Special Sauce: Sam Kass on How What You See Shapes What You Eat

Special Sauce: Sam Kass on How What You See Shapes What You Eat


Photo of former personal chef and White House food policy leader Sam Kass, picking out vegetables at the market

[Photograph: Aubrie Prick. Lamb shoulder tacos photograph: Vicky Wasik]

In part two of my interview with former Obama personal chef and Obama White House food activist Sam Kass, I got schooled big-time about the role visuals play in how you eat at home: “The first lesson that I learned, that I think is maybe most helpful for people, is you eat what you see. How you set your home up can have a transformational impact on what you actually consume. Basically, the things you’re trying to eat more of, you should put out in plain sight, and the things you’re trying to eat less of, you should put on the top shelf or the back of the freezer, in the bottom of the drawer, because you see the bag of cookies on the counter, and then you say to yourself, ‘Oh, I’d like a cookie.'” That’s what Kass taught the Obama family, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me and probably for most serious eaters as well.

Though he served as one of the leading figures in the good-food movement, via his position as executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, Kass doesn’t have time for the purists: “It pisses me off, to be quite honest with you, that we make people feel a certain way about how they’re wrong when it comes to how they’re eating. This book”—Kass’s recently published Eat a Little Better—”is really an attempt to celebrate progress over the ideals, and also to give people strategies about how to actually do it, ’cause we spend so much of our time talking about what you should or shouldn’t do, but no time on how to actually get it done.”

And ditto for the kind of elitism that tends to be reflected in conversations around nutrition: “If we want to change the food system, you have to change most people. We’re too satisfied in the food world with doing it really great for a really small number of people. Scale matters. That’s one of the things the White House showed me, is that the world functions on a huge scale, way bigger than we can comprehend and way bigger than most people even have any sense of…. If you want to have an impact, you’ve got to deal with millions of people and millions of acres and huge supply chains. That means you’re going to have to make some compromises. It means you’re going to have to make compromises in what you’re asking of people. If you can get a lot of people to eat just one or two more servings of vegetables a week, that’s a big impact.”

Sam Kass has a lot to say in his provocative new book, Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World, and he also has plenty to say in part two of my conversation with him on Special Sauce. You won’t want to miss it.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.

Sam Kass: The first lesson that I learned that I think is maybe most helpful for people is you eat what you see. How you set your home up can have a transformational impact on what you actually consume. Basically, the things you’re trying to eat more of, you should put out in plain sight, and the things you’re trying to less of, you should put it on the top shelf or the back of the freezer, in the bottom of the drawer because you see the bag of cookies on the counter, and then you say to yourself, “Oh, I’d like a cookie.”

EL: We are back with cookbook author and food policy activist Sam Kass. He came to the Obama White House when he became the executive director of the Let’s Move campaign initiated by Michelle Obama. You left the White House before they left the White House. Why?

SK: I was there for six years. The main reason was that I was getting married.

EL: Congratulations.

SK: Thank you.

EL: You have a little girl?

SK: A little boy.

EL: A little boy.

SK: A little boy named Cy.

EL: Double congratulations.

SK: Thank you, he just turned one.

EL: Your wife is Alex Wagner, yeah, who’s terrific on MSNBC.

SK: No, she used to be.

EL: Now she’s doing Heilemann’s show, right?

SK: She’s doing The Circus, yeah. She writes for The Atlantic. She’s on CBS, and she’s a cohost of The Circus. She also just had a great book out called Futureface

EL: Great.

SK: … which everybody should buy.

EL: Alright.

SK: Brilliant. Basically, we had been long distance our whole- she was in New York, and I was in D.C. Honestly, between my parents and President and First Lady, who especially the President and First Lady who had strongly encouraged me to grow up, get my shit together, settle down, get married, have a family, stop messing around, it was sort of like, all right, I did what you told me to do, but I can’t be married and long distance dating, engagement, and marriage combined.

EL: Right.

SK: You taught me better than that. I ended up having to leave a little early.

EL: Did you know what you were going to do when you left?

SK: Nope, no idea.

EL: You moved to New York.

SK: Moved to New York.

EL: Then what happened?

SK: That was pretty intense. Moved to New York, left the White House, left the family I’ve been working for for eight years, moved in with my fiance, soon to be, very soon to be, well, basically, no, my wife.

EL: Right.

