All right, I admit it: I’ve always fantasized about having one of the Obamas as a guest on Special Sauce. And while I haven’t given up hope entirely, I realize that Sam Kass, my guest on Special Sauce this week, might be as close as I get to that particular dream.
Sam is an author and food policy activist, and I first heard about him when he was tapped by Michelle Obama in 2013 to be the executive director of her Let’s Move campaign, which focused on changing attitudes about food and nutrition in America. By that point in time, Sam had already been working at the White House for about four years, both as a chef and as an advisor.
Sam has since taken some of the lessons he tried to impart there and written the cookbook Eat A Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World, which is also something of a gentle food manifesto.
We started the conversation off with what it was like for Sam growing up, and he said that he started cooking for his family when he was nine; part of his allowance was even budgeted for the shopping. But he didn’t really use recipes. “I would just make it up,” Sam said, “I remember I cooked chicken thighs with a bunch of dried herbs and some onions, and maybe some mushrooms that I just sort of threw together. It came out actually really well…I got lucky, I think. Because then I tried to do it the next time, and put so many dried herbs into it that it was basically inedible.”
Such is life as a nine-year-old chef.
As we talked, it seemed like Sam and I were bonding quite nicely. Well, at least until I brought up Chicago’s deep dish pizzas, which turned out to be a sore subject. Here’s a bit of the transcript:
Ed Levine: How did you feel about Chicago pizza? Were you a lover of deep dish pizza?
Sam Kass: Of course. Are you kidding me?
Ed Levine: I ask that because when I, I wrote a pizza book. A book all about pizza. In it I uttered some blasphemous statements about Chicago pizza.
Sam Kass: I’m amazed you’re still alive.
I hope you’ll check out both this week and next week’s podcast to listen to how the talented and thoughtful Sam Kass became an invaluable member of the Obamas’ White House team.
EL: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
SK: He likes to play it cool. He doesn’t get too exercised, right? But he really does enjoy good food.
EL: You mean he was No Drama Obama even when it came to food?
SK: When it came to food that’s exactly right. If it’s really good and solid and straight and clean he took great good pleasure.
EL: This week we’re talking to Sam Kass, author and food policy activist. We all first heart of Sam when he became the executive director of the Let’s Move campaign, initiated by Michelle Obama, which was focused on changing attitudes about food and nutrition in America. He came to the Obama White House in 2009. He has taken some of the lessons he tried to impart there and written a cookbook-cum-gentle food manifesto, Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World.
EL: So Mr. Sam Kass, tell me about life in the Kass family kitchen.
SK: Kass family kitchen.
EL: Growing up.
SK: We had yellow linoleum floors and some old-school old-fashioned stove. Both my parents cooked, but it was pretty typical, at least in my mind, typical ’80s cooking.
EL: Where are we?
SK: Chicago. Logan Square when I’m young. Then when I was a little older my mom moved to Hyde Park. What did we cook? Very simple. Nothing fancy. Broiled chicken. Broiled steaks. Iceberg lettuce salads. Stir fries, we did a lot of stir fries. So that’s definitely –
EL: Well that’s ahead of its time.
SK: Ahead of its time, yeah. My mom did a lot of that.
EL: Were they cooking from cookbooks? Or just cooking?
SK: No, just cooking. Nothing exciting.
EL: Were you interested very early on in cooking? Or just eating and hanging out with your friends?
SK: Actually I loved to cook, from the time I was really young.
SK: Yeah. One year my allowance was based on cooking dinner once a week. When I was –
EL: I like that.
SK: When I was –
EL: That’s awesome.
SK: Nine years old or something. God bless them for bearing through that. A rough year, probably.
EL: Would you cook without a recipe?
SK: Oh yeah. I don’t know, I would just make it up. I remember I cooked this chicken thighs with a bunch of dried herbs and some onions, and maybe some mushrooms that I just sort of threw together. It came out actually really well and it was sort of like, I got lucky I think. Because then I tried to do it the next time, and put so many dried herbs into it that it was basically inedible.
EL: There may be limitations to improvising in the kitchen when you’re nine.
SK: Yeah. But I would make my mom breakfast in bed for Mothers Day and things like that, and I would have a great time cooking. But it was really nothing fancy, but we always had dinner as a family and we almost never went out. Almost never.
EL: Almost never went out.
SK: Yeah. Never.
EL: Was it strictly meat and potatoes?
