Tuesday, April 10, 2012

First Lady Michelle Obama Cooks With Chef Marcus Samuelsson At 2012 Easter Egg Roll

Mrs. Obama discusses healthy eating, food costs and gardening during cooking demo in the Kids' Kitchen...

By Marian Burros and Eddie Gehman Kohan

Now in Year 3 of her Let's Move! campaign, First Lady Michelle Obama's most high-profile appearances for her national initiative have involved impressive fitness performances in the company of sports and entertainment celebrities. On Monday at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, Mrs. Obama cooked in public for only the second time since formally launching her childhood obesity crusade in 2010. According to Mrs. Obama, getting more families to cook at home is crucial to dropping the national child obesity rate, and she joined celebrity guest chef Marcus Samuelsson in the outdoor Kids' Kitchen as he cooked quick and easy shrimp and vegetable tacos. (Above: Al Roker watches Samuelsson, c, and Mrs. Obama at work)

"I tell my kids vegetables are not really a choice," Mrs. Obama announced to the excited standing-room-only crowd, many of whom held cameras aloft. "We think they are, but they're not."

A New York restaurateur who last year won Top Chef Masters, Samuelsson was one of eight TV chefs invited by President Obama and Mrs. Obama to give cooking demonstrations all day to the thousands of guests who romped through the South Lawn for the Roll, which had the theme “Let’s Go, Let’s Play, Let’s Move!." Located close to the First Lady's Kitchen Garden, the Kids' Kitchen--complete with ceiling mirrors so the audience could watch the action--anchored the Play With Your Food area, which was filled with booths on beekeeping and gardening, a miniature Farmers Market offering organic apples and oranges to the kids, and eggcentric craft tables.

Clad in popping neon Easter colors, her hair pulled into a bun, Mrs. Obama spoke about the importance of healthy eating as Samuelsson worked, joined by Today show's Al Roker (who for once, had little to say). Samuelsson said he chose tacos because "everyone loves a taco" and they can be loaded with vegetables. (Above: Mrs. Obama guides one of the junior chefs as she squeezes fresh lime into the pan)

He rapidly put asparagus, onions, lettuce, shrimp, tomatoes and avocado in a sautee pan as Mrs. Obama held a mic and spoke to the crowd. Three cute kids--two actually seated on the cooking counter--were onstage to help, doing double duty as the living symbols of why Mrs. Obama has devoted herself to creating a paradigm shift in America's food culture.

"If we have [too many] fried chicken and the carb-heavy dinners, the kind we all love, we're not setting our kids up for success," Mrs. Obama said.

Vegetables must be eaten every day, she added, as she and Samuelsson both stirred the ingredients in the saute pan with wooden spoons. She pointed out that good fuel--minus sugar and empty calories--is important for growing bodies. She said her messaging has been well received at home, noting that when she asks daughters Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10, “Would you pour a can of soda into a plant?” they know enough to answer "no."

"These tacos have seasonal veggies," Mrs. Obama said, noting that Samuelsson had chopped them into tiny bites. "If you cut them up small, then you can fool them [the kids]. Sometimes you have to fool them."

Samuelsson, owner of Harlem's Red Rooster restaurant, has a special place in White House history. Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, he was the guest chef for the Obamas' first State Dinner, in honor of India's Prime Minster Manmohan Singh. His primarily vegetarian menu for the glamorous diplomatic event featured shrimp, too. He praised the Kitchen Garden as he worked. Mrs. Obama ticked off the crops that were installed during the most recent Spring Planting: A wide variety of lettuces, peas, new varieties of tomatoes, and a range of herbs.

"We put potatoes in for the first time," she said. She added that the garden doesn’t have too many visits from critters, except “birds keep sabotaging the berries.”

When it was time to sample the tacos, Mrs. Obama helped one of the little girls squeeze fresh lime onto her taco, and there was a bit of a mishap. Drips landed on the child's white Easter Best dress.

"Sorry, Mom," Mrs. Obama joked as she cleaned the child up. "I hope you already got your photos."

Well aware of the value of peer-to-peer messaging, Mrs. Obama asked the child if she liked her taco. “I really like it,” she said. Score more points for Let's Move!.