SK: That all happened at the same time. Had to figure out a new career, moved to New York. That was a lot of change.

EL: You needed a J-O-B, dude.

SK: Yeah, I did, big time.

EL: What’d you get?

SK: Well, I got a book contract, which helped.

EL: Yeah, we’re going to talk about this. This is a very cool book because it wasn’t what I thought. You know why?

SK: Tell me.

EL: ‘Cause you weren’t lecturing me with your forefinger in my chest. I hate that.

SK: Me too. I hate that.

EL: You talk about incremental changes, and people can still enjoy french fries. It’s like you have a very sensible… and maybe that was a result of your time in Washington.

SK: It was, absolutely. Part of what I witnessed in Washington, and this is indicative of, I think, a broader problem, particularly on the progressive side is we state these ideals about how we’re supposed to be living, especially when it comes to food. There’s this right way to eat and a wrong way to eat. A lot of the strongest voices in food paint these utopic visions. They just don’t match the reality of anybody’s life. What ends up happening is people try to do that, fail, and then get super demoralized and give up.

EL: Right. I remember Alice Waters once complained that a place I told her to get tacos at didn’t serve organic tortillas.

SK: Yeah, perfect.

EL: I was like, “Alice, it’s of the community. If they spent the money to make organic tortillas, they would quickly go out of business.”

SK: Right. I love Alice Waters to death.

EL: Yeah, me too.

SK: She’s like my fairy godmother, but it’s just we don’t live in the reality that almost all, most people in this country are living in. By the way, most of those people, Alice may be the exception, they don’t live by those utopic visions themselves. It pisses me off, to be quite honest with you, that we make people feel a certain way about how that they’re wrong when it comes to how they’re eating. This book is really an attempt to celebrate progress over the ideals and also to give people strategies about how to actually do it ’cause we spend so much of our time talking about what you should or shouldn’t do, but no time on how to actually get it done.

EL: Yeah, I thought that was really smart. The book, first of all we should say, is called Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World, which sounds less interesting than it really is.

SK: Then maybe we should redo the title.

EL: No, you do need to redo the title, but it’s okay. The book is awesome. That was one of the great things about it is that the things seem really doable. The things that you recommend doing to change your eating habits, and they don’t require you to become an ascetic.

SK: That’s right. It’s important. It’s got to fit. You really want to make progress. If we want to change the food system, you have to change most people. We’re too satisfied in the food world with doing it really great for a really small number of people. Scale matters. That’s one of the things the White House showed me is that the world functions on a huge scale, way bigger than we can comprehend and way bigger than most people even have any sense of.

SK: If you want to have an impact, you got to deal with millions of people and millions of acres and huge supply chains. That means you’re going to have to make some compromises. It means you’re going to have to make compromises in what you’re asking of people. If you can get a lot of people to eat just one or two more servings of vegetables a week, that’s a big impact.

EL: Yeah, especially there are all kinds of socioeconomic and cultural barriers to that.

SK: Of course.

EL: People always talk about they don’t really understand. They always talk about, “Oh, there should be more farmer’s markets. There should be a farmer’s market in every neighborhood.” Well, the bottom line is yes, there should be, but the problem is in most disadvantaged neighborhoods, there’s no place to get fresh produce. Let’s start there.

SK: Let’s just start with a carrot. I don’t care how it’s grown.

EL: Right.

SK: We just need somebody to have a fresh carrot that isn’t like fuzzy, right. I agree. I think if you’d say one of the big lessons from the White House, and there were infinite lessons, but one is if we want to be effective, we have to start with reality and then work towards our ideals as opposed to starting with our ideals and then being really upset with how the world is and stopping our food.

EL: Right. ‘Cause you’ll always be disappointed.

SK: Yeah. Well, it’s just not an effective way to look at how you make change.

EL: Right.

SK: If you want to be effective, you have to grapple with reality, and you have to say, “Okay, I’m actually here. I know where I want to go, but I can’t just leap there. There’s no way to get there without taking steps in that direction.” When you’re actually in charge of figuring that out, that’s what you’re forced to do. While some people might find that frustrating, it’s your only option. This idea that we need a food revolution, and when I hear people talking like that, they just don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. There’s trillions of dollars of invested infrastructure. There’s farmers who are farming a certain sort of way that have huge investments in that system. They’re not just going to get rid of it.

