Posts Tagged ‘Michelle Obama’

White House Chef Sam Kass: The Most Powerful Chef in America

Posted 23 Jun 2010 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

Sam Speaks

On June 4th, 1000 chefs (including me) attended the launch of first lady Michelle Obama’s “Chefs Move Schools” initiative on the south lawn of the White House. This was an event associated with the “Let’s Move” program mentioned in an earlier blog post. The day started with a series of presentations on healthy eating and wellness strategies for public schools at the JW Marriott Hotel around the corner from the White House. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan presented along with others including Billy Shore of Share our Strength. At 10:00 am 1000 chefs departed the J.W. Marriott Hotel and headed west down Pennsylvania avenue cuing up at the east gate leading to the south lawn. Imagine the scene; 1000 chefs dressed in their whites walking in unison down Pennsylvania avenue.

JW Marriott

After crossing through the east gate and through multiple security checkpoints I enter the white house grounds at 10:30 am. For the next ninety minutes, I have the pleasure of walking around the vegetable garden planted on the southwest corner of the lawn adjacent to E-street, observing the new beehive up close, and interacting with dozens of colleagues, celebrity chefs, and friends. In addition to regular folks like me and my immediate companions, the festivities attract a cadre of world class chefs including Daniel Bolud, Marcus Samuelson, Tom Coliccio, and Sherry Yard along with television chefs like Cat Cora, Rachel Ray and 994 others of varying culinary backgrounds and pedigrees. By now, the launch has been widely reported in the press and from what I can tell “Chefs Move Schools” is gaining momentum. At 11:30 we make our way up toward the White House to take our seats. Through a series of lucky opportunities (and some good friends), I find three seats in the front row. Its 11:50 a.m. now.

Bee Hive

Looking up from my seat, I am overwhelmed by this place. As a major fan of American history, my mind is reeling. Leaning back, I scan over my right shoulder, catch the eye of chef Ellie Krieger of the food network and realize she is sitting just a dozen or so yards from where Richard Nixon made his final departure from the White House and his presidency on Marine One, hands raised waving peace-signs over his head as he stops at the helicopter door to smile before taking off for the last time. My skin is tingling. Turning around to face forward, I sit quietly reflecting and realize that slightly to the right in front of me are the twin staircases leading up to the south portico where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated for his historic fourth term, the ceremony kept sedate in 1945 due to the ravages of war around the world and (most likely) FDR’s failing health. This is hallowed ground. I close my eyes for a minute to soak it in. I hear the door below the south portico open and then shut and I open my eyes again. An attendant has exited the ground floor and is carrying a small table with two glasses of water on it to the podium. I guess we are about to get started.

Cora & Samuelson

At 12:00 noon sharp, Ms. Obama exits the vestibule on the ground floor of the White House residence through the arched doorway just below the south portico onto the lawn to deliver her speech. There is a nervous excitement settling while she heads toward the podium. She opens her speech by commenting on the blazing heat. It’s above 90 degrees and we are all sitting, sweating in full sun, a sea of starched white chef coats reflecting the sun back at Ms. Obama. After a couple of additional comments she states “I have to say I wasn’t sure when I heard the goal of having nearly a thousand chefs on the South Lawn.  I said, right, Sam, sure, whatever. But you all pulled it off.  And I am just so proud and honored to have you here at the White House.” The Sam she is so proud of is Sam Kass, special events chef at the White House.  Kass is a Chicago native who graduated from the University of Chicago, was on the crew at Avec under Chef Paul Kahan, and, according to the Chicago Tribune, is founder of Inevitable Table also in Chicago.


The Obama’s recruited him to join the White House culinary team in January 2009 and since then he has been building a reputation as a culinary activist with a broad goal to improve the world through food. He has a heavy leaning toward local and organic foods and was the primary influence behind the now famous White House vegetable garden. Watching Kass throughout the morning and hearing Ms. Obama’s comments makes me realize that, as of today, Kass has brought culinary activism to a whole new level. He has joined the national ranks of chefs Alice Waters, Ann Cooper, Dan Barber and, more recently, Jamie Oliver. Along with being a historic moment in culinary activism, Kass has just become the most powerful chef in the country.

Jose Andres, Ellie Krieger

He has taken a page out of the Obama’s play-book and garnered the support of major grassroots organizations like Share Our Strength, Chef’s Collaborative, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, The American Culinary Federation, Research Chefs Association and many others to attract in less than 10 days 1000 chefs (at their own expense) to this event. Hundreds of chefs are mobilizing and volunteering at schools around the country and Sam is the force behind all of this along with Ms. Obama. This is the first time I know of that a chef at the White House has leveraged his or her role to create grassroots change in foodservice; a real historic moment.


