9/21/2012 01:47:00 PM

White House Chef Sam Kass on Cooking for the Obamas and More

Credit: Philip Montgomery for Google
President Obama may dine at local restaurants regularly, but ever wonder what his family's routine is like at home? During his recent visit to Google for the Think Health summit, we spoke to Sam Kass, assistant chef and senior policy advisor for healthy-food initiatives, to discuss what life is like in the kitchen of the White House, what he's currently working on and what we'll probably never see on the South Lawn.

Zagat: How does one even get the job of being a chef at the White House?
Sam Kass: A lot of hard work and some luck? I actually was with them in Chicago, so I came with the family.

Zagat: How does working as a chef at the White House differ from working at a regular kitchen?
SK: Well, the pace is different. At a restaurant you’re serving the same dishes for different people, and at the White House, or in any house, you’re cooking different dishes for the same people. It presents a different set of challenges about keeping things interesting on a daily basis. With the exception of a state dinner, there’s not the same intensity of cooking and churning out hundreds of dishes every night.

Zagat: What is the setup like at the White House kitchen?
SK: Chances are your kitchen is bigger than ours. It’s a historic building, so it’s quite small, but we make it work. The pastry kitchen is like a pantry, but they do incredible things out of there.

Zagat: What about the hours - how do they differ from a standard chef position?
SK: I work from early in the morning until late at night, and when I was cooking at restaurants, it’d be from the middle of the day until late at night. I work more hours now, because I’m also on the Let’s Move campaign for the First Lady. Between the two jobs, I end up working a lot.

Zagat: Speaking of, what can you tell us about the Let’s Move campaign and how it pertains to this industry?
SK: It’s a great program that the First Lady started, and I think it can really unite our country around our kids’ health. It’s something that’s so critical for our future, and it’s something that chefs are uniquely positioned to have a big impact on - in their restaurants with the food that they’re serving, in schools and in the broader community helping to educate families about cooking and engage and excite kids about healthy eating. I’ve been thrilled to see all the leadership chefs have been showing across the country.

Zagat: What’s next for the program?
SK: Well, one very cool thing that just got announced is the use of chefs for diplomatic missions for the State Department when they go abroad. They'll use food and cooking as a tool for fostering greater understanding and as an exchange of cultural treasures. It’s unprecedented, and I think it really speaks to the role chefs are playing in our country - the importance of food and the responsibility that chefs have to help lead in a time where so many issues that we’re facing can be solved with food and nutrition.

Zagat: Given the emphasis on conscientious eating, what are some of the favorite healthy snacks at the White House?
SK: We keep it simple. We make fruit available all the time, nuts, dried fruit, whole wheat crackers, low-fat cheese - it doesn’t need to be fancy. They don’t want to feel like they are in a restaurant when they’re at home.

Zagat: Any midnight snacks?
SK: They’re a pretty disciplined family, so there’s no midnight snacking that I know of, but I’m not there for it, so maybe it’s going on but I don’t know of it.

Zagat: Can you share information with us about the White House garden?
SK: It’s the first garden since Eleanor Roosevelt’s, and it’s actually the first garden that’s produced a lot of food since the 1890s - we’ve produced over 4,000 pounds. It’s been incredible. It’s one of the great joys as a chef to be able to walk down there in the afternoon and decide what I’m going to cook based on what’s looking great in the garden. We also have the first-ever beehive on the South Grounds, so we get to use that, and we’ve made a little beer from that honey, which has been great fun.

Zagat: There’s been a lot of excitement surrounding that beer. Are there any other fun initiatives like that you have in the works?
SK: [Laughs] I know, we’ve set a precedent with this beer. We’re definitely going to continue to brew delicious beer, and I can attest, much to our surprise to be quite honest, how good the beer is - none of us had brewed before. We don’t have another beer up our sleeves at the moment, but we’re always looking to find new ways to produce our own food and products.

Zagat: So, any plans for a chicken coop?
SK: I joke with the Secret Service about that sometimes down there by the garden, and they look at me a little cross-eyed, like, ‘You’re not really that crazy, are you?’...I do not anticipate putting chickens on the South Lawn of the White House.


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