Chef behind Michelle Obama’s health food initiatives to leave White House

Chef behind Michelle Obama’s health food initiatives to leave White House


First lady Michelle Obama talks with assistant White House chef Sam Kass during a taping of the TV cooking show “Top Chef” in Dallas, Texas February 10, 2012. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

WASHINGTON — Political advisers, chiefs of staff, press secretaries and national security advisers have come and gone in the nearly six years Barack Obama has been president. Now, Obama’s personal chef is waving goodbye.

Sam Kass has been a fixture at the executive mansion, serving up nutrition policy alongside meals for Obama, his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha. He was not only their personal chef but senior adviser for nutrition policy, giving him a seat at the table where administration officials hashed out everything from updated food labels to new requirements for healthier school lunches.

Kass, a newlywed, is leaving the White House at the end of the month, but don’t ask him what the Obamas like or don’t like to eat. “Top secret,” he said.

“I love this family and believe in everything the president and first lady are doing and this has been the greatest job of my life and I assume will be the greatest job of my life,” the 34-year-old Chicago native said in an interview. “But I’m going to be with my wife. Once you’re married you kind of need to be together.”

Kass’ wife, MSNBC host Alex Wagner, is based in New York City.

Kass’ relationship with the Obamas started when they hired him to cook healthier meals for the family in Chicago before the 2008 elections. Michelle Obama was a vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center and caring for young daughters, while Obama was a U.S. senator spending most of his time in Washington.

But the relationship sprouted well beyond the professional. Besides Kass’ tireless work for Mrs. Obama, for whom he wore a third hat as executive director of her anti-childhood obesity campaign, Kass sometimes traveled with Obama and joined his weekend or vacation golf outings. Obama, in turn, blocked out several hours on his busy schedule to attend Kass’ late-August wedding.

Obama said Kass “has grown from a close friend to a critical member of my team” and has left “an indelible mark on the White House.” Mrs. Obama praised Kass’ “extraordinary legacy of progress,” which she said includes healthier food options in groceries, more nutritious school lunches and initiatives to improve how food is marketed to kids.

Unlike any White House chef before him, Kass helped make decisions with far greater potential consequences than whether the president’s veggies, which Kass often plucked from the first lady’s garden on the South Lawn, should be steamed or sautéed.

The school lunch changes have led Mrs. Obama into a public spat with the School Nutrition Association, an industry-backed group that represents school cafeteria workers and food companies that sell to schools. The group has lobbied Congress to weaken the standards, arguing they are a burden on financially pinched districts and a big reason why kids are throwing their lunches into the garbage.

A House Republican-led effort to allow some districts to ignore the new lunch standards altogether failed to advance in Congress, but requirements for more whole grains in school foods will be eased instead. The fight over the broader standards is expected to heat up again next year when Republicans, who are sympathetic to the association’s arguments, will control both houses of Congress.

Nutrition advocates say anyone who hopes these issues will disappear with Kass will be disappointed.

“This administration is very committed to nutrition and obesity prevention. That commitment runs very deep,” said Margo Wootan, a nutrition lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has pushed for healthier school meals.

Despite her group’s issues with the lunch standards, Patricia Montague, the School Nutrition Association’s chief executive, said Kass and “Let’s Move,” the first lady’s anti-childhood obesity initiative, played “an important role in promoting healthier lifestyles for children both at school and at home.”

Kass will stay involved with “Let’s Move,” along with broader efforts to improve childhood nutrition, the White House said.

Testifying to Kass’ commitment, former colleague Kristina Schake said Kass spent weekends living the work he did at the White House, including visiting farms, farmers markets and food purveyors. “He can talk about different types of lettuce the way other men talk about sports teams,” she said.

Kass said his plan after leaving the White House is to get some sleep, and “I guess I’ll also be the chef for my wife.”

As for who will prepare Obama’s dinners going forward, Kass said the White House kitchen staff has it covered.


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