EL: Right.

SK: It’s not just going to disappear because you have to come to the conclusion that you don’t think it’s this or that. Now I have a pretty similar general critique of the problems, but this isn’t just going to go away. If you just got rid of big ag, everybody would die.

EL: Right.

SK: Right now, it’s producing a huge percentage …

EL: Sure.

SK: … of our calories, so you have to figure out, okay, over time how do you change the culture, how do you make investments in new kinds of infrastructure, new kinds of innovations that can overall lead to a transformation over time of this system that’s feeding us. It literally doesn’t make any sense to say this can just happen.

EL: Sure. What are three concrete things that you hope people come away with from the book?

SK: Well, I think first lesson that I learned that I think is maybe most helpful for people is you eat what you see. How you set your home up can have a transformational impact on what you actually consume. Basically, the things you’re trying to eat more of, you should put out in plain sight, and the things you’re trying to eat less of, you should it on the top shelf or in the back of the freezer, on the bottom of the drawer because a lot of times what happens is you walk into the kitchen. You see the bag of cookies on the counter, and then you say to yourself, “Oh, I’d like a cookie.” You didn’t actually want that cookie. You just saw that cookie.

EL: Right.

SK: Then your eyes saw it. It triggered a thought in your head that said, “I want,” but you didn’t walk in there wanting the cookie.

EL: You talk about even in the White House or even in the Obama’s house in the South Side of Chicago of where you put the cookies and where you put the fruit and where you put the nuts.

SK: It has a huge impact. You put the bowl of fruit on the counter. The kids are going to walk through, for example, and eat whatever’s there. They could’ve grabbed a handful of chips, but there’s a bowl of grapes, they’re going to take the grapes. Setting up your environment for success so once you’re in there, you’re not stressing or grappling about it ’cause we also err on the side of being too obsessed with food. Being healthy with food is just enjoying it, being relaxed, and not worrying about it too much.

EL: Right.

SK: The way you do that is you have to set up your world so that you’re not trying to willpower your way every day in your own kitchen ’cause you’re at war with yourself.

EL: Sure.

SK: The fight should be at the grocery store where you’re being conscious about the choices you’re making. When you get home, you can just relax and eat whatever you’ve got.

EL: Got it.

SK: It doesn’t mean you don’t have the cookies. They’re just on the top shelf, so you only have them when you really want them.

EL: Right. That’s one.

SK: I would try to eat meat, red meat, once a week. If everybody did that, we’d be in a much better place. I love steak. I’m not going to give it up, but I’m definitely eating less of it.

EL: All right.

SK: That’s true for health but even more so for climate change …

EL: Sure.

SK: … and sustainability.

EL: All right, and the third?

SK: The third is probably trying to cook one more time a week. If everybody did that, we’d be well on our way to a much healthier, more sustainable place.

EL: Got it.

SK: ‘Cause when we cook, everything gets better.

EL: Now the book’s done and you’re promoting the book. What are you doing now?

SK: Lots of other stuff. Main thing I’m doing, I’m partnering in a fund called Acre, which is a fund investing in the future of food and technologies that we think are going to transform how we eat from a human health and environmental health vantage point, so a mission-driven fund. I think there’s a whole wave of young entrepreneurs and new technologies that are coming …

EL: For sure.

SK: … to the food system that I think will have just a transformational impact on how we eat.

EL: Cool. Now it’s time for the Special Sauce All You Can Answer Buffet. I know you don’t have much time, but we’re going run through these. Who’s at your last supper? No family allowed, and I’m going to say in your case, the Obamas are not allowed.

SK: My last supper?

EL: Yeah, like if you’re on your way to heaven.

SK: Sure.

EL: Who would you love? It could be living or dead, it could be musicians, artists, authors, philosophers …

SK: Damn, man.

EL: … painters. Just give me three names.

SK: Da Vinci, Lincoln.

EL: All right.

SK: Who’s the last one? I feel like it needs to be …

EL: A woman.

SK: … a woman.

EL: It has to be a woman.

SK: It has to be a woman, yeah, I agree.

EL: You would be in serious trouble both at home and with the Obamas.

SK: I actually might need to redo, I mean only women. I’m going to think about this. I take this question too seriously. There’s just so much.

EL: We can come back to it.

SK: All right, I’m going to come back to it.

