Sam Kass

If you ever want a front row seat to American history, you might consider the culinary arts.

That’s because you could end up like Sam Kass, who during his time as chef at the White House would often find himself playing pool with none other than Barack Obama.

Back when Kass was a college student dreaming of playing major league baseball, there was no way he could have predicted in less than a decade he’d be knocking the eight ball around on the old Brunswick table with the leader of the free world, but after taking a few odd jobs working for some of the most influential chefs in the world like Christian Domschitz in Vienna and Paul Kahan in Chicago, he was soon on his way.

By the time the Obamas moved into the White House in 2009, Kass had been their personal chef for a couple years, and soon his role expanded beyond that of just chef. He became the Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives for the Obama administration and soon helped architect the Let’s Move campaign, as well as helped the First Lady plant the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt.

All of this is interesting, but the real reason I wanted to talk to Kass was his involvement with Innit, a smart kitchen platform company who named him their Chief Consumer Experience Officer early this year.  I wanted to know what Kass was doing with Innit and where he saw the connected kitchen going, so I recently talked to him for the Smart Kitchen Show.

Below is the transcript from my conversation with Kass. If you want to listen to it, feel free to click below or subscribe to the Smart Kitchen Show in iTunes.

Michael Wolf: Sam, you do a lot of things. You’re a food analyst for NBC News. You have a strategy firm called Trove, and I connected with you through Innit where you’re the chief consumer officer.

Sam Kass: That’s right. There’s a lot happening these days in sort of health and sustainability when it comes to food, so a lot of good work to do.

Michael Wolf: We’re going to get to all that. We’re going to talk about Innit, which is an interesting company in the space that I follow, this idea of the connected kitchen, but I want to go back in time a little bit and kind of get a little bit of your backstory because it’s an interesting one. I think you’re probably most famous for working at the White House. That’s a pretty interesting place to work obviously.

Sam Kass: Yes. It’s not bad.

Michael Wolf: [laughter] But you actually into cooking back in the early 2000s. To me, I was looking at your background. You were a fairly senior level collegiate athlete, playing baseball, you were a major in history, but at some point, you started cooking, I think and working in restaurants during your college years.

Sam Kass: Yeah. It’s like life has taken me on an interesting sort of journey. I was sort of dead set on making it to the Major Leagues. When that dream started to fade a little bit, I went to the University of Chicago. In my last semester there, I got into an abroad program in Vienna and wanted to sort of see the world. I sort of asked the head of the program. I was interested in food but then just sort of because who doesn’t love food.

Michael Wolf: You like eating.

Sam Kass: Yeah, I love eating exactly. I said to the head of the program like if you could get me into a pastry chef once a week, I’d love to just explore and learn. She ended up through this crazy connection like through 12 people connect me to the sous chef of the best restaurant in Vienna. He invited me to come. The third day I was there. He invited me to come work at night in the restaurant and I ended up basically never leaving. Then I worked for free for about a year and ultimately for about a year and a half before I got run out of town because I didn’t have papers after my student visa expired. But I got paid in knowledge and they trained me “old school kick your butt 20-hour day” kind of deal, so in the end, it served me pretty well.

After I left Vienna, I spent the little pocket money I had sort of pieced together and spent about a year traveling and then ran out of money, so I came back to Chicago, worked for Koren Grieveson at Avec in Chicago, which is one of Paul Kahan’s great restaurants. Paul is one of America’s great chefs, and so I spent about a year there working. And I had grabbed a couple of jobs. I was just trying to save some money so I can get back out in the world, and then on the road I went. But it was really a great time for me to come to work at Avec. It’s one of the best restaurants I’ve ever – it’s one of my absolute all-time favorites.

Michael Wolf: Then I think you started to become an entrepreneur in the sense around 2000. You started a company, the Inevitable Table. Talk about that and then that was kind of right before you became the chef for Obama.

Sam Kass: Well, yeah so I started cooking for a family that had a house in New Zealand, so I spent two of our winters their summers down there, cooking for this family, and that really helped me start developing my own style that had a big focus on health and sustainability and how I cooked. I came back to Chicago. I was going to work part-time for them and I really wanted to start engaging in food and politics and then some of these issues that we were facing. I founded Inevitable Table, which is a private chef company that I was building as I started to really explore how I wanted to engage. But right after I got to Chicago, I got reconnected with now First Lady Michelle Obama and started helping her out a couple of times a week and that definitely altered my long-term plans.

