Many of the folks in the Obamas' orbit were familiar to the public by the time they arrived at the White House after a two-year campaign: Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, to name just a few. One of the break-out figures is Sam Kass, the White House chef and food initiative coordinator.
Now his profile is growing as fast as the White House garden -- one of First Lady Michelle Obama's signature projects -- which Kass helped develop. Last week, he was featured on a segment of "The Biggest Loser." On the show, contestants visited the garden to check out the produce and then make a meal out of it in the White House kitchen, with an assist from Cristeta Comerford, the White House top chef.
Kass has been named one of People magazine's 100 Most Beautiful People. He has golfed with President Obama at Martha's Vineyard and was featured in a White House video on the garden. He's 29, single, photogenic and on an incredible trajectory, in part because of his dual roles -- very rare for a White House chef: he is part of the kitchen team as well as a nutrition policy adviser advocating for locally grown produce, healthier school lunches and ways to battle childhood obesity.
Kass meets regularly with White House domestic policy advisers to discuss food and nutrition issues. And he is partnering with Karen Duncan, the wife of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, to work on getting schools to offer healthy school lunches. Duncan was the athletic director at the high school Kass attended, the University of Chicago Lab School.
I interviewed Kass recently and he said what's cooking in the White House kitchen depends in part on what's ripe in Mrs. Obama's garden. He doesn't have a signature dish or cuisine. "We have this garden that is producing this huge bounty, and I let that shape and determine each plate, based on what is ripe or ready or looking great, and that guides me in the sort of the decisions I make as a chef," he said.
The path to the White House for Kass started with his close relationship with the Obama family. He was the Obamas' personal chef back in Chicago. "I helped make sure they were getting good, healthy food," he said.
-- Kass first started getting interested in food when he had a side job at a Chicago restaurant -- 312 Chicago -- while a student at the University of Chicago.
-- Kass's formal training was in Vienna, Austria, where he cooked under chef Christian Domschitz in 2003 and 2004.
-- In 2005, Kass was a line cook at Avec, a chic Chicago restaurant.
-- In 2007, he opened Inevitable Table, his personal chef business, running it out of his home in a Chicago neighborhood called Pilsen, a community with a heavy Mexican-American population.
-- As a youngster, Kass wanted to be a professional baseball player. After graduating from the University of Chicago Lab School in 1998, he played ball at a Kansas junior college on a baseball scholarship.
-- He eventually transferred to the University of Chicago, receiving an undergraduate degree with a U.S. history major in 2004.
-- His father, Robert, a fifth-grade teacher at the University of Chicago Lab School, taught Malia Obama last year. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett knows Robert Kass from her days on the U of C Lab School board. Susan Sher, chief of staff for Mrs. Obama, is a former chair of that board.