SK: We would get a little crazy with stuffed pasta shells, stuffed ricotta shells. That was an awesome thing.
EL: Right. But did she ever really go the extra mile on dessert?
SK: No. Ice cream.
EL: See, that’s –
SK: But we would get ice cream sometimes.
EL: My mother, we’d have fruit for dessert. My brothers and I would start this chant, “ASFD. ASFD”. Anything special for dessert.
SK: They did the fruit juice popsicle thing.
SK: Which, you know, looking back on … I was in the kind of family where at lunch I had nothing to trade. It sucked. I had no gummy anythings. I had nothing that was worth anything on the open market.
EL: Right. You can’t, celery is not worth shit as a trade.
SK: Apple sauce gets you jack shit.
EL: That sucks.
SK: Yeah, it was tough. It was legit tough. I would beg them for something that I could trade with, but no kid ever wanted anything that I had. But it was always healthy, decent. For back then. It was that idea of healthy back in the ’80s I guess.
EL: Were you eating a lot of, when you were old enough to drive or get around on your own, were you eating a lot of Italian beef sandwiches?
SK: Oh yeah. Al’s Italian Beef, are you kidding me?
EL: Yeah, all right.
SK: But the thing that I, we ate a lot of was fried chicken. By that point I was spending most of my time in Hyde Park. A lot of Harold’s Fried Chicken with everything.
EL: We should say that Harold’s Fried Chicken is a mini-chain in Chicago.
SK: It is.
EL: Specializing in pretty damn good, if somewhat greasy fried chicken.
SK: So good it could kill you at any point shortly after eating it. But incredible.
EL: That’s good.
SK: Yeah. We ate a lot of that. We ate a lot of Ribs ‘n’ Bibs, and things like that. I didn’t, when I was middle-high school years I can’t say I was the healthiest eater.
EL: Did you do the double dip Italian beef because you wanted all the gravy?
SK: Oh yeah, of course. Obviously.
EL: All right. You’re legit.
SK: Is there any other way to do it? I don’t even know.
EL: No, there isn’t.
SK: Oh, okay.
EL: But you know, I have to ask that question because some people may be a little weird.
SK: Okay. That didn’t even occur to me.
EL: How did you feel about Chicago pizza? Were you a lover of deep dish pizza?
SK: That’s like saying, I don’t know. I don’t even know, I don’t even know how to describe the insanity in that question. Of course. Are you kidding me?
EL: I ask that because when I, I wrote a pizza book. A book all about pizza. In it I uttered some blasphemous statements about Chicago pizza.
SK: I’m amazed you’re still alive.
EL: Yes. At best I said Chicago pizza is a good casserole.
SK: Wow. This might be the first podcast you come to blows on. I mean, that is blasphemous, man. To all my Chicago guys, I’m thinking about doing the deed for you guys. Just unbelievable.
EL: There was a guy –
SK: These New Yorkers with their greasy nasty super cheap garbage pizza that you fold over and think that’s some kind of special thing. It’s a joke. It’s just a joke.
EL: But what the –
SK: Our thin crust is better than New York’s thin crust.
EL: A lot of people don’t know that Chicago does have a thin crust tradition.
SK: And it’s a great thin crust tradition.
EL: You know Vito and Nick’s?
SK: Yeah, of course.
EL: I did discover a lot of different styles of Chicago pizza in researching my pizza book. But I did say I must have had a New York bias, I say going in.
SK: Yeah. One would think. There isn’t a New Yorker without an insane New York bias when it comes to pizza. To the point that you guys are blind to reality. But anyway, it’s fine. We should probably move on to other topics because this isn’t going well.
EL: You went off to college.
EL: Went to University of Chicago. Did you think that you were going to get involved in food?
SK: Well actually I went to junior college first.
EL: Oh, you did?
SK: In Kansas City, Kansas, to play baseball.
EL: Oh, that’s right.
SK: I was trying to –
EL: You had aspirations of being a professional baseball player.
SK: Yeah. I went there. I went to a couple junior colleges. Then I transferred to U of C.
EL: Got it. At what point did you realize that the baseball thing was an unattainable dream?
SK: When I was, probably in Kansas City it started to dawn on me that, while I was pretty good, you know. You have to be so much better than everybody at every level to actually make it.
EL: That’s true. That’s the thing. That’s what happens, because I was a good athlete too. You realize you reach your level at which you can excel.
