Secrets of the Chef
Sam Kass has the dirt on what's growing on at the White House. Learn more about his efforts with the White House Kitchen Garden from this interview with BHG associate editor Jane McKeon.
Sam Kass serves as assistant White House chef and senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives. In 2009, he helped First Lady Michelle Obama create the first vegetable garden on the South Lawn since World War II. When Kass isn't in the White House Kitchen preparing daily meals for the First Family and assisting with large functions, he promotes Mrs. Obama's healthy living agenda. Kass became interested in local food communities while working at Avec, a Chicago restaurant that specializes in seasonal fare. In 2007, his interest in the origins of foods and the use of sustainable and nutritious ingredients led him to start his own private chef company, Inevitable Table (inevitabletable.com), which focuses on a garden-to-table ethic: "Nowhere are we more powerfully bound together than in the daily cultivation and preparation of food," he says. Kass was the Obama family's personal chef for two years in Chicago prior to following the First Family to the White House in 2009.
Jane: You are the first-ever senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives. How has your experience as a chef helped prepare you for this role?
Sam: It's all part of the same effort by the First Lady to bring focus and attention to all of the challenges we face on the health of our kids, and to work together to solve the problems, particularly around the issue of childhood obesity. The fact is that one in three kids is obese, and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] predicts that if we don't make some real changes now, children will face more serious problems like diabetes in their lifetime. Obesity is the number one cause for disqualification from our military. This is all part of one big conversation. They all inform each other.
Jane: What role have you played in the White House Kitchen Garden?
Sam: The vegetable garden was definitely the First Lady's vision. We had talked about the issues of nutrition, health, and kids back in Chicago, and decided that one great way to enter the national conversation would be planting a garden. Coming in, we didn't even know if it was possible to dig up the South Lawn. There were a lot of potential issues. We didn't know what the state of the soil was. It turned out there was a perfect spot right down by East Street where people line up to view the classic shot of the south view of the White House. Just to the west of it is a perfect spot with great sun exposure and really good drainage. The soil was in surprisingly decent shape. Learn more about the White House Kitchen Garden.
Jane: The First Lady has said that the White House Kitchen Garden is living proof that fresh vegetables taste better. She went on to say that if they're "not prepared well, the kids aren't going to like them any more than we are." What's the secret to preparing seasonal garden vegetables?
Sam: As a chef, I have the honor and privilege of being able to walk down the South Lawn and pick fresh spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, or whatever, and serve them 10 minutes later. When you have ingredients that are that good, my job is to not mess them up. Preparing them simply -- without a lot of stuff to block their flavor -- is key.
Jane: Were you good about eating your vegetables as a kid?
Sam: I can't say that I was, but my parents made sure I ate my vegetables, whether I liked it or not. As I learned about food and cooking, very much a part of that growth was learning where food comes from, how it's grown, and what it means to have quality ingredients. A chef is only as good as the food they're cooking with. As I began to realize that truth, I spent as much time learning about how food is produced as I did learning about cooking technique. The First Lady also understands that connection. She understands the significance of planting a vegetable garden at the White House can have in the national conversation about health and nutrition and kids.
Jane: In a recent blog, you wrote: "Exercise and good nutrition have ... been shown to improve children's academic performance." How does the White House Kitchen Garden teach the connection between gardening and health to America's schoolchildren?
Sam: Without a doubt, gardens are a phenomenal way to support health. We've seen across the country -- and I think that anyone who has gardened with kids knows this -- that when a young person is part of the process of growing food -- planting it and watching it grow and harvesting it -- they're open to trying new foods, and their enjoyment of vegetables is so much greater. The First Lady has seen that time and time again. Kids who couldn't even name certain vegetables were not just open but excited to try them. I think it's that [garden-to-table] connection that really has a huge impact on kids' willingness to eat all kinds of fruits and vegetables.
Jane: According to the White House, the start-up cost for the Kitchen Garden was less than $200 in 2009. How did you keep expenses down?
Sam: Assuming you have some land that's in decent shape, it doesn't take that much. Beyond the seeds and a few soil amendments, we did all of the labor ourselves, which is what a home gardener would do. It just didn't cost us that much. I think one difference is that we had tools. If you don't have any gardening equipment at all, then it will cost a little more.
