Sam Kass, the man who made The Garden is now making eggs with his small children in a locked-down long island. The news personality, investor, political advisor, executive director of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign and White House chef, hardly needs an introduction.
Talking about Food & the Future with Sam Kass
Sam Kass, the man who made The Garden is now making eggs with his small children in a locked-down long island. The news personality, investor, political advisor, executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign and White House chef, hardly needs an introduction.
Living under confinement has been intense. Outside of cooking for his kids and alongside work on another book, Sam’s most recently been investing in small, early stage companies that are trying to change the food system. Witha focus between human health and environmental health, he works to support companies that are working in the agriculture and human supply-chain space as well as a few consumer facing companies that are really trying to have a big impact on human and the planet’s health. Despite this big impact agenda, Sam was willing to join me for a virtual chat about everything from the ideal ingredients to the future of restaurants and food.
Have you always been passionate about sustainability and green living?
I started getting interested in food and cooking when I was about 22, it’s been a very big focus from the very beginning. I trained in Vienna, Austria. Pretty early on I started to realize the impact that food has on our health. You look around and you see people eating beautiful but super rich food designed to taste good, but that wasn’t designed to nourish them.
Wow, food is really at the center of some of the biggest issues we face around health and climate change.
I started to pay attention to the impact that was having on their well-being. And then I started to think: what is the impact of the food that I’m serving on the land that’s coming from; the people that are growing it; and all the resources it takes? It started to send me down a path where you realised like ‘Wow, food is really at the center of some of the biggest issues we face around health and climate change’. So it’s been a real focus of mine for a long, long time.
What is a great ingredient for you?
For me, a great ingredient is nutrient-dense. It’s produced in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on our climate. It doesn’t have a big greenhouse gas footprint. It doesn’t take a ton of water and have a real negative impact on our ability to produce that kind of ingredient for future generations. Then there’s also labor, freshness…
I have a huge garden so I like to eat hyper-local food that I grow but I think you can have a high-quality ingredient that doesn’t come from your neighbourhood. Although oftentimes the closer you are to where it’s produced the better it’s going to be.
How would you define a sustainable diet? As local and seasonal, as possible?
Farming globally is the number two producer of greenhouse gasses around the world and agriculture takes up 71% of the world’s fresh water.
I think the most important thing is eating mostly plants. I’m a chef although I’ve done a lot of policy in the white-house and I do investment in other things. But at heart I’m a chef. And as a chef I like to eat everything. So I’m definitely not a vegetarian and I never will be. I feel very confident saying that. No offense to my vegetarian friends. So I don’t think we need to get to that level. But I think we should be eating the majority of our food that comes from plants, and the meat that we have should be smaller in portion, and produced in as a sustainable way as possible. And I think animals have an important role in sustainable systems if they’re looked at as a system. I think in the end if you look at the data the majority of the resources that are being used by food are being consumed by animal production.
Farming globally is the number two producer of greenhouse gasses around the world and agriculture takes up 71% of the world’s fresh water. It’s the driver of deforestation and land use and so most of that is about producing food to feed our animals. That’s really one of the things that you can go a long way in terms of improving our environment just in terms of how much meat we’re eating.
Do you think that sustainable diets are possible for the majority of people? We often hear there is an affordability issue.
If we cook we can eat a really sustainable diet that is super affordable.
Yes, but I think we have to do a better job of producing fruit and vegetables in more efficient and effective ways so we bring the cost down. Right now, for decades and decades, we’ve actually been able to innovate and make the foundation of highly processed food really cheap because we’re growing them really efficiently. A lot of people point to subsidies but they are a small part of it. It’s really that we can grow these things really really cheaply. We now have to figure out how to produce fruits and vegetables better.
If we cook we can eat a really sustainable diet that is super affordable. I mean brown rice and lentils and beans and lots of vegetables is super affordable. A steak is not cheap. So if you eat beans and rice and a couple of fried eggs and a beautiful spicy sauce of some kind, that’s a delicious meal and super affordable. So I’m not sure that I agree that it has to be more expensive. Especially if we’re doing some cooking.
How does this moment of confinement around the world reinforce your beliefs around sustainability? That you can cook an amazing meal at home, and it’s not expensive.
When people cook at home, everything gets better. Because you’d never put the amount of salt or sugar in your meal that is in a lot of these processed meals in grocery stores.
Everybody’s being forced to cook at home. I’m very curious to see what happens as we emerge from all this over the next couple of years. I think the restaurant industry is going to be really challenged for a long time. People are going to be really worried to go back to restaurants. And their skill set in the kitchen is definitely going to have improved.