Michael Wolf: This idea of connecting and influencing with food policy, was the root of that, you majored in history in college. Were you at some point thinking you’d want to get involved influencing kind of the broader world in some way?

Sam Kass: It’s a combination of things. I mean I grew up in a family that cared about politics and cared about all the issues that we face and our dinnertime conversations were always revolving something that was going on. But I was trying to play baseball, then I was interested in traveling as a chef. I think it sort of how some of these things started to come together was really understanding the power of food that everybody eats everywhere in the world, everybody can relate to, everybody is struggling with it, and it’s the underlying cause of a lot of the greatest challenges we face. For example, in the United States, food is the number one cause of preventable death and disease in this nation by far, and at the same time, 1 in 6 people don’t have enough food to eat in any given year. You started just looking at some of those implications that are impacting some of the numbers and you look on the sustainability side. Food and agriculture is the second biggest driver of greenhouse gas emissions, which is the biggest problem I think facing humanity.

You start to actually look at the role of food that plays in our lives. You start to see the power and the challenges that we face there. I think it really started to come together for me kind of the different pieces of myself and really went to work. Passionately, I wanted to work on it. I was learning how to express that in the actual food that I was cooking and then as I really learned more, I was, “Okay, how can I try that to have a bigger impact?” I was heading down that path. It kind of all it all started to work out in Chicago.

Michael Wolf: What’s interesting to me, you were there from the time the Obamas were inaugurated into the White House. You did have this dual role. You were a practicing chef. But you also went in there as Obama’s food initiative coordinator, so you had kind of had a dual role from the get-go in the White House.

Sam Kass: Yeah. I mean I’ve been cooking for them for about 2 years by the time we got to the White House and a little less. We spent a lot of time talking about what was happening in the country, what was going on with our young kids, 1 in 3 of our young kids are on track to have diabetes in their lifetime, really starting to understand how hard this was for families to raise healthy kids. The First Lady could relate to that as a mom and she talked a lot about this, but she was struggling. She was a well-educated woman who had plenty of resources. I mean she was also struggling with her girls, and so I think she realized how much need there was to try to help make it easier for families to raise healthier kids.

We went into the White House with a pretty clear vision about what we wanted to do, and the first step was to plant the garden and really try to elevate these issues. If that went well, then we try to take on the issue of childhood health and do a big push on it and that’s exactly what happened.

Michael Wolf: Actually the first garden in quite a few decades at the White House, right?

Sam Kass: Uh-huh.

Michael Wolf: It was one where you had no pesticides or anything unnatural?

Sam Kass: Yes.

Michael Wolf: Purely organic.

Sam Kass: Yeah. Well, it wasn’t certified organic, but we didn’t use any synthetic pesticides or herbicides or anything at all. It’s the first special garden since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden, but Eleanor’s victory garden was really a symbolic garden. It’s basically one bed. It didn’t [unintelligible 0:10:40] really grow much food at all. There was actually no evidence anybody actually ate the food, although who knows I’m sure somebody ate something out of there.

But her garden was a powerful garden. I mean it really inspired the nation to grow food. But so it’s the first garden since the 1890s that actually produced significant amounts of food. It’s been one of the great jobs and privileges of my life to help plant that garden and maintain it. We brought kids down to plant and then harvest and cook with the First Lady down there every year, which still goes on. It’s just been awesome.

Michael Wolf: One of the other things you did at the White House was the American Chef Corps, where this idea it was really kind of promoting diplomacy through the culinary. Talk about kind of the genesis of the idea and talk about a little bit about your trips overseas.

Sam Kass: Yeah. I mean food is this international language. In fact, the garden really taught me this. I knew it was going to be a big deal certainly in the United States but what really blew me away was how her planting that garden went around the world. I mean she was on the front pages of newspapers, all from China to Afghanistan to all over the world and people could deeply relate to her, putting her hands in the soil and planting crops.

