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What's Cooking at the White House

What's Cooking at the White House

Katherine Skiba | Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON – Not long after arriving at the White House, first lady Michelle Obama led reporters and culinary students through its cramped, stainless steel kitchen, enthusing, “This is where the magic happens.”

The food at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is fresh, seasonal and gathered from across America, as far away as the rivers of Alaska and as close as the first lady’s garden.

There’s a Chicago influence too, not only because of the first couple’s deep roots. They brought with them Sam Kass, who had cooked for them in the Windy City and is now an assistant chef at the White House.

Ten months into the Obama presidency, it’s plainer than a scoop of vanilla ice cream that Barack and Michelle Obama are food enthusiasts. Call them the “first foodies.” The Obamas possess sophisticated palates, according to chefs who know them.

Still, there’s a dichotomy to their dining. They’re omnivores who enjoy “adventurous” eating, but confess a hankering for humble foods, like burgers and sweet potato french fries.

All of this translates to a White House where food, and who is cooking it, matters.

It begins in that kitchen, where Michelle Obama, leading the kitchen tour, observed: “No one would expect that all that comes out of these dinners happens in this little bitty space, but we have some of the best talent here.”

Her comment was a tribute to staff members, including executive chef Cristeta Comerford, a Filipino-American and the first woman to occupy the post. She was chosen by first lady Laura Bush in 2005 after filling in when extra hands were needed.

Then there’s Kass. A University of Chicago history graduate, he trained at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Italy and drew raves cooking at Chicago’s restaurant Avec. In May, he made People magazine’s list of the 100 most beautiful people in the world.

Talking about the Obamas, one observer said: “If they’re eating Sam and Cris’ food, I know they’re eating well.” That’s Walter Scheib, who for 11 years was the White House’s top toque, serving Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, their families and countless guests.