Joined by excited kids and chef Daniel Boulud, Mrs. Obama spotlights the wonders of the food chain, from dirt to dining
The White House: It rained for most of the day on Wednesday in Washington. But at the precise moment First Lady Michelle Obama appeared from behind a stand of pines as she walked down the South Lawn on her way to the Kitchen Garden, the sun burst through the low clouds. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Sam Kass before the Harvest started)
With the crops bowing from the heavy downpours, the 1,500 square-foot Kitchen Garden looked like a credible but edible version of Monet's garden at Giverny. It was a gouache of greeny hues and tumbling vines, punctuated by bright pops of color from ripe autumn vegetables. Thirty very excited fifth graders from DC's Bancroft and Tubman Elementary Schools awaited the First Lady. They were seated at picnic tables covered with red and white checked tablecloths, anchored by striped china bowls filled with apples.
A handful of visiting chefs, including the internationally acclaimed Daniel Boulud, stood alongside the edge of the Kitchen Garden, beside the White House chefs and staff. Everyone burst into applause and cheers as Mrs. Obama strode up to what's become perhaps the most famous garden in modern times.
The First Lady was bathed in a pale amber light as she welcomed her guests. She was clad in a high-tech black anorak, a geometric print shirt, black pants, and leather boots embellished with chain mail, and looked like a chic warrior in the ongoing battle to get children to eat their vegetables. (Above: Mrs. Obama during her brief formal remarks to the kids)
Less than a half hour before, Mrs. Obama had been at an event in the East Room, wearing a silk jersey dress and heels, hosting the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. But now she was ready to rumble with the radishes.
"All over the country, hundreds of communities have planted gardens like this," Mrs. Obama told the kids, after the cheers had died down. "And the food from this Kitchen Garden has been used in big important dinners."
Mrs. Obama explained that her garden is important not just for the White House, but for everyone, because it carries a crucial message about food and health. But despite that, she said, not many people actually eat from the garden. It feeds the First Family, the President's visitors--and the homeless clients who receive daily meals from local social services agency Miriam's Kitchen.
Sam Kass, the mastermind behind the garden, and Mrs. Obama's Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives, had told the kids exactly the same thing while they awaited the First Lady's arrival.
"Do you realize that only--only--the First Family, their guests, State Dinners, and our great friends at Miriam's Kitchen--they're the only people who get to eat out of this garden," Kass said. "You guys are some of the luckiest people in the world! Is that exciting?"
"Ye--esss!" the kids shouted.
The fact that the Kitchen Garden simultaneously feeds the First Family, world leaders, and many of Washington's least privileged citizens is an unspoken, powerful message about food and justice, and about how everyone is connected through the power of the plate.
Mrs. Obama's childhood obesity campaign message has been equally dynamic: She's told very personal stories about the First Family's food habits as she's encouraged all of America to join her. (Above: Mrs. Obama, kids, and Kass harvest sweet potatoes)
Often at Kitchen Garden events, Mrs. Obama will speak for a long time about food policy, but on Monday, she was very brief: There was much to do in the crop rows. The First Lady formally welcomed Boulud and his fellow chefs from the Bocuse d'Or USA Foundation. These included James Kent and Tom Allan, rising culinary superstars who will represent the US in the international Bocuse d'Or competition in January. Their coach, chef Gavin Kaysen, and two culinary council members, chefs Eric Ziebold and Paul Liebrandt, were also on hand.
"This is big, it's huge," Boulud (l) said to Obama Foodorama about the First Lady's food initiatives. "It is so important for everyone."
Boulud is an award-winning and legendary chef who runs a restaurant empire centered in New York, and he's also a cookbook author and a TV personality. He grew up on his father's farm in Lyon, where he said vegetables were grown and sold. There was a also dairy operation, and a charcuterie.
"I was just like those kids," Boulud said, pointing to the visiting students. "Working everyday. I was in the vegetables, picking and pulling."
He added that having his own garden, just like Mrs. Obama's, is a dream that he is "still working on."
Boulud is now Chair of the Board of Directors of Bocuse d'Or USA, and the organization has just adopted a school in New York City, as part of the First Lady's Chefs Move to Schools initiative, which pairs professional chefs with local schools. The participating chefs from Bocuse d'Or will be taking students to the local farmers market, and giving them cooking lessons, Boulud said.
There was little fanfare when it was time to dive into the garden and start the actual plucking and pulling of the vegetables. (Above: Kass with a wheelbarrow of pumpkins, and a student with a monster sweet potato)
"Are you ready to go? Are you ready to work?" Mrs. Obama said. "Let's harvest!"
The kids leapt up, and, paired with the chefs, they fanned out across the garden. There was a mad but pre-organized scramble for plastic tubs and scythes, for garden shears and gloves.
The First Lady and her two student helpers visited the pumpkin patch first, cutting pumpkins from the vines. These were loaded into a waiting wheelbarrow, after Mrs. Obama and the kids looked at them admiringly--if a little curiously. Some were still half green.
"They're going to get orange after they're off the vine," Kass explained.
“Very cool, isn’t it?” Mrs. Obama said to her helpers. “You guys have witnessed the first White House pumpkins.”
After the seven smallish pumpkins were taken care of, Kass pointed to a raised bed of sweet potatoes.
"These have been waiting for you," he told Mrs. Obama.