EL: What are you eating?

SK: What am I eating?

EL: Mm-hmm.

SK: You can’t ask a chef that question.

EL: I’m sorry, I do it all the time.

SK: Well, fuck, who answers that?

EL: They come up with answers. They do.

SK: That’s a terrible …

EL: They come up with cool answers.

SK: … thing to do. That’s basically a different way of saying, “What’s your favorite food,” and that’s bullshit.

EL: I know. I would never do that ’cause people …

SK: I know.

EL: … ask me that all the time.

SK: It’s the worst question.

EL: The worst question. It could be three or four things. It doesn’t have to be one thing.

SK: I think I’m an Asian food obsessive, so I would have to have sushi. I would have to have some Chinese food of some kind, but this doesn’t constitute a meal. The problem with this question is that I wouldn’t want to eat all those things at one time.

EL: Right.

SK: Do I have a day of eating? Is the last supper like a day long?

EL: Yeah, it can be daylong.

SK: Okay, spread out over.

EL: Yeah, for sure.

SK: Definitely, I basically have to take a trip to Japan, China, Korea, and Vietnam with a little Thai.

EL: Okay. That’s good.

SK: Then I’d have to have some kind of perfect pasta and a taco.

EL: A taco. I like that. What’s in the taco?

SK: Probably tongue.

EL: Tongue, lengua.

SK: Lengua.

EL: All right.

SK: God, I hate that question.

EL: What do you cook when there’s nothing in the house to eat?

SK: Like what I’m going to do when I race home right now?

EL: Yeah, right when you race home right now ’cause they said you’re going to a dinner, but I know you’re going home to cook for your family.

SK: I’m going home to put my son to sleep. That’s why I got to go.

EL: I know.

SK: Then I’m going to cook my wife, I will do pasta with chilies, garlic, and Parmesan cheese.

EL: Got it.

SK: The best.

EL: The best.

SK: I love it.

EL: You always have those things on hand, right?

SK: Always have that.

EL: You always have a hunk of Parmesan, you always have garlic, and you always have some kind of chilies or even chili flakes.

SK: Yeah, chili flakes. I use chili flakes, yeah.

EL: It’s Sam Kass Day. It’s been declared Sam Kass Day all over the world. What happens?

SK: Oh my God, dude. Are you kidding me with these questions?

EL: I ask good questions. I don’t ask you the normal questions that everybody else asks.

SK: Well, how the fuck am I supposed to answer that? What do you mean what happens?

EL: Like what happens? Are people, they could be eating a family meal.

SK: There’s peace on earth …

EL: Yeah, it could be.

SK: … and harmony and …

EL: They could be …

SK: … goodwill among men.

EL: … listening to music. Yeah, it could be anything.

SK: There’s listening to a ton of music.

EL: All right, so what are they listening to?

SK: Oh my God. God, I don’t know. They’re listening to their favorite song. I’m not going to tell them what to listen to. What kind of tyrant would do that? I wouldn’t tell them what to eat either although I would …

EL: What would you be listening to?

SK: … suggest they eat a big bowl of ramen.

EL: What would you be listening to?

SK: Oh, man. Probably a bunch of old school hip hop is my guess. Very cliché.

EL: Specific hip hop.

SK: Some soul. Like Eric B. and Rakim or Common from back in the day, old school Common, the Roots, De La Soul.

EL: That sounds good.

SK: Also, a bunch of soul music is probably what I would put on.

EL: All right, so they’d be listening to music, and they’d probably be eating together.

SK: They’d be eating a lot of food together. They’d cook together.

EL: Right.

SK: They’d cook together, and they’d eat a lot of food together. Probably go to a baseball game.

EL: They’d go to a baseball game. Of course, they’d go to a baseball game.

SK: They’d have to go to a baseball game. Really what they would probably do if it was really up to me is they’d all take a trip. That’s what they would do.

EL: Got it.

SK: Everybody would go to a different country if it was my day. Everybody would get a first class plane ticket to go …

EL: I love this!

SK: … to go somewhere else.

EL: Just experience it.

SK: Wherever they wanted to go. That’s actually what would happen on my day. They could eat whatever they wanted wherever they were. They could listen to whatever music where they were. I think travel. I’ve been to over 60 countries or something. I don’t know, I haven’t counted in a long time. I think it’s just so important and so few people have the privilege of doing it, but everybody benefits from the perspective they gain when they go see mostly how similar everybody is but also get to experience the differences. If there was a Sam Kass Day, everybody would get to go somewhere.

