WASHINGTON, D.C. — Twice a month, President Barack Obama’s senior policy advisers gather at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to work out strategies for improving the health of the United States’ 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 sauteing 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 maven, 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.”
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 the Massachusetts island resort Martha’s Vineyard. He often acts as a go-between on food issues for Michelle Obama.
Behind the scenes, he attends briefings on child nutrition and health, has investigated nonprofits as potential partners for White House food initiatives and regularly questions senior staff about policy matters.
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 Kass’ involvement in public policy unique.
While he is steeped in all matters involving eating locally produced foods, and was a moving force behind the White House garden, 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, 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 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 Number 1 reason we eat is to nourish ourselves and take care of ourselves.”
Proponents of sustainable farming and locally grown, organic foods are cheering Kass on. Dan Barber, the chef at Blue Hill in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, said Michelle Obama and 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 Kass as remarkably “in tune” with Michelle Obama’s thinking, though she joked that her colleagues feared he might show up with “uber-healthy cupcakes.”
Not to worry. 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 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, 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.”
Kass has muted 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 Kass said the White House garden would not use pesticides, the Mid America CropLife Association, an agricultural chemical trade group, urged Michelle 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 who can’t afford organic or locally grown food.
“The average family can’t feed themselves all year round on their own garden,” 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.”
Kass and other officials dismiss the elitist label. They 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, Michelle Obama’s policy director, who has pronounced Kass’ collard greens and barbecued chicken “very good.”
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, 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.”