SK: Yeah. I mean I felt like I still had room to excel and I could have kept going and maybe played a few years of pro ball if I kept working really hard at it. But come out with no education and nowhere to go.
SK: At the same time, all my friends were at Yale and getting all these great educations. I’d visit. I’d visit a good friend of mine there and I was just like, “Okay. I need to get my life together”.
EL: Wow, that’s crazy. You started off in junior college playing baseball.
EL: Realizing that you are not going to get where you want to go. Then you transfer to University of Chicago, where it must have been like taking a swim in the ocean academically after junior college.
SK: Yeah. Well in junior college we, and this is not an exaggeration, we practiced about six hours a day, seven days a week. I was enrolled in four classes I didn’t even know I was in. Luckily, I’m sure you’re wondering, I did get A’s in those classes.
EL: I’m sure. I didn’t even have to ask that, Sam.
SK: I know everybody was wondering how I fared in those classes. Yeah, so then I get to U of C. I’ll never forget the coach, first day of practice said, “We practiced two hours a day, five days a week. Thursday is science lab day so we don’t practice on Thursdays”. I was just like, “Where the fuck am I right now?”. Like, “Oh my god, this is …”, –
EL: That’s so great.
SK: “This is not going to go, I don’t know what …”. I turned to my, I had one friend who I had known before on the team. I was like, “What did he say? Is he serious?”. That first quarter was a pretty big adjustment period. But best decision I ever made was to go to U of C.
EL: You know, U of C of course is known for the T-shirt that says, “Where fun goes to die”.
SK: Yes. It is famous for that.
EL: My brother actually did post-legal work there. I lived in Hyde Park one summer.
SK: Oh, nice.
EL: In fact I almost went to the Lab School. Did you go to the Lab School?
SK: Yeah, I went to Lab, yeah. My dad taught there for 25 years.
SK: My aunt and uncle taught at U of C. They were professors there.
EL: Yeah, we should say, the Lab School was this super progressive day school. I don’t know if it was founded for University of Chicago professors’ kids.
SK: It was. That’s exactly why it was started, yeah.
EL: Got it. Okay. Yeah, there are a lot of schools like that all over the country.
EL: You’re at the University of Chicago where they don’t let you have a lot of fun. You’re playing baseball, and at that point were you still interested in food?
SK: At that point it was no more deep than I just loved to eat. I had it in my head that one day I would go to culinary school later in life to learn how to cook for my future family to be. I expressed that to a friend of mine who was dating a sous chef of a restaurant in Chicago called 312 Chicago. I got to talking to him about it, and he was like, “Don’t spend 40 grand a year to go to culinary school. Why don’t you just come hang out and just see what you think?”, and so that’s what I did.
SK: I started showing up, and then the chef, Dean’s another wonderful guy, said, “If you’re going to keep showing up I guess I’ve got to start paying you”, and so he hired me for the summer.
EL: At that point the Chicago scene was not that fully developed, right?
SK: It was definitely in its first phase of development.
EL: Like Charlie Trotter was there.
SK: Still doing his thing, yeah. Bayless was doing his thing. People were starting. But it was not the Chicago that we know today, that’s for sure.
EL: Right. When you started cooking at the restaurant, did you think, “Oh. This is what I want to do”?
SK: No. Never. No. I don’t know if I ever had that thought.
SK: No. I just, I enjoyed it, but it was a disaster. I didn’t know anything, and you know –
EL: So you got your ass kicked every night.
SK: Every night. I worked really hard. Always worked very hard. They would, that hard work would give me a shot probably before I was ready. I remember working a couple lunch services one week. Lunch was their more busy service, because it was right downtown. It was just an absolute nightmare. I could not keep up. But you know, you start figuring out –
EL: Yeah yeah yeah.
SK: But you know, I had no business being, doing that. I was not ready …
EL: So what was harder at that point? Hitting a curveball or making an omelet?
SK: Oh definitely making an omelet. I could hit a curveball all right. Yeah, no definitely at that point making an omelet. But that was just one summer and I went and finished school so I had a couple of years left, at that point.
EL: And you finished school and then you talk about, in the book, which is a terrific book, by the way. It’s really great. And we’ll talk about that in a second. But you ended up going to Vienna. You ended up in Vienna for a semester abroad, right?
