Let’s clear up a few misconceptions about White House dining. No, the Obamas girls don’t eat breakfast on the china with the presidential seal. It’s not all haute cuisine here. And the kitchen in the 132-room mansion? It’s only 350 sq. ft–about the size of the average home cook’s. “That the kitchen wasn’t enormous was surprising to me,” assistant chef Sam Kass admits as he peels sweet potatoes.
Despite the modest quarters, “I’m awed every time I come to work,” says Kass, the newest of nine White House chefs. He arrived in January at the invitation of Michelle Obama, who had hired him as a personal chef years ago in Chicago to break her busy family’s reliance on takeout. Now he is doing something unprecedented for the White House residence staff: trying to get the whole country to eat better. With the title of “food initiative coordinator,” Kass, 29, is the first chef to have a desk in the East Wing, among Mrs. Obama’s policy team. “There are all sorts of obstacles to feeding kids in a healthy way. The First Lady asked if I would help work on those issues. It’s an unbelievable opportunity.”
So far that has included discussing school-lunch legislation with the Agriculture Department, planting vegetables on the South Lawn and leading kids on garden tours, sending them off with the exhortation: “Study hard! Eat your vegetables!”
But what most sets this former history major apart from others who have worn a White House toque may be his friendship with the Obamas. “You want unprecedented?” asks Walter Scheib, chef for Presidents Clinton and Bush. “The domestic staff playing golf with the President, that’s unprecedented.”
Kass, who trained for two years under a top Viennese chef and cooked at Chicago’s Avec before becoming a personal chef, says the Obamas like “nothing fancy.” Dinner might be tacos or burgers, he says–but with lean beef and low-sugar ketchup. The President “is a vegetable lover.” And, by the First Lady’s directive, dessert is served only on weekends. Pies are big, and Kass expects several for Thanksgiving. Usually Mrs. Obama’s mom, Marian Robinson, does a dish or two. “Mrs. Robinson can throw down,” he says. “She cooks with the best of them.”
Before the holiday the small kitchen will turn out some 140 plates for the Obamas’ first state dinner, honoring India on Nov. 24. Kass hopes to serve salad from the garden, but on that night, he’s mainly there to assist executive chef Cristeta Comerford. “I’ll be chopping carrots. It’s not glamorous.”
Even less so is the picture this single guy paints of his personal life. “My fridge is empty,” says Kass, adding with a laugh that no one cooks for chefs, except their mothers. On his day off, he leaves Sunday dinner to his mom, who lives in the D.C. area and specializes in stuffed shells. “Chefs appreciate anybody who will put in the effort. Boil an egg and I’m happy.”