzz was a bit overblown. (People magazine called Mr. Kass one of “Barack’s Beauties” in its list of 100 Most Beautiful people this year.) “Let’s remember: the guy’s a cook,” Mr. Scheib said. “There are people who are much more qualified to talk about nutrition than cooks. At the end of the day, we make food; we’re not geniuses.”

Still, proponents of sustainable farming and locally grown, organic foods are cheering Mr. Kass on. Dan Barber, the chef at Blue Hill in Greenwich Village, said Mrs. Obama and Mr. Kass were helping Americans “think about food in a different way.”

Melody Barnes, the president’s domestic policy adviser, who convenes the bimonthly meetings on children’s health, described Mr. Kass as remarkably “in tune” with Mrs. Obama’s thinking, though Ms. Barnes joked that she and her colleagues feared he might show up with “über-healthy cupcakes.”
Not to worry. Mr. Kass, who loved making pancakes for his parents when he was growing up in Chicago, is known for creating healthy and tasty dishes. “He was a focused, clean, hardworking cook who really knew what good food should taste like,” said Paul Kahan, the executive chef and a partner at Avec. “But he always made it very clear that his goal was not to work his way up through the ranks in the kitchen. He wanted to be involved socially with food.”

That’s why Mr. Kass became the executive chef at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago last year, where he offered up free soup, encouraged food-related debate and sharply criticized the modern agricultural system.

In blogs on the museum’s Web site, Mr. Kass linked government agricultural subsidies to a national lunch program that he described as disproportionately high in fat, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup.

“We find ourselves in a fight to salvage a food system that has been ravaged by an approach of quantity over quality,” he wrote. “The industry our society has built around food is harmful and unsustainable.”

Mr. Kass has toned down that kind of talk since he came to the White House in January. These days, he describes big agricultural producers and fertilizer and pesticide companies as “partners,” not obstacles to reform.

That has not assuaged the White House’s critics.

After Mr. Kass said the White House garden would not use pesticides, the Mid America CropLife Association, an agricultural chemical trade group, urged Mrs. Obama to acknowledge the benefits of conventional agriculture to families who lack the time or means to tend backyard gardens.

Jeffrey Stier of the American Council on Science and Health, a consumer education group financed by big food makers, said the Obama message was unrealistic for ordinary families.

“The average family can’t feed themselves all year round on their own garden,” Mr. Stier said. “If you’re concerned about cost, organic and locally grown is more expensive and you don’t get any nutritional benefit from it.”

Mr. Kass and other officials say improving school lunches and widening access to farmers’ markets for people on government aid will benefit the poor. “He’s often the one who stops the conversation and says, ‘People will do this and won’t do that,’ ” said Jocelyn Frye, Mrs. Obama’s policy director, who has pronounced Mr. Kass’s collard greens and barbecued chicken “very good.”

As for his own tastes? He confesses to only a few indulgences, including tacos and chicken wings, though his friend, Tara Lane, a former pastry chef at Avec, described him as a “human garbage disposal.”

Mr. Kass says the enthusiasm he encounters at schools, federal agencies, farmers’ markets and the like shows “there’s a lot of desire to make change.”

But he is keenly aware of the challenges. On a visit to a school that prides itself on its healthy lunches, Mr. Kass watched ruefully as students plucked each vegetable off their pizzas. “It’s got to taste good, you know?” he said. “They’re not going to eat it, no matter how healthy it is, if it doesn’t taste good.”

*Sam Kass photos by Obama Foodorama. Logo by New York Times.