When people cook at home, everything gets better. Because you’d never put the amount of salt or sugar in your meal that is in a lot of these processed meals in grocery stores. Even in some restaurants they’re putting a ton of stuff in there to make it taste good. You just wouldn’t do that if you were the one eating it, because you care about your health. We’ve been telling the industry that we want the food to taste good, that that’s the most important thing. So that’s what they’ve pursued and now we’re starting to realise like ‘Oh, this is not good for us’. We need to change. The industry is changing but slowly. If you’re at home you’re just not going to put all that stuff in it.
Yes, I’m so much more conscious of what I eat. And I think it’s lasted long enough for my habits, when I order in restaurants to change forever. What are some of the main things you think this global pandemic will change?
These kinds of moments give us perspective. I think it’s giving us perspective on what’s important in life: like all these things we think are super important that we really don’t need. I think in terms of food, it’s put a real focus on how important food is. There are people that are hoarding food right? Scared of not having enough.
I think the other thing that we’re craving is interaction. A lot of the places that we go to see our loved ones and our friends are restaurants. So I think there’s also going to be a real craving for those like, life experiences, that you can smell and taste and laugh, and get drunk with someone you haven’t seen in a while. It’s different for every country, in the UK it’s been a disaster and especially in the United States. I think it’s going to be a long time before we get close to anything normal. I don’t think normal’s going to really exist.
I’m working really hard right now to get resources for the restaurant industry, we’ll see how that goes, it’s still unclear. I think that, you know, until there’s a widely available vaccine that everyone has, people are going to be really cautious about going out into tight spaces with other people. Governments are going to be mandating a lot of restrictions. There’s no restaurant in the world that can make it at half capacity. All these restaurants are just barely getting by as it is.
I think we’re going to lose a lot of great restaurants that we cherish. I think over the long haul they’ll hopefully be rebuilt and there will be a lot of innovation. What’s interesting is that at the same time restaurants are getting creative. But I’ve got to say I think it’s going to be a really dark, difficult next few years. Even if we said we could get a real vaccine in a year which I don’t think any real scientist thinks is going to happen – we’re looking more like two. That’s a long time to manage through and even then it’s going to take a lot of time for people to kind of venture back out and then a lot of people will be hit by the economic downturn. They’re not going to have the money that they used to have to go out and buy 25-dollar glasses of wine or even ten-dollar glasses of wine.
How does the approach to sustainability differ between the USA and Europe?
Most simply put I think that Europe is more advanced and further ahead than we are. In European politics there’s a pretty complete consensus around the fact that there is a problem. In the United States there’s no debate around the scope of the problem and the urgency to act. It’s become a partisan issue where Democrats believe the science and think it’s a real issue, and Republicans deny the science and think there’s nothing to do about it, so it becomes an intractable political issue where they say the science isn’t clear even though it couldn’t be clearer. Don’t get me started on politics now, I don’t really know where it goes from here. I think we’re seeing the private sector trying to step up and do more. We’ll see what happens this next election. Hopefully we can kind of get our balance back and more in the right direction. Europe is far out in front of us, certainly now.
I knew what you were doing before I knew you: the Obama’s former chef, we all read about Michelle Obama’s garden: your brainchild. It was revolutionary what you guys did there.
You’re digging up the most famous grass in the world, or certainly in the United States, and planting a bunch of vegetables. It took some real work and not everybody was supportive in the beginning, but once done, it went global.
Now it seems normal that there’s a garden with a bunch of eggplants and zucchini and peppers, but then it was a pretty crazy thing to do. You’re digging up the most famous grass in the world, or certainly in the United States, and planting a bunch of vegetables. It took some real work and not everybody was supportive in the beginning, but once done, it went global. I think everybody just resonated with the image of her, out there feeding the next generation. I knew it was going to be a big deal, but even for me it blew me away just how deep, intense and international the response was.
Absolutely, it was a really historical moment, how did you come up with the idea?
I was cooking for them in Chicago. We would have these long conversations after dinner into the night, after the kids went to bed, about all these different issues, and what was happening with food. We just started talking about what we could do if he won. I thought one great way to start would be with a vegetable garden. We’d be able to send a powerful message about what we thought and cared about. We could see what the reaction was and if people liked it we could try to do a big health campaign. That was the plan: plant a garden, see how people liked it and if they did we do a big health campaign. That was kind of what we had. That’s kind of what happened. It was pretty good.
Do you think there is a continuation of that?
The Garden still exists, so they’re still growing food there, I don’t know who eats it. I don’t think they eat a lot of vegetables around the White House. But the garden exists and the work as we were doing it hasn’t continued but a lot of the policies that we set are still there. I think part of our effort was really to put these issues in the mainstream of the country so that it would take on a life of its own and be bigger than us. I think we were really successful at doing that. It continues. Given how dire the situation is, people should be going extra hard, not pulling back but what can you do?