I remember this group of international reporters came for a garden tour and a set of interviews, and there was a reporter who was a reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now this was like back in 2010 or 2011, I can’t remember exactly. She said that she got in her radio show, call after call asking if she was growing the food that they were eating like could she be actually growing sweet potatoes or the other ingredients and there was this strong connection. What I understood was this sort of universal language that you could really show respect and honor to a culture just through paying homage to their food.

From that, we started to call on the power of chefs to help support our diplomatic efforts in countries all over the world and so chefs went on in their own trips. We would set them up to do cooking demonstrations or go to cooking schools with kids, or do all sorts of things. Then sometimes we would actually travel. Somebody would travel with a diplomat or meet somebody somewhere to really help support some key issues.

For me, I went to like Korea. Probably the most memorable trip on this was I went to Korea and they had me go to this Buddhist monastery, which is very famous for their food and there’s a whole sort of tradition of a specific kind of food that the monks would cook but it was really set in high regard. I made these noodles with the monks, and I made all this food and I ate it and I was dressed in a garb. It was on every TV station on every newspaper because people just loved the fact that here was this American guy paying sort of deepest respect to what is really the heart and soul of any culture.

And so, we really just sort of tapped into that power, and it’s just been amazing to see what some of these chefs have been able to do.

Michael Wolf: You also spent a whole time playing pool with Obama.

Sam Kass: Yeah. We had a little tradition after dinner when he wasn’t dealing with some major crisis or traveling overseas that we got a couple of games of pool in sort of to decompress after a crazy day before he went back to reading volumes of paper every night. It was one of the great memories of my time there.

Michael Wolf: Did you feel a little pressure when you’re about to win against the president [laughter]?

Sam Kass: No, I tried to kick his butt every time since I got. Are you kidding me? You play for keeps when you’re playing against him. There’s no freebies with that because you’re going to hear about it for months and months, so you better try to win.

Michael Wolf: Since the White House, you talked a little bit about this before, so you founded Trove, which is a strategy firm focused on climate, health, food.Talk about what that is and then how you ended up at Innit.

Sam Kass: Yeah, Trove, I’m really focusing in on the intersection between health, climate change, sustainability, and food. I think there’s a whole generation of companies that are being founded on missions to help solve these problems. I think given my experience in the White House, I would pursue that health be a catalyst to change and help young companies really be successful and transform the way we eat because ultimately it’s businesses that are supplying our food and government has an important role to play of course.

I’ve been in the thick of that for many years but in the end, it comes down to how we do business, how we produce our food, how we transport our food, how we process our food and ultimately how we consume it. That’s really where I’m working at and I’m just beyond excited about all the innovation and technology that’s coming forward that I think is going to help make people’s lives better. That’s really why I’m playing such a major role at Innit because I really believe it’s a company that can help make people’s lives better.

Michael Wolf: When I started Smart Kitchen Summit, there was a lot of macro trends that I saw that I think were contributing to some interesting innovation happening at ten points. One of them obviously ties to what you did at the garden at the White House. It was just this idea that we want more natural foods, less processed foods.If you look at a lot of the R&D and investment around food for much of the 20th century, it was around industrialization and centralized processing.

Sam Kass: Yeah.

Michael Wolf: But now with technology, one of the kind of things I see happening is we saw this with broadband. We moved intelligence to the endpoints in a lot of ways, right? We have this technology where we can actually do more interesting things with food as it arrives in its natural state into the home and I’m sure in a professional kitchen as well. Whereas before, a lot of times consumers will just have to rely on some far-off cooking for some far-off brand to do this in some factory somewhere.

Sam Kass: Right.

Michael Wolf: When you looked at Innit and saw we can do with kind of more intelligence in the cooking devices, did you see that? Did you see like you could do more food as it arrived to its home?

Sam Kass: Absolutely. Look, I think to your point you’re saying that sort of decentralization happening across the entire supply chain of everything.

Michael Wolf: Right, right, right.

Sam Kass: People are starting to be able to make everything in their own home with 3D printing. It’s going to be the future. And so I think people are able through technology to take much more control over the middleman is just under assault everywhere and is being disintegrated. I think that’s really powerful. Now for food, it’s kind of different. It’s complicated, but I think there is the same kind of push and if we do it right and we do it so that the needs of concerns are being better meet, you know then we’re going to win. I mean technology is just tools.