Kass cut a mass of vines away in one giant clump, and stood back as Mrs. Obama lifted a big pitchfork and dug in. She showed the kids how to pry the goodies out of the dirt, jamming the tines of the pitchfork beneath the sweet potatoes, and using her foot for leverage.
Hovering over another box of sweet potatoes, Boulud and his helpers were also pulling giants from the dirt.
"We're going to make sweet potatoes for the president!" Boulud told his kids. "Maybe a sweet potato puree!"
All present marveled at the size of the sweet potatoes; one monster had multiple tubers fused together, and the others were each more than three pounds each. About one hundred pounds of sweet potatoes were hauled out of the garden, Kass said.
Bancroft students have been working in Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden since it was planted in 2009, but the Tubman kids are new to the experience. And they're getting a big dose of the White House food aesthetic: Kass, Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, and Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford have adopted the school as their own for the Chefs Move to Schools initiative. They'd made a visit to Tubman just that morning, to give a cooking demonstration. (Above: Mrs. Obama, the kids, Kass and Comerford weigh sweet potatoes and greens)
The White House encourages edible gardens not only as a way of getting kids familiar with how food is grown, but also as a way of boosting science and math skills. Helping schools incorporate veggie gardens into science education is just one of the suggestions that the participants who work in the Chefs Move to Schools initiative are offered in White House guidance for their projects.
A special table had been set up next to the garden to weigh all the produce, and the kids noted the poundage from each kind of vegetable harvested. They scribbled the details on little white pads with "The White House" printed at the top of each page.
"It's very important that we know how much this garden is producing," Kass told the kids. It was four hundred pounds in total.
Mrs. Obama and her helpers hit the broccoli patch next, taking big heads off the stalks. There was a moment for snacking on newly cut baby white radishes, with the kids and Boulud. (Above: Mrs. Obama and helpers harvesting broccoli)
A table-top washing station was set up at the far end of the garden, and the veggies were taken over to be thoroughly cleaned after weighing. An over-sized orange salad spinner was on the table, to prep the various lettuces for eating. And then it was on to the cooking part of the afternoon.
But first, Mrs. Obama gathered the kids and chefs for a group photo, complete with baskets and bowls and wheelbarrows of the fresh produce.
"Say cheese!" Mrs. Obama instructed the group.
Then the First Lady caught herself.
"Say vegetables!" She corrected, laughing. (Above: Mrs. Obama and the kids. Boulud is at left, joined by two Bocuse d'Or chefs)
After thanking the chefs and kids for their help, and posing for more photos with the visiting chefs and handing out hugs, Mrs. Obama departed the garden, called to other duties in the White House. But she had one final piece of instruction for the kids.
"Let's cook!" Mrs. Obama cheered, again riffing on the Let's Move! campaign, this time by using the name of the White House video cooking series.
In September, Mrs. Obama hosted the spouses of Chiefs of Nation and Heads of State participating in the UN General Assembly for a special farm-to-table luncheon at Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. She presented each of her guests with a special diplomatic gift that featured a jar of pickled vegetables from the Kitchen Garden. Yosses created those, and he shared his secrets with the kids on Wednesday.
Working at prep tables set up beside the garden, the kids pickled green tomatoes, broccoli, green peppers, turnips, okra, bok choy, and fennel. All had been just taken from the Kitchen Garden, which now has 29 different beds in it, as well as berry bushes. Many of the tomatoes are heirloom, and some this year were grown from special seeds saved from President Thomas Jefferson's historic garden at Monticello. (Above: Comerford and Executive Sous Chef Tommy Kurpradit prepare salad greens, as Kass checks a garden bed)
From cookies to salad...
As the afternoon wound down, the kids gathered at the picnic tables with the chefs, eating a huge salad they'd all made together after the pickling lesson.
The Kitchen Garden Salad was very simple: It had lettuces, peppers, tomatoes, and grilled chicken. The vinaigrette dressing was made with honey from the White House beehive, lemon verbena and pineapple sage from the Kitchen Garden, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, grape seed oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.
"I bet these will be the best tomatoes you've ever tasted," Kass said to the kids.
There were wordless nods, because the kids were so busy eating.
The meal and the pickling illustrates just how far the Kitchen Garden and the White House approach to food has developed since Mrs. Obama and Kass led the first planting in April of 2009. Then, the kid helpers snacked on apple cider and cookies shaped like garden shovels. On Wednesday, the kids were eating the salad as if it were, well, cookies. (Above: Yosses and the kids enjoy their salads at the end of the Harvest)
The four-season garden
Kass said that the Kitchen Garden will continue to grow through the winter, and that protective hoop houses will be installed "very soon," just as they were last year. These are made from aluminum hoops and plastic sheeting, and keep the ground warm and protect the crops from frost. Despite two record-breaking blizzards in Washington last winter, the Kitchen Garden continued to produce crops, thanks to the hoop houses.
"It's a four-season garden," Kass said, and added that he was sure this year's crops would be going strong through winter. The winter spinach is particularly good, he said.
And then Kass suddenly remembered that he had to complete the circle of the White House food chain, but in the Residence.
"I've got to go cook!" Kass said. He hurried away, heading up the South Lawn to make dinner for the First Family.
Related: The First Lady's milestone numbers for the Harvest and Chefs Move to Schools. Another post about Chef Boulud's White House visit is here.
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/ObamaFoodorama.com