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
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.