SK: Right. Right. So I had one semester left ’cause I transferred so I just kind of had this last semester. And just wanted to get out of Chicago. I had been there long enough and wanted to see the world and so, yes, I applied to all three. I actually didn’t get into any of them. I got waitlisted and I ended up sort of going to the dean of the abroad programs’ office and kind of having it out with him and just sort of saying-
EL: That happened to my son too. When he was at Kenyon, they were like, “Sorry, your grade point average.” He’s like, “I gotta get out or I’ll lose my mind.”
SK: Yeah, my thought was I would make more out of it ’cause like a lot of the kids, you know, they sort of … people take things for granted. And after talking with some of the kids, I had this one conversation which was typically with this woman who got into Rome. It was Rome, Bombay, and Vienna and I didn’t care where I went. And she could kind of care less so maybe I’ll go to Rome and I was so pissed off. ‘Cause I went in there and I just said, “I promise you, I’ll make more of this experience than anybody else in any of your programs.” And two weeks later, I got this letter letting me into Vienna-
EL: That’s great.
SK: So the way it then all played out was that I said to the head of the program that I was interested in food. Maybe I could get into a pastry shop and/or something once a week just to check it out. Just to be curious. And then she came back and said … The third day I got there, she was, “Okay, so my husband’s uncle’s friend from college son rides bicycles with the sous chef-“
EL: Okay, you had just talked about … That’s like a fifth … That’s like … I don’t know how many times removed that is.
SK: Yeah. But that’s literally what it was. And she said, “So, if you’re interested in meeting him, you can meet him on this street tomorrow at 3.”
EL: That’s how it all started!
SK: And that’s how it all started.
EL: That’s awesome. You know, I went to Grinnell in Iowa, which you know.
SK: Yup. Of course.
EL: And I was not a stellar student but I tried to spend my junior semester abroad in Chicago studying Chicago blues.
EL: But they did not accept this as a … because there was no specific curriculum and they sort of figured out that I was gonna end up spending all my time hanging out in blues clubs getting stoned.
SK: Drinking, smoking in blues clubs. Perfect.
EL: Exactly. What better junior year abroad than that? And it wasn’t even abroad. It was 300 miles away.
SK: You’d be doing the same thing, just in Ohio, so you might as well do that in Chicago.
EL: Exactly. Yeah.
SK: Listen to great music.
EL: So you’re in Vienna. You’re working at this restaurant. You’re getting your ass kicked.
SK: Big time.
EL: But you loved it.
SK: Loved it. Oh yeah, it was amazing. Yeah they really, you know … They didn’t know what to make of me, the chef and sous chef who ran this great, great restaurant. They were like, “You’re a well-educated American? Like why do you wanna come cut carrots and get your butt kicked in our kitchen? But if you keep coming back, sure.” So yeah, it was just an amazing experience and really difficult. Closest I ever came to quitting something was there. They kind of worked me to the end.
SK: But that’s how you learn.
EL: That’s also … It sounds like, from the book, that it was a very traditional, macho, East European kitchen.
SK: Yeah. Very. I mean there was a little more warmth to it than normal and they loved me so the chef and sous chef kind of really embraced me as sort of part of their family. And so it was … it had a little … it wasn’t as nasty but it was really hard. And they took it upon themselves to kind of beat me into being a capable cook. And they took joy in that breaking.
EL: And so it must’ve really made your semester abroad.
SK: Well, yeah. That first semester, I basically didn’t sleep. The problem was the sous chef, who is really the hands-on guy who trained me, was also a complete alcoholic, loved to drink-
EL: So you were partying until five in the morning.
SK: Yeah, there was a number of times where I … where we were staying was at the last stop at one of the trains. There was a number of times where I woke up back in the city after being on the train until the last stop and then coming … waking up as the train returned back to the city. I don’t tell that story too much. But, yeah, so I’d wake up, I’d go meet the chef for breakfast, then go to the restaurant, prepare for lunch service, do lunch service, then I’d race to class which was from 2 to 4, go to class completely unprepared, and then race back to meet the sous chef and chef who were having like a coffee or bottle of wine or smoking a cigar in their little break. And then back to the kitchen by 5:30 for dinner service and worked dinner service till like 11:30 or whatever. And then, yeah, and then we’d go out drinking.
EL: And then you ended up going back and working at that restaurant, right? After you graduated.
SK: Yes. I graduated … I was trying to find a way to get papers, but you can’t get papers as a line cook.
EL: Even though they lied to you and they told you they would get you papers. That they knew somebody!