Jane: Wooden boxes were installed this year in time for spring planting. What have you found to be the biggest benefits of growing vegetables in raised beds?
Sam: We've always had raised beds, but this is the first year we've boxed them in with wood. It helps prevent soil erosion, particularly during hard rains. It also helps the garden stay looking good. We also put straw on top of the soil as mulch, which helps retain water, prevent soil erosion, and keep a lot of weeds from growing. Mulch is very cost-effective, and it saves us a lot of labor.
Jane: Is the White House Kitchen Garden completely organic?
Sam: We're not certified organic, but we don't use any pesticides -- we use natural controls. We have ladybugs and praying mantises -- they do a pretty good job of keeping our garden pest-free. We rotate our crops a lot -- we're not just planting one thing all of the time. That helps prevent disease. Other than a little nibbling here and there, we haven't had any big issues. Get tips to make your vegetable garden organic.
Jane: To date, the White House Kitchen Garden has yielded more than 2,000 pounds of produce. What do you do with it all?
Sam: We don't have to order any vegetables from now through summer and into fall. We give a lot away. In fact, we gave 100 pounds of produce away today -- lots of spinach, lettuce, kohlrabi. Some goes to homeless shelters, some to the Navy mess that feeds the West Wing staff, and some goes into State Dinners. We also can tomatoes and pickle vegetables for winter use.
Jane: How are particular varieties chosen for the White House Kitchen Garden?
Sam: The chefs get together with the grounds guys, and we brainstorm. We look at the chefs' log and talk about things that grow well in our climate. We're learning as we go. A lot of what gardening is about is experimenting and finding what works. We grow a lot of heirloom varieties.
Jane: Speaking of heirlooms, the White House Kitchen Garden has two beds devoted to Thomas Jefferson varieties. What is their historical significance?
Sam: These are all lines of seeds that were grown by Thomas Jefferson. Peter Hatch, who oversees the Thomas Jefferson gardens at Monticello, has been working with us here. The Thomas Jefferson varieties are a wonderful connection to one of the most influential gardeners in American history. Jefferson was ahead of his time. In fact, he's still ahead of his time. He's been credited with the idea of seasonal gardening -- working with the seasons as opposed to overcoming the seasons. We owe a lot to his vision because that is definitely the philosophy we employ at the White House.
Jane: How do you use fresh herbs to season the recipes you serve the First Family?
Sam: We use a lot of fresh herbs from the garden, including rosemary, thyme, mint, parsley, cilantro, chives, sage, and tarragon. They're a great way to add flavor. I don't think I've ever met an herb I didn't like. I prefer using them fresh, but they dry well, too.
Jane: Mrs. Obama has stated that she and the President do not have the "beet gene." What are their favorite vegetables?
Sam: They like all of the vegetables, with maybe the exception of beets. I haven't served them any beets yet. Maybe I'll try and sneak them in.
Jane: Pretend for a moment that you had only 100 square feet, instead of the 1,500 square feet that the White House Kitchen Garden occupies. Which kid-pleasing vegetables and herbs would you most likely include in the garden, knowing that space is a limiting factor?
Sam: When you're working with a limited space, you should grow things that will bring maximum yield. For the cool season, I would suggest a lot of the greens and salad crops -- lettuces and any of the dark greens, such as spinach, kale, chard, and collards -- mostly because they grow really fast, they're healthy for you, and they're really delicious. It's just an amazing abundance of food. I also love beets. For summer, I would definitely plant a few tomatoes because they'll keep producing. There's no greater joy than picking a fresh tomato off the vine. If you have a way to put up a trellis, include peas (spring) and beans (summer). Basil is a great herb that grows like mad... and it makes all the vegetables more flavorful.
Jane: How can Better Homes & Gardens readers help the White House get the message out about turning kids on to gardening and healthy eating?
Sam: What can't you do? Encourage kids to even plant a seed in a milk carton, and just start that engagement with gardening. Communities and schools could also use a lot of resources to help them establish and grow vegetable gardens. Give tools to families who want to start a garden and get their kids to eat better.