- Courtesy Of Mark Collier/norwich University
- Sam Kass speaking at Norwich University
Sam Kass held a number of positions during the eight years he worked for the Obamas. The young chef started out as the family's personal cook in Chicago during the first presidential campaign. After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Kass kept that job while also serving as the White House senior policy adviser for nutrition and executive director of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative.
He got a lot of exercise, Kass told an audience of about 150 at Norwich University on Monday, October 29. He would run from policy meetings back to the presidential residence in time to put dinner on the table by 6:30 p.m.
Kass, 38, who left the White House in 2014, now works with food and agriculture technology startups. His cookbook Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World was published in April by Clarkson Potter.
During his keynote speech at Norwich's Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics symposium, Kass touched on the personal, the political and the need to eat more plant-based foods.
- Courtesy Of Mark Collier/norwich University
- Sam Kass' cookbook
"The healthiest diet and the most sustainable diet are deeply correlated," he said. "And I say that as a lover of steak."
Kass talked about realizing the magnitude of childhood hunger in the U.S. while working on federal school meals policy, and about taking realistic steps toward improving one's own diet. Everyone slips up now and then, he said, joking, "If you eat a Twinkie, I still love you."
Spending time talking with Norwich students had given him hope, Kass told the attendees. Innovative thinking and approaches, he continued, will move the world toward a sustainable future. Kass left his audience with a question to ponder: "What is the society and culture we want to hand to the next generation?"
Before his talk, Kass chatted with Seven Days about tips for home cooks, addressing climate change and Michelle Obama's rule for family meals.
SEVEN DAYS: You were working in one of the best restaurants in Vienna when you had an epiphany about the consequences of what you were cooking and feeding people. Can you describe that turning point in your career?
SAM KASS: It was very early on in my career, and the sous chef who was training me asked me to make a rhubarb sauce, which basically constituted cooking down a bunch of rhubarb and a ton of butter. I put in a huge thing of butter, and he said, "No, no, I said put in the butter." And so I put in another giant thing of butter, and he said, "No, I said, 'Put in the blank butter!'" There was actually a blank in front of it each time he told me that. [Chuckles.]
He said, "If the guests walk out of here and drop dead of a heart attack, it's not my problem. The guests ask me to make food that tastes good, not that's good for them." To this day, he was the best chef I've ever worked with, and it turns out he was right. That was what we were asking him and the rest of the food industry to do — and it struck me as being really wrong.
I immediately started asking myself, What are the implications of what I'm putting on the plate: for the people who are eating it on one side; and the implications on the environment, the land and the farmers who are producing it on the other side? At that point, I was poring over cookbooks, but then I started seeking out policy books and food culture and agriculture books.
SD: What was the biggest challenge of helping America's First Family to eat better? Any lessons for the more average family?
SK: They face the same challenges we all face: They're super busy, a lot of pressure, a lot of jobs, young kids. The basic dynamic wasn't any different than in the average family. It is about figuring out how to make it as easy as possible for people to make better choices. If it takes too much effort, nobody's going to be successful.
SD: But most people won't have a private chef.
SK: No question. But, basically, they had a bit more pressure and stress than the average family — and they had a bit more support.
SD: Any particular favorite new dishes you introduced them to?
SK: A lot of it was just making basic, good foods more flavorful and fun. Like, grilling vegetables adds a ton of flavor: [They don't] get mushy; you get a nice char and a lot of smokiness. It's a really simple strategy that anyone can do. We all grill our steaks and pork chops, but no one thinks to grill our broccoli or cauliflower or zucchini.
[In winter when you can't grill,] I'll turn the oven all the way up, get it really hot, then put the vegetables in and put on the broiler so you're roasting and broiling at the same time. It doesn't take long; what you're trying to do is get some nice caramelization and some crisp texture without turning everything into a shrivelly, mushy mess.
Seasonal cooking was also a big part of what we did. Obviously, people here in Vermont know a lot about that. We ate a lot out of the [White House] garden. Just using really good, fresh ingredients as the foundation. That's nothing new.
SD: How about special recipes Malia and Sasha liked a lot?
SK: They liked the things your average kid likes. Mac and cheese was always well loved. But they ate what was cooked [for the whole family]. That was [a rule] from their mom. I think the idea of kids' food is not a great idea. Kids should be eating what adults eat. You can tailor around spice — some kids just don't like the spice — but I think you want everybody to eat the same thing. Kids' food has been defined as junk food — chicken fingers and French fries — and that's not good.
SD: Recalling when you started cooking for the Obamas, you describe how Sasha became your "little sous chef," helping and tasting, calling often — appropriately — for more lemon and salt. Can you explain how these ingredients can help home cooks make food taste as good as the stuff engineered to hit all our pleasure receptors?
SK: They are the magic, but I think one of the biggest ones is acid. It just brightens up everything, even soups and stews. The average home cook is always underdoing it when it comes to acid. The biggest difference between a professional chef and a home cook is often that we'll squeeze an extra half a lemon or add a couple splashes of vinegar. You can always try just a little bit. Take some [of what you're cooking out] and add a touch or a squeeze and see how it tastes. If you're going to invest in anything, invest in some decent vinegars. There are all kinds of awesome flavors — and they are good for you.
SD: Even after working on the administration's food and nutrition policy team, you note in your book that businesses, not governments, feed people. You've moved on to work with food businesses. How do you hope to affect change that way?
SK: I think in the end we have to change the companies that are feeding us now and create new ones of the future that help solve the problems of environmental health and human health. Over the next 20 years, [the food system] will likely become the No. 1 driver of climate change, just due to emissions.
My work is now focused on trying to solve these problems from a different angle. I'm a partner in a fund that's investing in new approaches, like a project that helps farmers use data to make ag more efficient, another that unlocks the power in the genomes of plants to make them perform better, and an education-based food company for kids.
SD: You and your wife now have a 15-month-old son. Has that changed the way you think about food and cooking?
SK: I don't think it's changed it as much as reinforced what I know. It's quite personal when you're putting the food into the mouth of your baby. You just remember how vulnerable they are and how important early nutrition is to their long-term well-being.