SK: Yeah, so I went back illegally. Yeah, so I was just there illegally and so there were many scams that we’d come up with. There was one plan that I was gonna marry the sous chef’s girlfriend so I could stay. So when I came back, I stayed in the sous chef’s apartment. He actually moved in with his girlfriend so I stayed in his room in this apartment with these couple of other guys and I could eat whatever I wanted. And they were … Out of their pocket, they would give me a little pocket money. But they didn’t pay me. So I worked for knowledge. And yeah, so we had a plan to marry his girlfriend. I was not fully comfortable with that.
EL: It’s not a good idea.
SK: Oh yeah. It’s probably good that I didn’t do that. And then, yeah, the Minister of the Interior was … had come into the restaurant and a bunch of … the owner, not the chef, the owner who was this kind of TV/owner chef guy who didn’t know anything about drinking but he was very arrogant so he was like, “Oh yeah, he’s my friend. Just email him.” And so I emailed-
EL: And get escorted to jail.
SK: Yeah. ‘Cause he’s like literally the Vice President of Austria and so I’ll be like, “Dear Vice President Biden,” ’cause I’m still living in a fantasy land that what’s happening now isn’t actually happening. And so, of course, he like forwarded it on to the authorities who immediately started calling. So after that, it was probably another year of being there. So a lot happened in between. But, yeah, I ended up getting run out of town, essentially.
EL: And then you ended up traveling and then cooking in a couple of Chicago restaurants, right?
SK: Yeah, I cooked at avec.
EL: Right, which one of my favorite restaurants. It’s a Paul Kahan and Donnie Madia restaurant that I really love.
SK: One of the greats.
EL: Yeah. And probably one of my favorite restaurants and if it wasn’t so noisy, it might be my favorite restaurant.
SK: That’s fair. It’s pretty … It rocks.
EL: But it’s pretty great. But then how did you make the transition to thinking about policy?
SK: Yeah. That’s actually started in Vienna. So Alois, the sous chef, had me make a rhubarb sauce for this foie gras dish and so he said … Normally, I have to clean this story up but I guess now I can say whatever I want.
EL: No, it’s great, it’s a podcast.
SK: Perfect. So good. So yeah, so he said, “Okay” … They call me Yankee, so he said, “Okay, Yankee, cook the rhubarb down and then fuck in the butter.” And I was like, “Okay.” So I cook it down and I take this huge thing of butter and I put it in. And he said, “No, Yankee, I said fuck in the butter.” And I was like, “Damn, like that’s a lot of butter.” So I took another huge, like what I thought was an obscene amount of butter and I put it in and he came up to me pissed and he said, “If the … I said fuck in the butter! If the guest walks out of this restaurant and drops dead of a heart attack, it’s not my problem. The guests ask me to make the food taste good not to make it good for them.” And he was totally right.
SK: And it, kind of, in an elegant and powerful and kind of shocking way, summed up a big part of the problem that we’re facing which was we had been asking chefs in the restaurant … in the food industry to make food that tastes good, and not to actually have much thought for our health. We just sort of assume that maybe there was something … we weren’t thinking about it.
And so I went back to my station, really rattled by that. ‘Cause you could see out into the dining room that a lot of people were sick. And you started looking around the street and you realize like, because of the food that we’re eating, people are really suffering and then right after that, one of the purveyors came in carrying like all the chickens and ducks and eggs and stuff. And I immediately said, “Okay, well what are the implications of the food that I’m preparing for the people I’m serving to and then what are the implications of the food I’m preparing for the people who are producing it and then the land that it comes from?” And so once I kind of asked those questions, and that was like really early on, that was like soon after I’d come back-
EL: And they were, probably, at that moment, probably hard to get answers.
SK: Yeah. There wasn’t a lot … You know, so I started doing research. I stopped reading cookbooks … At that point, I’m like pouring through cookbooks. Every night I’d go home, I’d read cookbooks trying to learn.
EL: And what year are we talking about?
SK: So that was like 2003, something like that.
SK: Yeah, so I just started reading policy books and like Marion Nestle’s book. Like some of those. Some of the old school writers who had forged a path-
EL: Diet for a Small Planet? That kind of stuff?
SK: That kind of stuff, yeah. And weird taxation books and history of agriculture books and so that sent me down on that path. So by the time … and as I sort of traveled for the next four years or … five years, about, in total and came back a little for a year or so … a little less than a year to work at avec. That’s what I was really focused on by that point.
EL: And then how did you get from there to working for the White House?
