WASHINGTON — In 2005, when Barack Obama was a mere freshman senator, his wife, Michelle, found herself overwhelmed with the stress of being a full-time working mother, largely alone in her Chicago home, with two daughters who got sick a little too often. Sluggish and above her fighting weight, she wondered if her family’s diet — lots of prepared food and a few too many Cheetos — might need an adjustment.
In came Sam Kass, a longtime Chicago friend of the family and chef for hire. Kass plowed through the Obama pantry, took out offending food and began preparing whole grains and steamed vegetables for Obama and the girls, who liked to trail Kass in the kitchen while he chopped and stirred.
From there, Kass found himself an astounding beneficiary of luck and timing as he blazed a trail of cruciferous vegetables into the first lady’s heart. Today he is one of her top policy advisers, the first family’s personal chef and a window into the zealously guarded space and tastes of the Obama White House.
In a demonstration of Kass’ pre-eminent Good Friendedness, President Obama spent five hours in Kass’ apartment last week — in the middle of crises in Iraq, Ukraine and Ferguson, Mo. — ostensibly celebrating the chef’s last week as a bachelor. This weekend, the first family will attend Kass’ wedding, to Alex Wagner of MSNBC, at a Westchester County, N.Y., farm-to-table restaurant favored by the Obamas.
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Kass, who cooks for the Obamas five nights a week, has one of the highest public profiles of anyone in the East Wing. As the point man and public face for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! fitness campaign, which has about 70 private partners and the involvement of a dozen federal agencies, he is criticized by Republicans who dislike what they call the program’s onerous mandates and by food-policy wonks who say the East Wing has not whipped up enough kale.
In between, Kass manages a frantic schedule of travel, cooking and commuting, although he can be found grilling prime beef for the Obamas just outside the North Portico on many a Friday, steak night at the White House.
At the same time, he has helped to popularize a way of eating embraced by moneyed urban foodies. Just as the first lady’s fashion choices and toned biceps permeate the consciousness of the country, Michelle Obama and Kass have taken organic gardening and the whole-wheat-ification of grilled-cheese sandwiches mainstream.
“He is on the forefront of a social movement,” said Dan Barber, executive chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., site of the Wagner-Kass nuptials. “I have watched it with admiration.” Barber, a pioneer among chefs who have become food-policy wonks, consulted on Michelle Obama’s White House kitchen garden. (He would provide no wedding details.)
Kass grew up in Hyde Park, Ill., and attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where his father was a teacher. (One of the elder Kass’ fifth-grade students was Malia Obama, now 16.) The school was “sort of a utopian fantasyland,” said Michael Hoy, a classmate of Kass who lives in Los Angeles. “There were kids from every walk of life.” He added: “I definitely would not have thought of Sam to be a food guy. When we were in school together he was very focused on sports.”
Kass played center field on a community-college baseball team and then transferred to the University of Chicago, where he soon became entranced with food. He trained in kitchens in Europe and Mexico, returned home to work at the Chicago restaurant Avec, and eventually began a company, Inevitable Table, which offered his personal-chef services to clients in private homes.
When the Obamas moved to Washington, they more or less begged Kass — who had become an uncle of sorts to the children — to come along, giving him the title of assistant chef in charge of family meals. (The White House executive chef, Cristeta Comerford, handles state dinners and other official entertaining.) Eventually, Kass took on the Let’s Move! portfolio.
A trusted member of the Obamas’ inner circle, Kass moves from rounds of golf with the president to cable-television studios, where he defends federal nutrition programs and new school-lunch menus that critics say are too expensive and unappetizing to children.
Not everyone finds him delightful.
“Despite efforts to promote healthier choices to students,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, citing a national survey of members, “schools are struggling with decreased student lunch participation.” She said Agriculture Department data shows that despite increasing student enrollment in participating schools, lunch participation is down in 49 states, with 1 million fewer students choosing school lunches each day under the new standards set by the Obama administration.
Kass’ skill, several people said, is bonding with young people, from the Obama girls to inner-city students in Washington whom he takes on tours of the White House garden. “He does an incredibly hard thing, which is to get kids to interact with him,” said Tanya Steel, creator of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, a recipe contest that is part of Let’s Move!.
On Saturday, Kass, 34, will enjoy some of the best farm-to-table food in the country at his own wedding to Wagner, 36, whose father, Carl Wagner, worked in Democratic politics in Washington and now lives in New York. The two, an efficacious union of liberal politics and camera-ready looks, met at a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner after-party. For their first date, Kass talked his friend Edward Cohen, a principal owner of the Washington Nationals baseball team, into opening the stadium in the offseason so he could play catch with his new heartthrob.
Kass is expected to stay through the end of the president’s second term as one of the last remaining original staff members of this White House, perhaps for no other reason than his love of the garden, where 1,000 pounds of food is grown each year, much of it served on the premises.
“He has this bizarre affection for a fig tree,” said Eddie Gehman Kohan, whose blog, ObamaFoodorama.com, documents the eating life of the White House. She was describing a tree that grew from a sapling donated to the White House by Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate. Once, she said, the tree was accidentally yanked up and tossed with the weeds, but Kass rescued it.
“He was very emotional about it,” Gehman Kohan said. “He thought the tree was mad at him.”