On any given day, White House chef Sam Kass can be found grilling fish for the Obama family, tending the first lady’s organic garden or hashing out food policy ideas with senior administration advisers.

Indeed, it is a unique role for a 29-year-old chef described as “part chef and part policy wonk,” by the New York Times. But for Kass, his affinity for healthy eating has propelled him from the kitchen and into the spotlight, as a vocal advocate for Michelle Obama’s healthy eating and healthy living agenda.

“You look around our country and you see that we have a lot of major challenges, the origin of which is food,” said Kass, the Obama family’s personal chef from their days in Chicago. “Cooking for people’s pleasure is obviously a nice thing to do,” he added. “But the number one reason we eat is to nourish ourselves and take care of ourselves.”

Since her husband took office, Michelle Obama has advocated a healthy living agenda, including healthy eating. The first lady will make a cameo on Iron Chef in January when chefs must use an ingredient from the White House garden.

Kass won’t be participating, but he’s still a force to be reckoned with. Still, he’s something of an unlikely candidate for the role, having no formal culinary training to speak of. Named by People magazine as one of their Most Beautiful People, he graduated from the University of Chicago and was a chef at the Chicago restaurant Avec.

Back then, Kass was already an outspoken critic of the modern agriculture system. As executive chef at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago, Kass blogged about healthy eating on the museum’s Web site, sparing no niceties for the national lunch program, which he described as high in fat, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup.

“We find ourselves in a fight to salvage a food system that has been ravaged by an approach of quantity over quality,” he wrote. “The industry our society has built around food is harmful and unsustainable.”

He followed the Obama family to the White House, where he still faces an uphill battle, not the least of which is making lunches that kids actually like. (Plucking vegetables off pizza is not uncommon, he has learned.) “It’s got to taste good, you know?” he said. “They’re not going to eat it, no matter how healthy it is, if it doesn’t taste good.”

He also faces harsher critics, including consumer advocates and a trade group representing conventional agriculture. They say ordinary families don’t have the time or money to tend their own organic gardens year-round.

Others have more faith. Dan Barber, the chef at New York City’s Blue Hill restaurant, said Kass and the first lady were helping Americans “think about food in a different way.” The deputy agriculture secretary, Kathleen Merrigan, took the praise a step further: “He’s been a real ally when we talk about farm to school,” she said.

Obama's chef and policy wonk
Sam Kass, an assistant White House chef, whips up tasty eats and policy ideas to bolster healthy eating.