Obama's Chef Sam Kass: "We have a lot of major challenges, the origin of which is food."

The following excerpt is from “A White House Chef Who Wears Two Hats,” published this week in the New York Times. It offers a profile of the Obama family’s personal chef, Sam Kass, who serves up policy advice along with his own style of local, organic cooking. Read how a 29-year-old with a history degree and looks that earned him a slot on People magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People list is now one of the most influential advocates for a better, more sustainable food system.

Sam Kass (not Lee Zukor, though the resemblance is amazing)Sam KassWASHINGTON -- TWICE a month, President Obama’s senior policy advisers gather at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to hash out strategies for improving the health of the country’s 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 grilling 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 wonk, 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.”

Mr. 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 Martha’s Vineyard. Behind the scenes, he attends briefings on child nutrition and health, has vetted nonprofits as potential partners for White House food initiatives and regularly peppers senior staff about policy matters. (“Do we have a toxicologist who specializes in colony collapse disorder?” Mr. Kass asked in a recent e-mail message about the Department of Agriculture’s position on honey bees, Ms. Merrigan recalled.)

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 Mr. Kass’s involvement in public policy unique.

While he is steeped in all matters locavore and was a moving force behind the White House garden, Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

White house chef, gardener, food policy advisor, Sam KassWhite house chef, gardener, food policy advisor, Sam Kass“You look around our country and you see that we have a lot of major challenges, the origin of which is food,” said Mr. 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 No. 1 reason we eat is to nourish ourselves and take care of ourselves.”

Mr. Kass’s title is assistant White House chef and food initiative coordinator. Friends say he cooks primarily for the Obamas, while the executive chef, Cristeta Comerford, handles most formal gatherings. “He really has been put in place for a different role, for advising the first lady, for being the face of the place,” Mr. Scheib said. “It’s great that someone who is still physically in the kitchen, chopping, dicing, roasting, physically cooking, not just talking about cooking, would be part of that discussion.”

But after reading yet another mention of the young chef’s physique, Mr. Scheib warned that the buzz was a bit overblown. (People magazine called Mr. Kass one of “Barack’s Beauties” in its list of 100 Most Beautiful people this year.) “Let’s remember: the guy’s a cook,” Mr. Scheib said. “There are people who are much more qualified to talk about nutrition than cooks. At the end of the day, we make food; we’re not geniuses.”

Still, proponents of sustainable farming and locally grown, organic foods are cheering Mr. Kass on. Dan Barber, the chef at Blue Hill in Greenwich Village, said Mrs. Obama and Mr. Kass were helping Americans “think about food in a different way.” (continued)