SK: Yeah, so part of me … So I cooked at avec for a year and then I went to New Zealand-
EL: Right, as a private chef.
SK: Private chef, I was cooking for a family down there. So I cooked and traveled my way around the world and came back and I was gonna cook for them part-time and actually organize chefs around food policy. That was what I was trying to figure out how to do when I came back to Chicago-
EL: So that was really your jam?
SK: In 2007, yeah. That was what I was trying to do but had no idea what that meant, like, that wasn’t happening yet. And so the family I was cooking for ran into Michelle on a flight and had known them from the previous, sort of, political world-
EL: This is Michelle Obama?
SK: Michelle Obama, yes. And I had known them just from High Park being in Lab School and being in that neighborhood. Not super well, but definitely knew them. And got reconnected and then Senator Obama just announced his campaign a couple of months prior.
EL: The longest of long shots.
SK: The longest of long shots, yeah. And so I started … She had no help. It was just like grandma. You know there was not like a big staff or anything, so-
EL: So you were just cooking at their house?
SK: Yeah, so I just started helping her out a couple times a week. Yeah. Yeah, back then I would make … I would cook for that … I’d come in and cook and then I’d leave a plate, you know, plates for them the next night that she would reheat, which was really
SK: -plates for the next night that she would reheat, which is really funny to think about now.
EL: Yeah. Yeah, but it’s funny because that’s the way most people I knew that used private chefs is they would come in once or twice a week and make three meals.
SK: Yeah. That’s what I was doing basically.
EL: And did they appreciate good food even back then?
SK: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
EL: Were they serious about it? Are they serious eaters?
SK: Yeah, they’re very different. They like and love really good food. She’s quite adventurous, and I think takes a different kind of joy from it than he does. He really, really likes good food, but he’s not plussed about it. He doesn’t get too … He likes to play it cool. He doesn’t get too exercised, but he really does enjoy good food, but he doesn’t like fancy stuff.
EL: You mean he was No Drama Obama even when it came to food?
SK: When it came to food, that’s exactly right. If it was really good, and solid, and straight, and clean, he took great pleasure.
EL: Now, my friends who have eaten with them, and my chef friends who have cooked for them say that Barack has a serious jones for pie.
SK: He does. That’s correct. That’s a fact I can confirm.
EL: That’s not under NDA?
SK: No, it’s not.
EL: And when he went to Seattle, my friend Tom Douglas would cook coconut cream pies for him, and even put some in his limousine, and he’d always send or have somebody send him a note that said, “Love that coconut cream pie, man.”
SK: I don’t know. I can’t confirm that, but that sounds totally believable.
EL: And so what did Michelle eat that Barack wouldn’t?
SK: She has a very public love for french fries. He didn’t eat a lot of french fries. We’re similar like that. I’ll have a couple fries, but I don’t like eating a lot of fries. He doesn’t eat a lot of fries.
EL: Okay, so you’re cooking for them in their house as they’re running for president. Did you think there was a chance in hell that you would be cooking in the White House?
SK: You know, when I started, I had the sense that nothing was going to be the same again, but even through that summer, he had no traction. Into August, into September, he was 30 points down in 2007. We had faith in him, but his name was Barack Hussein Obama. He’s a black guy living on the south side of Chicago. We had a little too much cynicism to think that it was really going to happen. But we were dreaming about if it did.
EL: Right. And did they say, “If we do this, if by some miracle we do this, would you come with us?”
SK: So, Miss Obama and I had lots of conversations around food, and health, and nutrition, and what was going on in the country, and how parents were struggling, and we dreamed of what we could potentially do together on those issues if we did. So there was a sense from her vantage point that if that happened, she’d want me to come. That conversation was never broached with him until he won, and I had actually applied to NYU’s food studies program.
EL: Oh, you had? We used to hire interns from there all the time at Serious Eats.
SK: Michelle had actually written me a recommendation for it.
EL: That’s awesome. That is probably the best goddamn recommendation you could have.
SK: I was pretty confident I was going to get in. It was funny, when then President-Elect Obama came in … It was like, I was cooking, he just walked in and he was like, “So,” and basically just offered for me to come. He was like, “We were thinking it’d be great if you came if you were interested. Let me know, but I know you got into grad school, so that sounds pretty good. You may very well want to go there. It’s a tough opportunity to turn down, and who knows how this is going to go.” And I was like, “Are you crazy? What are you talking about? Yeah. No, I’m coming.”
