First Kitchen Confidential
The Obama family’s favorite Chicago chef is coming to the White House.
The Obama family’s favorite Chicago chef is coming to the White House. As assistant White House chef, Sam Kass continues the Hyde Park, Lab School shift to Washington.
Samuel Kass, the 28-year-old cook who served as personal chef to the Obama family in Chicago, will be cooking nightly at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, White House Social secretary Desirée Rogers confirmed for The Root. Kass, who will hold the title of assistant White House chef, is also the son of Robert Kass, Malia Obama’s former fifth-grade teacher and onetime faculty director at Chicago’s Laboratory School.
The young chef’s organic cuisine and sustainable kitchen philosophy won over the new first family years ago. Kass trained in Europe after graduating from the University of Chicago in 2003 and ran a private catering business that counted the Obamas as clients even before Malia was assigned to the elder Kass’ classroom in 2007. The Obamas’ refrigerator was once filled with junk food—and, adds one former Lab student, who has known the Kass family for years, Sam "got the whole family eating healthier.”
Kass, a varsity college athlete, recently relocated to Washington and may even have continued cooking for the Obamas after their arrival in D.C. (A White House spokesperson could not confirm or deny Kass’ involvement in any pre-inaugural snacking.)
Even though he had the president and first lady as references, Kass reportedly still had to apply for the position, which opened after a veteran of the Bush kitchen elected to retire. In the White House, Kass will work as a line cook under Bush-era head chef Cristeta Comerford—but with his intimate knowledge of the famously picky president’s food fetishes, he may end up teaching her a thing or two.
Both Obama girls are personally fond of Kass, whose familiar food will be another source of comfort for them as they make the transition to Washington. “He knows what they like and what they don’t like,” says another Hyde Park acquaintance. “And you gotta have a Labbie tasting your food!” she joked, making reference to the tight-knit Lab School crowd.
In the months since his election, President Obama has entered into a series of high-profile “blind dates,” with officials with whom he has had little to no previous relationship—Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser James Jones, Council of Economic Advisers chair Christina Romer, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At the same time, 44 has invited a close circle of Chicago acquaintances to Washington, as much to advise him as to keep him company in the town in which he arrived as an outsider in 2005.
The relationship between the Obamas and the Kasses—Malia’s parent-teacher conference with Robert Kass was one of the president’s first few meetings after being elected—underscores the extent to which Obama values his small circle of trusted friends.
Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel and Rogers are familiar Chicago names in Washington. But the Hyde Park neighborhood, especially the Lab School community, has also provided a bountiful harvest.
In addition to Kass, David Katz, the 26-year-old campaign photographer who has trailed Obama since late 2003—but declined to continue as documentarian in the White House—is the son of former Lab principal Lucinda Lee Katz. Arne Duncan, a Lab alumnus recently confirmed as Obama’s Secretary of Education, is married to Karen Duncan, an Australian-born basketball player who served as athletic instructor at Lab for years. Newly named “regulatory czar” and legal scholar Cass Sunstein sent his daughter to Lab while he was at University of Chicago. Solicitor General Elena Kagan and inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander first met Obama during their days teaching in Hyde Park. And earlier this month, Susan Sher, a former Lab School parent and school board member, was hired as legal counsel for Michelle Obama (her son, Evan, is rumored to be headed for Washington, too). Sher has been a longtime friend of the Obamas and served as an administrator, alongside Michelle Obama, at the University of Chicago Hospitals.
At least a dozen former Lab students worked on Obama’s presidential campaign, and some have been hired into the administration under Jarrett, whose own mother once taught at Lab. The concentric circles don’t seem to bother Hyde Parkers. “I don’t think it’s the good old fashioned Chicago way,” says one Lab School graduate of 2000 who asked not to be identified when speaking about friends. “It’s more just talking and word of mouth and those you trust.”
Washington is a different scene. Aside from the Chicago-heavy Blair House dinner that the Obamas hosted the Sunday before inauguration—and that much-discussed visit with conservative commentators at George Will’s Chevy Chase, Md. home—President Obama has seemed a bit reticent to dip his toe into the social waters of the capital city. For now, it seems, old friends remain the best friends. The president has reportedly told buddies from home that he would like them to visit at least the first six weekends of his sojourn in the White House. This Sunday, for instance, the Obamas made plans to watch the Super Bowl in presidential style, with a few out-of-town guests. “I don’t know if I would call it a party,” said Rogers. “But we are doing a Super Bowl viewing."
No word on what might be on the menu. Kass will, no doubt, know how to suit the Chicago crew’s tastes.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.