Viewers paid as much attention to Kass as to the food; Judges' Table video, after the jump...
The Top Chef: DC school lunch episode that featured White House Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass as guest judge seems to have been far more popular with audiences than last week's season opener, which had the lowest ratings in Bravo's history.
The episode was officially titled "Outside The School Lunch Box," though Bravo had various other titles listed during the run-up to airing ("The Chefs Take On Childhood Obesity;" "Back To School"). It was intended to support First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign; one of the pillars of her childhood obesity project is improving the federal feeding programs.
Kass cast a sharp eye on the competing chefs' efforts at creating healthy, kid friendly dishes, while using a budget of just $2.68 per child, and working within the nutrition guidelines of the National School Lunch program. As he announced the challenge, Kass docked money from the budget for labor costs, too, in an effort to reflect what real schools deal with. All kinds of culinary craziness ensued, with cheftestants creating dishes that included peanut butter foam-topped celery (allergies!); soaking chicken thighs in cooking sherry (liquor! For kids!), and a dessert that had a whopping two pounds of sugar in it (ADD!!). But who needs to hear about the losers? The winning school lunch meal was:
Braised Pork Carnitas Tacos with Cilantro Roasted Corn
Salad with Cilantro Lime Vinaigrette
Black Bean Cake with Whole Grain & Sweet Potatoes
Caramelized Sweet Potatoes & Sherbet
Yes, it's possible to create a healthy school lunch on a low budget. Difficult, but possible. Kass and Mrs. Obama have visited a number of schools that are high achievers in the school lunch and physical fitness departments over the last year, in an effort to highlight the work of model programs. Alice Deal Middle School, where the Top Chef: DC episode was filmed, is one of these model schools.
While the show had a serious subject about what has become a politically volatile issue, its regular audience loves Top Chef as much for its gossipy elements and psychological combat as it does for culinary skill. Devoted viewers parse every moment of the action, and thus Eater has the funniest and best recap of the episode. Kass scored big with fans in the good looks department, so front and center at Eater is the photo at the top of this post, and in his blogpost, titled Oh, Hi, Sam Kass, critic Max Silvestri wonders
Woah! Was Michelle in charge of this hire? I am a straight man, I am just saying I don't think there is a place on that guy where you couldn't crack a walnut, am I right? (No locavoro.)
Silvestri continues with a laugh-out-loud account of the episode, and it's worth a read. AV CLub also has a good, detailed account. (Above: Kass during the episode with from left judge Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and Padma Lakshmi)
Below, watch Kass in action at the final Judges' Table, where he bashes the use of that cooking sherry in kids' food, and gets in some harsh words for sugar:
Update: At Washington City Paper, food editor Tim Carman compiles an excellent list of blogosphere reaction to Top Chef: DC. It's all focused on Kass, and titled Food News You Can Use: The Sam Kass Is Hot Edition. Carman writes:
If there was any theme to Wednesday night’s episode of Top Chef: DC, it had to be this: Assistant White House chef Sam Kass is a total, to-die-for hunk, more than deserving of his spot on People magazine’s 2009 list of 100 Most Beautiful People.
Carman's list of blogs that deemed Kass the most notable aspect of the episode:
Serious Eats found Kass good enough to eat: “This week on Top Chef DC, a bunch of people whose names I still don’t know cooked a bunch of delicious looking food for a delicious looking man named Sam Kass (who just happens to be the assistant chef at the White House).”
Side Dish, the “daily destination for Dallas foodies,” writes, “Before we get into the Quick Fire Challenge, let’s talk about our guest judge, Sam Kass, and why my new life goal is to date/marry him. First of all, he cooks for the president. No big deal. Secondly, he’s hot.”
We Love DC was “busy staring at [Kass] wondering if it would be possible to get trapped in an elevator with both him and Tom.”
Entertainment Weekly is ready to make Kass a regular: “Side note: Does anyone else think Kass would make a rather handsome and astute regular judge? There’s something about his shaved head and him telling Kenny that a tomato is actually a fruit…it was working for me.”
BrightestYoungThings tones down the Kass commentary just a touch: “Also, Eric Rippert is too French to deal with American cafeterias so he is nowhere to be found and we’re stuck looking at Sam Kass’ pursed lips and shiny shaven head and classic cheekbones that make him resemble a younger, handsomer Yul Brinner for the rest of the episode.”
OpenTable’s Dining Check can see the cracks in the handsome veneer: “Tonight’s guest judge is Sam Kass, who is the assistant White House chef. He’s nice to look at, but he’s not all that nice to the contestants, as you’ll see.”
God bless Carol Blymire over at the Washingtonian for going against the grain on Kass: “As the judges saunter in, it hits me: no Eric Ripert in this episode? We’re stuck with Sam Kass the whole time? Boooooooo, Bravo. Booooooooooo *pause to take a breath* ooooooooooo.”
Photo above: Kass and Lakshmi.
Related: Colicchio was among the hundreds of chefs who joined Mrs. Obama as she launched Chefs Move To Schools at the White House on June 4, 2010. Top Chef: DC is not the the first competition reality show appearance for Kass, but it might be the most fun. Last November, Kass welcomed the cast of NBC hit series The Biggest Loser to the White House Kitchen Garden, and then helped them prepare a salad with their crops, in the kitchen. He made a cameo--as himself--on Iron Chef America when Executive Chef Cris Comerford was competing for the title, and he's also doing things like appeared on the Today Show, cooking with Al Roker. Kass also has his own White House video career going on, as a frequent host/narrator of mini films about the Kitchen Garden.
*Video and photos courtesy Bravo; Top image from Eater.