The question is who’s benefiting from those tools. I think that’s the thing we need to keep focused on. But for Innit I think right now the power of Innit is that putting the food first and actually understanding and unlocking the information that is within our food that we are totally blind to is going to help us unleash so much potential cooking because right now it’s just simply too hard to cook. The rest of our lives have gotten sped up by technology with computers and smartphones and everything else.

In a strange way like the kitchen in how we cook has been totally messed by technology. I mean the microwave is basically the only invention in the last like 60 years that’s had any kind of impact and largely I think you can argue not in a positive one in terms of the health and the well being of people. And so, we have to make cooking easier and more enjoyable and we have to make it stress-free. We have to make sure the people have the confidence that whatever they’re going to cook is going to turn out right because each one of those steps is a barrier, right? It’s too stressful. I don’t know what to make. I don’t know is it going to taste good. Is it going to be overcooked? Like all those different unknowns is leading people to cook less and less.

In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, research came out that shows that more food is consumed away from the home than in the home. More dollars had been spent outside for quite a while but now we’ve actually crossed the threshold of people eating out more than they’re eating in. That’s just taking a devastating impact on people’s health. That’s the power of Innit, and I think Innit has the chance to fundamentally transform the way people eat and live for the better.

Michael Wolf: You’re coming from this professional kitchen. This bridge between the professional kitchen and the consumer kitchen is an interesting one because I feel like so much experimentation happens. At the highest level, kind of the culinary world, but ultimately over time, this does distill down into the consumer kitchen? We’re starting to see that with sous vide. Obviously, a lot of the kind of macro trends around types of specific ethnic foods oftentimes often starts in a professional kitchen, moves in the consumer kitchen. I’m interested in there are things that you’ve seen that you’re excited about within the professional kitchen that you can see distilling down into the consumer kitchen and making its way down to the consumer kitchen over the next decade or so.

Sam Kass: Honestly, I think actually the most powerful part that’s going to get distilled down and brought into the consumer kitchen is the kind of knowledge and technique of chefs themselves. It’s not actually the oven, the fancy oven the chef has.

Michael Wolf: But technology is going to enable that in a way, right?

Sam Kass: Exactly. Absolutely. That’s the point. The key thing that’s going to be brought from the pro kitchen into the consumer kitchen through technology and that’s what we’re doing is to take like how a chef and in some ways, even more advanced that our chef would do it into your oven so that it’s basically a one-button push but actually has dozens of steps in the cooking process, even more complex than any chef would do themselves and put that, embed that into your oven. Sure, getting chef-quality or better results with it but that’s actually easier to do.

I think for us really through dumb luck that kind of approach and respect and understanding for food is what we’re trying to bring to a connected kitchen. It all starts for us with the food, and that I think is fundamentally different than all these other gadgets and gizmos and technological things that people are doing for the sake of some cool new tech stuff. For us, it’s about unlocking the food.

For a chef, chefs start with the product. We focus on what our products are and we work to take really good care of them. It turns out that if you just listened to the food, the food knows how to cook it best, right? Right now, we cook every chicken the same; every chicken is different. The more we can try to make sure we’re tailoring the way we’re cooking things to the actual products, the better results we’re going to get. That’s how we do it.

The why we do it is to help make people’s lives better and to help make cooking easier and more delicious, but how we do it is to really to listen to the food itself and start there. I think we bring technology together with the food. I think it’s going to be a powerful set of results and the key is and this is really where we’re just focused like a laser is making sure that the experience is so easy for people. The last thing anybody needs is a more complicated set of decisions and steps, and all that, and I think right now interestingly everybody has got a different thing, a different platform. This thing does that and that’s just ‑ that’s not going to work.

We’re integrating everything on one platform. It’s seamless. In a couple of buttons, you’re deciding what to eat based on what you have in your fridge. Your oven knows what’s going on. You can walk through the simple steps of preparation, and it’s in your cooking and you know it’s going to turn out right. I’m like that’s the kind of experience and ultimately a couple of buttons and you know you’re going to be in good shape and that’s the kind of experience that I think people really need if we’re going to unlock the potential of cooking a lot more in the United States and beyond.

