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From White House chef to food-sustainability guru

There aren’t many people who former President Barack Obama will describe as being “like one of the family”. Chef Sam Kass is one of them.

The 38-year-old Chicagoan joined Obama’s staff in 2007, when the 44th President was still a promising Junior Sena-tor from Illinois. By 2009 Kass had become assistant chef at the White House and then, shortly afterwards, the food initiative coordinator – assisting First Lady Michelle Obama – and enjoyed an unlikely position for a professional chef; that of policymaker.

When in May the two men found themselves on the stage of Seeds&Chips, the Global Food Innovation Summit in Milan, organised by Marco Gualtieri, they were like a couple of old friends meeting up after a time apart, oblivious to the thousands of people in front of them. 

Introducing Kass to the crowd, Obama said that the man with the shaved head and massive build had “changed America”. 

In 2013, Kass was named senior policy advisor for nutrition, while working side by side with the First Lady in the White House gardens to set up the ambitious Let’s Move! project, the federal campaign introduced by the Obamas to combat childhood obesity and promote the culture of healthy eating in schools. 

In 2011, Fast Company magazine included him in its list of 100 Most Creative People and he has said that “cooking is the simplest facet of creativity”. With this is mind, he took part in the 2012 launch of the American Chef Corps, a pro-ject that helps promote international relations through food, based on a concept brilliantly summarised by then Secre-tary of State Hillary Clinton when she called food “the oldest diplomatic tool”.

Sam Kass’s career has moved on since the days when he used to pick mint and basil leaves in the White House kitchen garden for the Obamas’ dinners. 

In 2014, he hung up his apron and devoted himself to leveraging his valuable experience in American nutrition poli-cy. He set up Trove, a consultancy firm whose mission is to help institutions and businesses fine-tune their strate-gies to allow for a move towards environmental and food sustainability. It’s an issue Kass has been campaigning about for years, and today he advances the cause with funds from Acre Venture Partners, the venture-capital fund he helped set up. If you visit Trove’s website, you’ll see Kass described as a ‘food entrepreneur’, stressing his new role as investor and patron of future ‘prophets’ in the food industry.

When I met him at Seeds&Chips after his meeting with his old friend, Kass looked relaxed, about to take a plane back to America. He had just finished talking to some ‘start-uppers’ about their ideas to change the agri-food chain. At the risk of appearing naive, I asked him if he had glimpsed something special in Barack Obama when he first met him in Chicago back in the mid-nineties.

“No one could have imagined that he would become President,” he said with a smile. “When I met him, I was still at high school and he was just my professor. However, he did give me the impression of having a lot of charisma.”

Fortune magazine recently reported that since 2010, hundreds of start-ups aiming to disrupt the food industry have successfully raised billions of dollars of funding in the United States alone. The current trend, albeit a generally silent one, indicates that our eating habits could change quite significantly in coming years and we may eventually forgo what we take for granted today. 

“I believe in investing in this kind of business because I’m convinced they will change the way we eat in the future. This is incredibly exciting for me,” says Kass, adding that, “this proves that our culture is changing, and the business, too, is changing. All this will help create the mindful, sustainable future we’ve been talking about here at Seeds&Chips.”

And what is his vision of our food future?
“I believe that we will see changes in many areas; we will become more plant focused, our diet will become more var-ied and our foods will be more nutrient dense. I believe that, generally speaking, people will come to understand that, on an individual level, there are certain types of food that best benefit our bodies. We will be much more aware of the links between genetics, biology and food.”

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