After biting into her own taco, Mrs. Obama declared it "delicious." She declined Samuelsson's offer of a plate, instead opting to wrap her taco in a napkin.

"This is how we eat at home!" she said.

The First Lady had more words of advice for the audience. When someone in the crowd called out that vegetables are often very expensive, Mrs. Obama didn't miss a beat.

“Buy seasonally because it’s less expensive," Mrs. Obama said. "Another option is frozen." She noted that frozen vegetables are often healthier than canned, due to a lower sodium content.

After the taco fiesta was over, Samuelsson wrote about it on Twitter.

"thank you first lady @michelleobama! best sous chef ever," (sic) he tweeted on his @MarcusCooks account.

Update: Chef Samuelsson's taco recipe is here.

Celebrity chefs promoting Let's Move!...
Mrs. Obama's last public cooking outing was at the 2011 Easter Egg Roll, when she joined chef Jacques Pépin in the Kids' Kitchen as he made a healthy version of crepes. Mrs. Obama can flip a crepe with the best, it turns out. Roker was on hand for that demo, too, as was Kelly Ripa. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Pépin cooking together last year)

Though Mrs. Obama has done far more dance moves than dicing to promote Let's Move!, this is not to say that the First Lady is giving short shrift to the culinary arts: She's given the task of teaching Americans the lost art of home cooking to the pros. Led by Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass, the White House chefs are the ambassadors for the kitchen part of the campaign. And the nation's best professional chefs have signed on to be the First lady's surrogates: In 2010, Samuelsson starred in a White House video for Let's Move! with Rachael Ray, another celebrity who has devoted plenty of time to Mrs. Obama. There has been an ongoing relationship with Tom Colicchio, the host and producer of Top Chef.

Each of the Obamas' four Easter Egg Rolls has featured a Kids' Kitchen, and this year's corps of guest chefs invited to give cooking demonstrations included other Top Chef vets: Frederick, MD's Bryan Voltaggio, chef/owner of Volt restaurant; Carla Hall, now of ABC's The Chew; Paul Qui, Executive Chef of Uchiko in Austin, TX and the winner of Top Chef: Dallas; and Richard Blais, who now has his own TV show, Reinventing the Meal on the Cooking Channel. Qui and Blais joined Mrs. Obama, Kass and Colicchio in Dallas in February for a special Top Chef filming that celebrated the second anniversary of the Let's Move! campaign.

The Neelys
--Gina and Pat--who host Food Network's Down Home with the Neelys, and culinary personality Andrew Zimmern, best known for the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods, also wowed the crowds with cooking demonstrations, all of which were livestreamed on the White House website. White House Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses and Assistant Pastry Chef Susie Morrison also demonstrated recipes this year. Click here for all the video cooking lessons.

The biggest White House Easter Egg Roll in history...
Mrs. Obama during her visit to the South Lawn also Egg Rolled and read childrens books in the Storytime Garden. Joined by Bob Harper, host of the competition weight-loss show The Biggest Loser, Mrs. Obama cheered on kids doing fitness drills in the Eggtivity Zone. The President and Mrs. Obama had plenty of celebs on hand to make the Roll special, from Olympians and NFL stars to Hollywood A-listers reading to the kids on the Storytime Stage (Julianne Moore, Forest Whitaker), and there were musical performances (Janelle Monae, Rachel Crow) and costumed characters in addition to the food and fitness fun. (Above: White House Beekeper Charlie Brandts with the "Buzzing About Bees" exhibit in the Play with your Food area)

The 134th annual Roll was the largest in White House history, with more than 35,000 guests invited from all fifty states. It lasted from 7:20 AM until 6:30 PM, with guests entering in five groups of 6,000. Kids left the White House with treat bags that included a souvenir wooden Easter Egg (some starring an illustration of First Dog Bo and his pawprint), and yellow marshmallow Peeps, as well as a poster and activity book, and the fruit they'd plucked from the Farmers Market.

DOWNLOAD the 2012 White House Easter Egg Roll Program by clicking here; it describes the events and stations on the South Lawn [PDF]. CLICK HERE for all posts about the Roll, including the talent line-up. (Above: Boxes of oranges are visible in this photo of the Farmers Market)

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama