Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sam Kass & Fiancée Alex Wagner Profiled In February 'Vogue' - "Politics' It Couple Of The Year"

Vogue portrait: Snuggling on a Maryland farm with a prop pooch
The "consummate White House insider" and "rising television-news star" will wed this summer, they reveal in their first joint interview...
Washington, DC - Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy Sam Kass and fiancée Alex Wagner, an MSNBC TV host, will take their wedding vows this summer, they told Vogue, sharing "breaking news" in their first-ever joint interview.  Featured in the February issue, now on newsstands, the "consummate White House insider" and "rising television-news star" are dubbed "Politics’ It Couple of the Year" in a glossy four-page spread in the print edition.
  
The story also went live online today at Vogue.com.  The photo above, taken at the "holistic" Rocklands Farm in Maryland with resident pooch Scout, takes up a full two pages in the print edition.  

Of course the capstone of the glowing profile penned by Jacob Weisberg is a long description of Kass' intimacy with President Barack Obama ("a father-son relationship") and First Lady Michelle Obama, though they were not interviewed.  But there are many quotes from friends and colleagues, including Wagner's former boss, George Clooney.

Weisberg, editor-in-chief of the media entity Slate Group, has the presence of mind to admit he's been a guest "several times" on Wagner's show, NOW with Alex Wagner, as he rains praise on the duo.  The It Couple hosted a dinner for the scribe during the course of his "investigation," where Kass cooked. 

First, the romantic details. The engagement between Kass, 33, a Chicago native--"gruffly handsome, quick with a smile or laugh"--and Wagner, 36, a DC native--"vivacious, delightfully profane, a natural host"-- made global headlines last Fall.  But until now DC's prettiest power duo has been mum about their courtship and life together.   

They split their time between Wagner's apartment in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood and Kass' "duplex" in DC's Logan Circle neighborhood, and were first introduced by Kass’ friend Richard Wolffe.  He's the executive editor of MSNBC.com, an acclaimed journalist who has written three books about President Obama.

"After spotting Wagner at White House events, Kass pestered his friend to take him to the MSNBC after-party following the White House Correspondents’ Dinner," Weisberg writes.  

"Wolffe says he told Kass that he was aiming way over his head. 'Forget it. Never going to happen,’ I kept telling him.'"

The persistent Kass wouldn't be dissuaded: "Sparks flew when the two had drinks at the Monkey Bar in New York, and Kass discovered that Wagner was a fellow Washington Nationals fan."  

Cut to their showstopper of a second date.  

The baseball-obsessed Assistant Chef, a star player with Major League aspirations in his college years, invited Wagner to play a game of catch.  But Kass has got game in more ways than one, and it was at an impressive venue.  

He "persuaded his friend Edward Cohen, whose family is principal owner of the Nationals, to open Nats Park. For an hour, they tossed a baseball back and forth in the empty stadium."  Home run for Kass!

They are now cozy locavores: The duo's favorite New York restaurants are the pricey Blue Hill, Carbone, Franny’s, and Vinegar Hill House, they told Weisberg: "Their ideal Saturday night is dinner with friends—not a red-carpet event."  Annoying photo journalists are now in the mix:  "In October, they attended the News and Documentary Emmys, at which Wagner was nominated, but sneaked in a side door to avoid the cameras."
  
The It Couple declined to share specifics about their upcoming nuptials, though Kass has already said he's handing over all wedding details--including the menu--to Wagner.  One of her close friends predicted that "With Alex, there’s no way it won’t be a jam." 

"It will inevitably break down to an all-out dance party," said Gabe Tesoriero, a senior vice president at Island Def Jam.  

As for the dinner Weisberg enjoyed with the lovebirds: In his DC apartment, "in about 30 minutes," Kass whipped up "butterflied roast chicken with tarragon and preserved lemons, farro risotto with wild mushrooms and leeks, and a green salad with buttermilk dressing."

More culinary info: Kass adores "hand-forged Carter Cutlery knives"--and Wagner "complains in mock horror that every trip to the high-end knife shop in D.C.’s Union Market 'costs us about $500.'"  

Weisberg says the It Couple will be working their magic in New York, post-presidency:  Kass "expects at some point to move into Wagner’s apartment in DUMBO and continue his work in food policy from New York."  

Except Weisberg also notes that Wagner's agent is Ari Emanuel, one of the most powerful in Hollywood.  Who also happens to be brother to Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's former Chief of Staff, now Mayor of Chicago.  Surely Ari will not be letting the telegenic talents of Kass, who appears regularly on national TV for Let's Move!, go to waste in New York.

The intimate relationship with the Obamas...
The paragraphs devoted to President and Mrs. Obama are equally gushing, with Weisberg describing Kass joining the future First Family when Mr. Obama was the junior Senator from Illinois making his first run for national office.

"Kass and the president are known for having something of a father-son relationship," writes Weisberg. "He is a close enough friend that he’s almost a family member," Wolffe says in the piece.

"In the tightly knit community of Hyde Park," Kass had known Mrs. Obama "since he was in high school," writes Weisberg, and sticks with the narrative that's been well polished by the Obamas:  "Michelle was an overtaxed working mom, worrying about the girls’ getting good nutrition and staying healthy" when Kass went to work for the family, cleaning out their kitchen and changing their eating habits.  

But it went beyond cooking: "Sasha and Malia quickly fell in love with the big-brother figure," and Mrs. Obama was equally smitten.  

Kass was running a business as a personal chef/shopper, called Inevitable Table, when this was going on in 2007.  Malia was about to enter fifth grade at Kass' alma mater, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where Kass' father, Robert Kass, would be her teacher.

“My hunch is that President Obama at that point needed someone like Sam; it helped him to be able to focus on campaigning for the presidency," the acclaimed New York chef Dan Barber says in the article.  Owner of one of Kass & Wagner's fave NY eateries, Blue Hill, Barber is close friend and mentor to Kass, and has cooked multiple times for the First Lady's formal events.


"Sam being there as a cook, as a presence in the household—someone Michelle could be buddies with and the kids could adore—created a happy family life while {Mr. Obama} was away from home," Barber said.  "I imagine Obama feels indebted for how Sam filled the void."

But there's a chronological blooper going on with Kass' history.  "After playing center field at a community college in Kansas City," Kass transferred to the University of Chicago "and found his calling on a semester abroad in Vienna, where he apprenticed in a Michelin-starred restaurant," Weisberg explains. 

After, Kass "spent five years cooking and eating his way around the world, including stints making wine in Italy, planting corn with Zapatista farmers in Mexico, and serving as a private chef in New Zealand," Weisberg writes.

"They couldn’t understand why someone with a good education wanted to do what they did," Kass told Weisberg. "But there’s a great ethic in kitchens.  If you want to learn, they’ll teach you." 

It was during this global walkabout, Wesiberg seems to say, that food policy became Kass' mission: "As wonderful as the chefs I worked with were, I realized there was very little thought about the implications of what we were putting on the plate," Kass said.

But there can't possibly be five years of travel and training.  University of Chicago says Kass graduated with the Class of 2004.  By 2005, Kass was cooking at Chicago eatery Avec, and he was working as a private chef for the Obamas by 2007.  He walked into the White House with them on Jan. 20, 2009. 

If Kass traveled the world cooking for five years, he needs to join President Obama in March when he meets with Pope Francis, because the Senior Policy Advisor possesses the ability to bilocate and may well qualify for sainthood. 

As for current policy work, the idea for Mrs. Obama's now-world famous Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn was born during the Chicago days, Weisberg writes, a story Kass and Mrs. Obama have shared before.

"It was around the Obama kitchen table in Chicago, when Barack was still a long shot for the Democratic nomination, that Michelle and Kass hatched the idea of a vegetable garden on the South Lawn—which has since become a highly visible symbol of her policy priorities."

Kass makes one comment about his role as Executive Director of Let’s Move!: 

"If it’s hard work for a family to make choices that are good for them, we’re not going to be successful," Kass said.  "We want better access to fruits and vegetables, lower prices for them, restaurants serving healthier options, marketing healthy products better."

Weisberg also reports that Kass cooks dinner for the President and First Family's 6:30 PM sit-down five nights a week, not mentioning the President's busy travel schedule, which often has him away from the White House at dinner time, or for days on end.  

As is typical when discussing the topic, Kass is cagey: "he won’t go into much detail about his menus," Weisberg admits.

"We cook very simple food, but it needs to be balanced and healthy and clean, like no hiding a stick of butter to make it taste good," Kass said.  

"There’s always a vegetable, usually a green vegetable. We try to do all whole grains—fish a couple of times, chicken, a good steak now and again."

Kass is also a bit cagey about his downtime with President Obama, though admits there's loads of action.  

"Kass and the president get together for basketball, rounds of golf, and games of after-dinner pool in the White House," Weisberg writes.  "Kass won’t talk about any of this except to say that, like Obama, he’s 'incredibly competitive' and that he’s never bested the president at golf." 

"The day I beat him, I will go to the press with that," Kass said. 

Kass took up golf thanks to his boss' obsession, and in the calendar year between January 2013 and January 2014 he played with the President thirteen times, setting a personal record for number of games in a single year. The President's handicap is estimated at 16 or 17; Kass' is unknown.

Wagner, the daughter of a Burmese mother and a "midwestern" father, gets her own glowing coverage as Weisberg chronicles her rise as a media star beloved by the liberal left.  There's no mention that her father, Carl Wagner, a DNC power player, ran Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign, co-chaired Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.  He later became a media consultant.


A graduate of Brown University, Wagner had a series of culturally cutting-edge jobs before joining MSNBC, where her show was recently moved into the 4:30 PM timeslot, far more better than her previous mid-day slot. 

"A relative newcomer to television," Wagner "approaches the job of hosting cable news less like on-air “talent” than as the political activist and music-magazine editor she used to be. She thinks of her program’s identity as bringing culture into politics and vice versa, and her mission as getting her guests to talk about both as they might at a sophisticated dinner party," Weisberg writes.

High praise comes from George Clooney.  Wagner worked for his anti-genocide organization, Not on Our Watch, before transitioning to journalism, and he is a big fan.

"Alex brought so much intellect and passion to her work," Clooney said. "Whether we had to testify in front of the U.N. Security Council or were stuck in a Land Rover for days on back roads in Chad, she was unflappable."

"The world would work better with more Alex Wagners in it," Clooney said.  


Wagner's current boss loves her, too.  "Alex has that one rare quality that is imperative for success in this business," said MSNBC president Phil Griffin.  "She is totally authentic on the air.  She’s smart, genuine, and connects with her audience." 

Kass' one on-the record comment about his lady love involves food. 

"There’s no better person to have dinner with," Kass said. 

Weisberg sums up the Kass/Wagner magnetism thusly: "Theirs is a low-key, hypermodern cachet."

"The couple’s status and influence derive not from their accumulation of credentials or glittering public appearances but from their pursuit, away from the spotlight, of interesting life experiences and easygoing taste-making."

Except that they wouldn't be Politics' It Couple of the Year if they didn't have that "accumulation of credentials."

The It Couple was photographed for Vogue by Norman Jean Roy at Rocklands Farm in Maryland.  According to the photo caption, Wagner wore an Hermès coat, a Nili Lotan sweater, 7 for All Mankind jeans, and (spotlessly clean) Hunter + Rag & Bone boots.  Kass' clothes were unidentified.

The story is currently online here.

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*Photo by Norman Jean Roy for Vogue