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White House chef Kass dishes up plates and policy

Monday - 2/20/2012, 4:10am  ET

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Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Sam Kass has a to-die-for job as personal chef to the Obama family but whipping up their meals is probably the least important part of his portfolio.

Kass, 31, also has a fancy title as White House senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives. And that's put him out front this month as the first lady marks the second anniversary of her campaign against childhood obesity.

Kass has traveled the country to promote Michelle Obama's eat-right-and-exercise-more message, demonstrating along the way the pivotal role that he's come to play in helping establish policies that affect what millions of school kids consume each day and in trying to influence the American diet.

When Mrs. Obama was asked during a recent interview what was next for her "Let's Move" initiative, she quickly passed the question to Kass.

"What you got?" she demanded.

"We've got stuff," he promised her. "You're going to be busy."

On a recent trip with Mrs. Obama, the assistant White House chef was seemingly everywhere: emceeing a "Top Chef" school lunch competition, moderating a round-table discussion between the first lady and parents, briefing reporters on federal nutrition initiatives, and more.

Kass, with his distinctive shaved head, wears a broad and relentless grin and speaks with an enthusiasm that's infectious as he gives shout-outs to people and programs that are "amazing," "incredible," and "powerful." He has a knack for popping out just the right statistics about obesity, nutrition and exercise.

But no matter what his policy duties may be, five days a week Kass retrieves his chef's coat in the afternoon and heads upstairs to fill the Obamas' plates with healthy and appealing meals at 6:30 p.m., when President Barack Obama cuts short whatever's afoot in the West Wing to head home for dinner.

There's no need to consult with the first family on menu options _ Kass knows their likes and dislikes by heart.

Kass is discreet about what he feeds the family, often batting away questions with a "top-secret" dodge. But he says the family "walks the walk" on healthy foods, eating balanced meals often dictated by what's in season in the White House garden. With, of course, the occasional splurge to keep the kids happy.

Mrs. Obama, for her part, says her girls "can't stay out of the kitchen when Sam is cooking."

Among the health-conscious recipes Kass has talked up in recent months: seared tilapia with fried rice and broccoli and carrots, garden herb-roasted chicken with braised greens, broccoli soup, sweet potatoes and greens, and cauliflower gratin. His healthy snack suggestions include warm grapefruit with honey, and banana boats stuffed with raisins, nuts and crushed whole grain cereal.

The star power that comes with his chef's jacket only helps reinforce Kass' message about the importance of eating right. One minute he's demonstrating how to make turkey lasagna with spinach on morning TV or chatting with Elmo about healthy school lunches, and the next he's discussing new standards to improve meals on military bases or working with Wal-Mart to reduce the sodium content in packaged foods.

"We're seeing real changes, both big and small, happening all over the country, and incredible partnerships and people stepping up in ways that we just never could have foreseen," Kass says. "And this kind of effort has just been inspirational and gives us a lot of hope that we can truly overcome these problems in the years to come."

It's a measure of Kass' growing stature that he's gone from People magazine's "most beautiful" list in his first year in Washington to Fast Company's "most creative people in business" list in 2011.

Tom Colicchio, New York restaurateur and co-host of Bravo's "Top Chef," says Kass' passion for healthy eating and knowledge of the issue make him a natural for his dual role.

"He knows this stuff inside out," Colicchio said. "It's not him latching on to some trend. He's taken the time to learn it and understand it."

When more than 500 chefs gathered on the White House lawn in 2010 to launch the "Chefs Move to School" program, pairing up chefs to work with individual schools, "that came directly from Sam," says Colicchio. "This is something he cares deeply about."

Walter Scheib, White House chef for 11 years in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, says it's a "wonderful thing" that Kass' cooking has become secondary to his policy work.

"It's way overdue that chefs be involved in that component," says Scheib. While past White House chefs might offer occasional behind-the-scenes advice on nutrition matters, Scheib says, "We were always thought of as, `Go back in the kitchen and be quiet.'"

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