EL: What do you call them when you’re at the White House? You must’ve called them Michelle and Barack before you got there.
SK: Yeah, and privately I did, and still do. But when you’re around other people, or typically on a podcast, you call them President or First Lady. President Obama, First Lady Obama. Like that.
EL: Was it intimidating to be there?
SK: Yeah, it was scary as hell. Are you kidding me? There’s just nothing in life that can prepare you for that. Even people who are in Washington, know Washington, going to the White House is just different than anything, any other job in any place ever anywhere. So you can have basic tools, and talents, and skills that will serve you well there, but nothing prepares you for that job really. And for me, I was not a creature of Washington, so it was all new, and I’m a cook trying to do some big things, so that was a whole other level of intimidation, or challenges that most cooks coming into that place would’ve even been thinking about.
But, yeah, it was crazy. Just chaos. Especially in the beginning, it’s just chaos. Nothing’s organized. Nobody knows where the bathrooms are. I didn’t know where the fridge was where the chicken would be. It was like you’re starting at … You’re just from a fire hose on every level.
SK: The head chef, Cris Comerford, was actually still there. Wonderful, wonderful chef.
EL: A Filipina-American.
SK: Yeah. Wonderful chef, even better person. She handled all the state dinners, and all the banquets, and all that stuff. I mean, I would help, but that was her show, and it was a show for sure. Watching her and all of our team pull that off was just incredible considering all the constraints.
SK: So, no, I did family dinner five nights a week, and then I started working on the garden, and then on the policy stuff, and Let’s Move. But those were my other jobs, which took up the vast majority of my time there.
EL: So let’s talk about the policy stuff. What did you do that you’re the most proud of? What was the biggest lesson you learned?
SK: I think what we were able to do, and I was very conscious of as the primary goal going in, was to take the issues of food, and health, and how we’re feeding ourselves, and the implications of how we feed ourselves, and take those issues, which when we got there were largely having advocates scream at the food industry, and the food industry saying we’re not doing anything wrong, and nobody really listening to them at all, and putting these issues in the mainstream culture in a language that everybody could understand, and elevating the importance of our food and all of those implications in a powerful way, and that we absolutely did in ways that have been transformational to the country that she’ll never really get credit for.
When you think about change, when it comes to food, there’s a lot of focus on policy, and we should talk about policy, and we did a lot on policy, but food is ultimately the deepest expression of who we are and of our culture. These aren’t issues that can be fixed through policy for the most part. And our policy is a reflection of our culture. Really, our culture is the underpinning of the problem, and so addressing our culture … Changing culture is the hardest thing to do. There’s nothing harder, especially in food, and you’ve got to be careful because food is our traditions, it’s how we show love, it’s how we understand who we’re not and who we are. It’s very complicated, and so taking that on in a way that I think was meaningful and measurable was really important.
On a policy level, transforming school nutrition was probably our single biggest policy thing we did, but we also transformed the way the industry has been dealing with this. When we got into the White House, industry literally wasn’t talking about this in the boardroom. They did not have any care for health at all, and definitely not sustainability. And now it’s top of line.
EL: Because they realize that this is the future, because everyone is thinking this way.
SK: Yeah. We kicked their butts in a pretty public way. The First Lady called them out in a very public and aggressive way early on. She went to speak at a conference of theirs, and really put them on notice to the point where they were not happy with me in particular. And also a part of what’s also happened is that, in a generation that grew up with lots of writers, and people speaking out, and all this other stuff, and also the White House really caring about these issues, and planting eggplants on the south lawn, and things of that nature … It’s now second nature to them. And so for younger generations, it is their culture. Eating healthier, eating with the planet and climate change in mind, that is the culture, and it’s starting to shape our broader culture, and that’s a legacy that’s really powerful.
And so, yeah, so now the industry is scrambling to try to figure out what the hell are they supposed to do. They don’t know what to do. They don’t have any ability to innovate. They don’t have very much of an authentic voice to say we actually really care about this because until not that long ago, they didn’t. So some of them are doing a good job. A lot of them are not, but it’s changing the way we eat. And I think that’s really good.
EL: Sure. I think that’s fair, and it’s always going to be a two steps forward, one step back process.
EL: And I guess if you didn’t know that going in, you quickly found that out.
SK: For sure.
EL: Thanks, Sam. You’re going to stick around for more conversation for another episode of Special Sauce.
EL: We’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.