Over the years I have dined with and spoken to other chefs who have worked at the White House. Henry Haller was a true gentleman who quietly went about his business and refused to speak about any of the details surrounding the foods that particular presidents preferred or disliked or matters related to politics. Chef Roland Mesnier, although absolutely hilarious and fun in social settings, shares a bit more of the details that Haller was hesitant to divulge but never ventures into social change or other political matters. My discussions with these chefs were about food and about continually increasing the quality of dining at the White House. It never occurred to them that being a chef at the White House would be a source of power and cultural change. They never remotely touched on activism. Considering the popularity of cooking and food as entertainment today (I am surrounded right now by celebrity chefs) the level of culinary activism emerging at the White House seems to be a natural progression. Kass is a chef of his generation just as Haller and Mesnier were. Kass is blessed with a contemporary food and culinary culture (and an administration) that allows his culinary activism to be taken seriously. He stands on the shoulders of Haller, Mesnier and the others who came before him.


Ms. Obama continues to speak. She is talking about empowering chefs to improve school foodservice now and states “This has been a long conversation that Sam and I have had over the years, and I think it’s just pretty powerful to see what started out as a few conversations in our kitchen on the South Side of Chicago turn into a major initiative that hopefully will change the way we think as a country, not just about the health of our kids but about our health as a nation.” Her talk lasts another 30 minutes covering inspirational topics related to health and wellness and detailed statistics that show she (her staff) has done her homework.


Ms. Obama wraps up her comments. “So let’s move, let’s get this done.  Thank you all for the work you’ve done.  And I look forward to seeing you all in the months to come.  Thanks so much.”  She steps down from the podium and heads indoors while the secret service ushers us back out the east gate. Chefs continue to mill about taking pictures, talking, and basking in the moment, many are now sunburned and parched. Have we entered a heightened era of culinary activism? Perhaps, only time will tell. One thing is for sure, that Kass is taken seriously marks a watershed moment in the evolution of the culinary profession and a tremendous step forward for American Chefs. What a privilege to watch history as it happens.

A Vision of Health & Wellness for Kids

Posted 11 May 2010 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends

If you read this blog you know I am addicted to fine food and beverage. One thing you won’t discern from this blog is that I am also into wellness and health and, for years, have maintained an extremely healthy diet accompanied by moderate exercise. However, is about fine food but not necessarily about nutrition, health, and wellness. This is my first major entry about these topics although I have significant experience working with kids to improve wellness and health while reducing obesity. I also choose not to use this blog to promote any sort of political view and remain generally neutral in such matters. So it may come as a surprise that I am willing to offer an endorsement of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.

My support solidified today after reading Melody Barnes report to the President “Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity within a Generation.” Barnes is Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, Chair of the Task Force on Childhood Obesity, and Director of the Domestic Policy Council. The report was released today on the Let’s Move web site. A summary posted on the site lists the following broad goals:

  1. Getting children a healthy start on life, with good prenatal care for their parents; support for breastfeeding; limits on “screen time”; and quality child care settings with nutritious food and ample opportunity for young children to be physically active.
  2. Empowering parents and caregivers with simpler, more actionable messages about nutritional choices based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans; improved labels on food and menus that provide clear information to help make healthy choices for children; reduced marketing of unhealthy products to children; and improved health care services, including BMI measurement for all children.
  3. Providing healthy food in schools, through improvements in federally-supported school lunches and breakfasts; upgrading the nutritional quality of other foods sold in schools; and improving nutrition education and the overall school environment. 
  4. Improving access to healthy, affordable food, by eliminating “food deserts” in urban and rural America; lowering the relative prices of healthier foods; developing or reformulating food products to be healthier; and reducing the incidence of hunger, which has been linked to obesity. 
  5. Getting children more physically active, through quality physical education, recess, and other opportunities in and after school; addressing aspects of the “built environment” that make it difficult for children to walk or bike safely in their communities; and improving access to safe parks, playgrounds, and indoor and outdoor recreational facilities

We invest in many things in this country but there is no better investment than our children. The obesity epidemic is so extensive and has penetrated our youth to such an extent that it must be addressed. Failing to address the epidemic could pose serious harm to the food and beverage industry in the form of increased regulation and declining public trust. If we fail to act we will fail our children and lose control of our destiny.

If we act, we could turn this thing around. I can envision a day when a broad coalition composed of families, educators, food and beverage professionals and governmental agencies come together in pursuit of resolution. Ms. Obama appears to be making progress to this end.

Early in my career I completed a college level nutrition course which required an analysis of thirty days of dietary intake. It was an eye opener. Over the years I have learned to balance a declining metabolism with a reasonable amount of exercise gradual reduction in daily calories. In return I have been rewarded with reasonably good health. This basic knowledge inspired me, when the opportunity arose, to join a couple of nationally known research scientists to conduct a major study of the benefits of teaching elementary school children about food, nutrition and exercise in an effort to reduce adolescent obesity and diabetes. My role was to assemble a working team of chefs and nutritionists who could help build curricula and deliver programs to the children on location in their schools. We received funding for the project from the National Institutes of Health and spent five years working with several school districts conducting a weekly food, nutrition and cooking program with the kids. The results were significant. We can turn this epidemic around.

My comments above do not represent any sort of political endorsement but I do endorse helping our children. Kids need to be taught where food comes from, how to select the right foods, how to eat well, and the value of activity and exercise. Such knowledge is fundamental to long term health and wellness and kids should acquire these skills and knowledge early in their lives. Whether you support the current administration or not, I hope you support “Let’s Move.”