EL: All right. Now I’m going to try to prevent you from your wife and Michelle Obama getting mad at you. I’m back to two women that are at the table.

SK: Jane Addams.

EL: Jane Addams. Let’s talk about Jane Addams for a second.

SK: Jane Addams. Wow, man …

EL: I’m really an ignorant person.

SK: … as a great progressive, I’m amazed. This is the thing about Jane Addams, she helped start the FDA and USDA.

EL: Got it.

SK: She did Upton Sinclair with The Jungle at the Hull House. She had the Hull House, like this whole community of immigrants who came to Chicago and worked on labor. A lot of the labor laws that shaped America.

EL: My father was a commie and a labor organizer, and I never heard of Jane Addams’ name.

SK: Wow, man. This is exactly why I would like to meet with her because you should read a biography on her or just even Wikipedia her. She was a force, and so many of the movements that came to give basic rights to workers.

EL: Really?

SK: Yeah, federal government, she was brought into forming a bunch of different agencies in the federal government to have basic oversight for our food, things like that. She was just a force.

EL: That’s awesome. Alright, so Jane Addams. One more.

SK: Oh, Eleanor Roosevelt.

EL: Eleanor.

SK: I would want to have dinner with Eleanor Roosevelt because having been in the White House and knowing how hard it is to be First Lady and to be a powerful First Lady, which Michelle absolutely was but in a modern way. Knowing what she did was really impressive, especially at that time. The pressure and pushback that she got is something that I was close enough to get a sense of what it must’ve felt like. She was really a remarkable woman.

EL: Yeah, for sure.

SK: I’d love to.

EL: That’s a cool table.

SK: Yeah, a pretty good table.

EL: That’s an awesome four top. Well, it’s five with you.

SK: We should do it.

EL: Last question, do you have guilty pleasures?

SK: Yeah, of course.

EL: Give me a couple. Like I’m a Mounds freak.

SK: Really?

EL: Yeah.

SK: Yeah, I’m not.

EL: Really?

SK: Let me think.

EL: Alright.

SK: I have two basic ones. I do love pie, so let’s just put that off to the side. That’s not a guilty pleasure. It’s fruit. It’s healthy.

EL: I know, but …

SK: It’s basically healthy for you.

EL: … it’s awesome.

SK: It’s so good, man.

EL: I’m going to let you have that.

SK: That’s off to the side. That doesn’t count. My two pleasures are Buffalo wings. I just love a Buffalo wing. I don’t eat them that often, but man, when I do.

EL: Do they have to be traditional, blue cheese?

SK: Traditional, absolutely, only blue cheese.

EL: Frank’s hot sauce?

SK: Of course. Anybody who puts ranch on their wings.

EL: Should be excommunicated.

SK: Absolutely, definitely thrown in jail. Buffalo wings for sure. I think ice cream might be the greatest invention of humankind. Seriously. I’ll go toe-to-toe with anybody on their Internet, phone, car, wheel, energy. Ice cream, man. Ice cream, what is better? Nothing.

EL: I am with you.

SK: Nothing’s better.

EL: Within the ice cream universe, is frozen custard at the top of your food chain?

SK: It’s really up there, yeah.

EL: Like real frozen custard made with a little bit of egg yolk?

SK: Yeah, real frozen custard. The question is does real frozen custard beat the perfect gelato?

EL: Right. No, I agree. You and I, we could have a good time eating in spite of the fact that I didn’t know who Jane Addams was.

SK: Yes. I’ll forgive you.

EL: All right.

SK: I think that’s my other one that I partake in more than I should.

EL: Got it. Well, thank you so much, Sam Kass, for sharing your special sauce with us.

SK: Such a pleasure.

EL: This was awesome, and everyone should go out and get Sam’s book, Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World.

SK: Yes.

EL: Go out and get his wife’s book, which is called …

SK: Futureface.

EL:Futureface, and then you’ll be contributing just a little to the Sam Kass household.

SK: Which would be greatly appreciated ’cause New York City is f-ing expensive.

EL: Cool, man.

SK: Thanks, man. Thank you, guys.

EL: We’ll see you next time Serious Eaters.



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