What do you think as a generation we can do better for future generations?
I think about that a lot now I have two little guys, and I know you do too.
Yes I do. And I mean from the practical side… Now we are all stuck in our flats. What can we do person to person, family to family.
As a society, we need to start thinking. Even your question is a real shift in our values and our way of thinking. We have a very short-term culture.
In the end what we eat is really shaped by our culture and the values of our culture. It’s not just like a policy or a business that’s shaping it. It’s what we care about as a society. A couple of things really have to shift. One, as a society, we need to start thinking. Even your question is a real shift in our values and our way of thinking. We have a very short-term culture. Our politics are election to election – every two years. Politicians are just thinking about getting reelected. Our businesses are quarterly reports. They’ve got to do their sales and they’re either crushed or supported based on three months cycles. So they’re thinking it is super short-term. We have a culture that’s based on consumerism, like fashion for example. It’s about what’s in this year or this season, it’s about what’s in it for me right now. We’ve lost sight of what’s in it for our great-grandkids.
First of all we should buy less crap. Fashion is a huge driver of pollution in the world.
And just starting to fundamentally change our thought process and our frame of reference is the place we have to start. So that question is the question we should start asking ourselves and our friends and family all the time. If we can embed that value a lot of good things come from it. It’s the starting point. It’s about little things. First of all we should buy less crap. Fashion is a huge driver of pollution in the world. We should try to cook more, get our kids more connected to what food does to their bodies. It’s a different way of thinking. For now we’ve been thinking of food as short-term pleasure as opposed to long-term health. If we started with our kids: why food is so important for their performance and for their minds and for their bodies and whatever you need to say, it’s for being a great athlete or being a sexy guy. Whatever you need to use to motivate our kids. Helping them understand the longer term impacts of what we’re eating on our bodies and on our planet.
What kind of diversity should we have more of? In our diets?
Most of what we eat as a world is like twelve crops and five animals, of the tens and hundreds of thousands of things to eat.
I think it’s on every level. You can start in boardrooms, mostly white guys, which should be at least half women and definitely people from mixed economic backgrounds and racial backgrounds. And definitely more women. One interesting thing about this is that you watch the women of the world who are leading their countries and they’ve handled this crisis exponentially better than men. Systematically better. Way more sophisticated, way more forward-looking, way more compassionate, better on every level. Us men should just wake up and get out of the way. Cause like we’re just not good at this. So that’s one big place to start and I think it trickles all the way down.
Most of what we eat as a world is like twelve crops and five animals, of the tens and hundreds of thousands of things to eat. And when you put all of your eggs in one basket so to speak, you become very vulnerable to droughts and plagues and viruses and all kinds of volatility. The diversity of what we’re growing gives you stability, especially as times get more volatile. Right now we have a food system that was built on a few key elements. One, unlimited natural resources, mainly water and soil, cheap energy, and the most stable climate in recorded history. The last hundred years have been like perfect temperature, stable climate, historically speaking. We’re entering into a period where volatility is about to go through the roof and we’re growing just a couple of types of foods. Which you know, if one gets hit with a blight, we’ve got a big problem. There’s the famous potato famine story of Peru and Ireland. In Ireland the potato famine that we all know of was produced by a blight that hit the potatoes that they grew there, because they only grew one. In Peru that same blight hit, but they grew about a hundred different kinds of potatoes and nobody starved, because they had all the other kinds of potatoes – those kinds didn’t make it but everything else was fine. And they were fine. And we kind of have a whole food system based on the Irish model, and it’s quite dangerous.
We were talking about cooking with children and teaching them to be sustainable in the future. What have you been cooking with your children?
So what do we cook? We cook a lot of things. Every morning we make eggs together. I have a two and a half year old and a one year old. But the one year old – if I’m at the stove – he screams until I pick him up and he takes the spatula or the spoon and starts stirring whatever I’m doing. He’s obsessed. It’s really cute. I got him a little kitchen for his birthday. Every morning I make eggs with the older one. He cracks the eggs and we make pancakes together, he’s very good at that. We make blueberry muffins. That’s a classic. Or he’ll help me break up the mushrooms when we’re making some kind of mushroom dish, he loves to just help out and mix and stir. But I’m also very lucky to have a big garden so the little guy definitely helps me a lot in the garden. That part’s super fun.
One last question. What is your favourite dish to cook as a chef?
You can’t ask me that. That would be like me asking you when you were in fashion what would be your one favourite dress. Can you answer that?
No I have no answer for that no.
So I don’t have a favourite thing. My favourite thing to eat though is sushi, so we probably share that.