Food & Culture

Sam Kass: how I eat

Barack Obama’s former personal chef on lunchbox bartering, lucky pasta and that time he helped the First Lady dig up the White House lawn.

By Lee Tran Lam
Sam Kass

What did you eat as a schoolkid growing up in Chicago?
My parents would make me lunch every day. It was a point of great consternation because it was always pretty healthy and boring – a turkey sandwich with cheddar cheese, apple sauce, a cheese stick and an apple – so I never had anything to trade with the other kids. I never had anything anyone wanted.

You're from a family of teachers. What was better in your household: the food or the conversation?
The conversation. My parents always cooked '80s and '90s American-style food: iceberg salads, grilled chicken and beef, steamed vegetables. It was fine, but very simple.

When did you become interested in food?
I always knew that I wanted to learn how to cook one day, but I had no dreams of being a chef. One summer during college in Chicago, I got a job at a restaurant – I started falling in love with the kitchen then.

At one point, though, you thought you'd be a baseball player.
Yeah, all the way through college, it was my dream to make it to the major leagues. But I wasn't good enough. My first trip abroad, though, was with an all-star team that went to Australia.

Did you eat anything memorable here?
Vegemite! On toast. Nobody had ever heard of it in the United States.

Eventually, you ended up cooking at restaurants in Vienna.
My first job in Vienna was a disaster. My second job started off badly, because they threw me in the deep end and I had to learn how to sink or swim. So had many disasters, but I got the hang of things.

What's it like to eat in Vienna?
It's a great food town. There are the classic sausages and schnitzels, which are delicious. The chef I worked for, Christian Domschitz at the Mörwald, was very playful. He'd take classic country meals and turn them into very high-end dishes. There's a classic pork and cabbage dish in Austria and he did it with lobster. The food was incredibly high-quality and beautiful.

That luxurious style of eating is pretty different to the nutritious food you're associated with today.
Through that process, I started to learn some of the problems: the bigger chains and companies, and the food they're producing, have created health issues or us. I wanted to help change how we were cooking, preparing and serving our food, as well as the health of the land producing it and the people eating it.

When did you first encounter Barack Obama?
I was in high school. That was long before I started working for him. The part of the Chicago neighbourhood I'm from is a small place, and I was introduced to Obama at a few social gatherings early on. You could tell he was going places – where, nobody knew, but he had that kind of energy, for sure.

When did you know you wanted to work for the Obamas?
I never had the intention of cooking for them. I came back to Chicago after my travels and I was cooking for a family. They ran into Michelle on a flight and they ended up reconnecting us. So that's how it all happened.

You helped Michelle Obama dig up the White House lawn and install the first vegetable garden at the presidential residence in a century. What was that like?
It seems normal now, but at the time, it was a crazy thing to do. It was so much fun. Having those kids down there digging in the dirt, showing what's possible when you engage young people in the process, was really powerful; it was a powerful symbol for the country and for the world. And then cooking from that garden – it couldn't have been more fun.

Was there anything that was really hard to grow?
I really struggled with pumpkins and the kids always wanted them for Halloween. So we had to work hard to get pumpkins growing there.

Your book, Eat a Little Better, has a recipe for "POTUS's Lucky Pasta". What's the story?
It was a pasta I cooked for Obama ahead of an important debate during the re-election campaign. He credited the pasta for his victory.

Being semi-responsible for his electoral success must feel good!
Let's be honest, he was going to be fine without the pasta! I can't take too much credit.

What did you learn from the Obamas about food?
The importance of family dinner. Unless Obama was overseas or on the other side of the country, he always made sure he was home for dinner. That was impressive.

You shaped food policy at the White House, and your company, Trove, helps businesses produce healthier and more sustainable food. What are you glad to have achieved?
The transformation of school nutrition is something I'm proud of. As well as all the work we did with Walmart to reduce the cost of healthier food options and make them more easily identifiable.

Nowadays you do a lot of cooking for your infant son, Cy. Is he a good eater or a tough judge?
Kind of both. He likes what he likes, and if he doesn't like it, he'll just drop it on the floor. So he lets you know if he's not satisfied with your cooking. But it's such a joy to cook for that little guy.

Eat A Little Better; Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World (Clarkson Potter, hbk, $65) is out now.

SHAREPIN
  • Author: Lee Tran Lam