Catching up with the former White House chef and author of new book Eat a Little Better.
Sam Kass, the Chicago native who spent six years in the White House feeding the Obama family, has never skied a day in his life. And yet, there he was, recently, in a resort lodge in Utah, surrounded by an après-ski crowd just back from a great day on the slopes.
“In Chicago there was not even an ant hill you could ski on,” he said.
It wasn’t the groomed trails that drew him to Powder Mountain on that first weekend in March. He’d come, instead, to share big ideas with entrepreneurs, innovators, and tech-industry types who’d flown in from the coasts, mostly, for a food-themed retreat.
That Saturday evening, sunk in an armchair on a rise in the lodge, he addressed a captive audience that included Alice Waters and Blue Bottle Coffee CEO Bryan Meehan, among other members of the invite-only Summit community, which once hosted an event at the White House (and hosts events at Powder Mountain, Tulum, and downtown LA).
He spoke, as he often does on the lecture circuit, about his life changing time with the First Family, sharing anecdotes from inside the Beltway and lessons learned from food policy and culture wars he fought there alongside First Lady Michelle. Together they took on childhood obesity and improving school lunches. They installed the first vegetable garden at the White House in more than a century, along with its first honeybee hive (which produced its first craft beer).
“We changed Washington, we changed our food culture, we changed companies, we changed policy, in ways we never imagined was possible,” he said.
Kass is a charismatic speaker, nimbly translating lofty ideas into practical terms with real-world applications, which is just what he’s done in his compelling new book, Eat a Little Better—part cookbook, part autobiography, part food policy primer—out from Clarkson Potter next month.
“I set out to do a book that in a very easily accessible, loving, forgiving way, makes the connection for people—particularly busy parents who are trying to do a little better—between how their choices affect their health and the environment’s health,” he explained before his lodge presentation.
“Everybody talks about the what,” he continued, “painting these idealistic pictures of how you’re supposed to eat. And then there’s this sort of shame that comes with not being able to do it. The what is kind of easy, we basically know the what, we don’t focus enough on the how, how you’re supposed to do this in real life, how do you declutter this, how do you make it simple, how do you weed through all the chaos of information that people are trying to sort through, and that’s what the book tries to do.”
The book tells the story of Kass’ political awakening, his transformation from a high-end chef cooking rich food for rich people to one focused on the repercussions—for our health, for the planet—of what we eat. The light bulb moment happened early in his cooking career, at Michelin-starred Moerwald, then one of the best restaurants in Vienna, where he started working during a college semester abroad.
He’d been instructed by his boss to add gobs of butter to a rhubarb sauce for foie gras, far more butter than any reasonable person should eat. When he hesitated, his boss became furious. “’He said, the guest pays me to make food that tastes good not that’s good for them,’” Kass recalled. “’If they walk out of this restaurant and drop dead of a heart attack it’s not my problem.’” Horrified, he began to think about food in an entirely new way, about “the implications of what’s on the plate,” about the “farmers, the land.”
By the time he began cooking for the Obama family, while they were still on the campaign trail (he’d been introduced by a mutual friend), he was entirely focused on thoughtful eating.
“I care about having an impact,” he said. “Just cooking for 60 very wealthy people every night—though I respect the passion, the work, the process behind that—it’s just not enough for me.”
The book traces the intense personal connection he forged with the Obamas as he followed them into the White House where he put dinner on their table nearly every night. Its packed with recipes for the sort of simple, wholesome food Sasha and Malia grew up on, and a few of the President’s favorite things—including “POTUS’s Lucky Pasta,” penne with chicken and pesto cooked in the galley kitchen on Air Force One during the reelection campaign in 2012.
“We were heading to the second debate,” recalled Kass, “pressure was up, because it was debatable who had performed better in the first debate. The press gave it to Romney of course. And they said if he won the second, Barack was in trouble. So, it was kind of an intense time for us.” The debate was a turning point for Obama. He credited the pasta for his great performance that night.
Kass left the White House two years before the Obamas did, moving up to New York in 2014 to be with his new wife, MSNBC host Alex Wagner. “We had been long distance the whole time,” he recalled, “which was not awesome but fine when you’re dating, when you’re engaged a little shaky, when you’re married, you’d better get your ass up here if you want to be married this time next year. That was the only way I was getting out.”
These days he cooks mostly for his infant son, born late last summer. “Its super fun,” he said. And the man who tore up the South Lawn of the White House to grow eggplant and zucchini now tends to a plot of his own, a sprawling produce garden planted two summers ago at his weekend home on Long Island’s North Fork. “My son, he’s going to work his butt off in the garden,” he said. “No more weeding for papa.”
His professional cooking days are behind him, he says. And though he remains a serious political wonk (his next book will focus on food policy), Kass is now firmly entrenched in the private sector.
He’s constantly on the road juggling projects as a cheerleader, investor, advisor, shepherding mission-drive food startups through Acre Venture Partners, the fund he launched with two partners in 2016. He’s got a hand in a broad range of ventures, from Sweetgreen to smart-kitchen startup Innit to a food safety software platform, Sample 6.
“My life can feel scattered,” he said, “but in the white house it was pretty much the same thing. You go from doing a school lunch thing, to dealing with some company that has a problem with some policy you just put out, to some event with a bunch of kids trying to figure out what they’re going to eat. Days there were so crazy."