Michael Wolf: Yeah. I think Innit’s tagline really is, “Listen to your food,” I think this idea of being able to understand the food through advanced sensors, analytics, and algorithms is important. But it’s a bit of a yin and a yang because also you guys are working with hardware manufacturers, appliance manufacturers because if you look at traditional cooking devices, there’s a wide variety in terms of what 300 degrees in a certain oven versus another manufacturer’s oven.

Sam Kass: Right.

Michael Wolf: On the other hand, consumers are just giving these one-size-fits-all cooking parameter instructions when they’re given a recipe like 350 degrees 50 minutes. But when you look at the variety of heat density in kind of the different ovens, it may vary from oven to oven, you guys can help enable these ovens to know what the specific food is and optimize for the cook. That’s something that really hasn’t been able to have been done before.

Sam Kass: Yeah, not even close. I mean it’s hard. We’re working on it. We’re making a lot of progress there but I mean that’s ongoing. I mean I think just even starting down that path has never been done before and we are seeing incredible results. I mean we’re cooking ribs on just a regular convection oven – three racks of ribs in about 50 minutes, adjusting for those various different conditions in an oven. But what we’re learning, the power goes up or power goes on a little bit and you got to adjust and it has a big impact on the outcome. Right now, you just get what you just get what you get, and so I think we’re going to be taking all those different factors into account with our algorithms and it’s going to have a big impact on the ultimate experience and results that the consumer is getting. In the end, that’s what we’re focused on.

The technology is just an enabler. It’s not I think we lose the focus a lot on just the excitement on the technology itself. But ultimately, if it’s not serving the needs of people, then we’re going to fail. And so I think we’re bringing to the table what we do best, which is the food, and we’re creating apps with Jenn-Air and Whirpool, the world’s leading appliance manufacturer to embed this technology within their devices and that’s what we do. We don’t know how to bend metal anywhere near as good as all those guys and so that’s why the partnership is a powerful one.

Michael Wolf: It was announced a couple of weeks ago in New York City when you guys had your essentially world premiere while I was there. That was a great party. In looking forward to 2016-2017, anything you’re excited about around kind of this idea of this fusion of technology and cooking?

Sam Kass: Well I mean we’re bringing it to life. It’s going to be available. It’s real. I mean I think the exciting for me is that there has been a lot of talk, a lot of “This is coming one day,” and beautiful pictures that were not real at all, but sort of fake demonstrations about what could be one day. I think what this next year about is it’s real. It’s going to be in market this coming year, and it’s going to be working. Then we just build from there and there’s a lot of stuff in the pipeline, but the fact that it’s going to be in people’s homes where, we’ll be learning from their experience and people will already going to be able to do the cooking is the focus of the year. Now we just got to make sure we’re executing and getting better and better but that for me is I could not be more excited about that.

Michael Wolf: You are the chief consumer officer. I follow the smart home a lot, and one of the problems with a smart home has been there’s a lot of different companies doing a lot of different initiatives.A lot of different platforms. There’s multiple standards. You guys are working with Whirlpool and Jenn-Air. That’s great because they are the world’s biggest appliance maker but there’s Samsung.There’s always other appliance makers that may not necessarily interact. What do you think is happening in the appliance industry? So there’s less consumer confusion, does there need to be monitors like a common standard?

Sam Kass: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s going to happen and I think because people rely on lots of different brands in their kitchens, I think we’re really looking to partner with lots of the different companies that are working in the space throughout the home but also in the kitchen to make sure that there’s seamless integration. I feel like right now it’s like back in the ‘90s when there’s the DVD player and we saw VCR and the TV and the cable and there’s like five remotes and everybody had to turn on with each different remote. Then all of a sudden like they came up with a single remote that controlled everything and then it finally worked.

I feel like that’s what we’re approaching and you could have a different TV and you have a DVD player but it’s still going to work on the same remote and I think that’s where going to head. I think you have to have that way; otherwise, people are going to reject this. Particularly in the kitchen, it’s already too complicated to begin with and the whole mission is to make this process simpler. If people got to use 12 apps to put dinner on the table, then they’re going to go out to dinner. They’re going to go out to a restaurant. I think everybody has to be aware of that and figure out how do we start integrating better.

Michael Wolf: Hey, well, with Sam Kass. Thanks for spending time with us, talking a little bit about what you’re doing and talk about Innit.

Sam Kass: It was a great pleasure and let’s do it again.

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