I read about Sam Kass in Michelle Obama’s book Becoming. He was the head chef at the White House. But I didn’t know his back story. I heard it last week on Tim Ferriss’ podcast and it was so inspiring. He went to the University of Chicago on a baseball scholarship and did a history degree because he was always interested in how we got to where we ended up. He mentioned a tidbit about professional baseball that I found extremely interesting. He said the top professional baseball players have a 30 per cent success rate. So the best players in the league fail 70 per cent of the time. How inspiring is that? They hit more but they also swing more. A lesson for us all.
In his fourth year at university, he mentioned to a friend that he loved cooking and might pursue it. His friend said he was working at a local Italian restaurant and invited Sam to come and check it out. Sam did and they let him cook. He knew nothing but they taught him the ropes. At the end of fourth year he wanted to do a year abroad at another school but he got waitlisted. He pleaded with the professor to send him somewhere… anywhere. The professor sent him to Vienna. Before he left he told the professor that he would love to find a little pastry shop or somewhere where he could go once a week to learn as he had done for the past year in the local Italian restaurant. The professor told him a friend of a friend of a friend rode bikes with the sous chef at Vienna’s best Michelin 3-star restaurant. And the sous chef was willing to meet Sam! When they met the sous chef said, “Are you the Yankee who wants to cook? Come with me.”
They let Sam cook in the restaurant and trained him! Soon the chef who ran the meat, fish and sauce station, the hardest job in the kitchen, had to have surgery and would be off for a while. They pulled another executive chef into the spot, but he didn’t really want the job so he said he would do it, but he was bringing the Yankee (Sam) with him. He had an incentive to train Sam and he did. Very well. Then on a Friday night in December, the chef training Sam got a 104 degree fever and was bedridden. Sam, along with a Rhodes Scholar buddy visiting Sam for the weekend from England, would be in charge of the station. And they never missed a beat. They were so good that the head chef invited them back to work together on the Saturday night during the busiest season in the restaurant!
This is a position in the kitchen that many chefs work three decades to earn. Sam said, “Seventy-five per cent of success is staying calm. The rest you figure out.”
He ended up becoming a personal chef for a few families, one in New Zealand. That family knew Michelle Obama, who Sam also knew from growing up in their Chicago neighbourhood of Hyde Park. Back when Barack was a professor at the university. Michelle invited Sam to cook for her family while they campaigned for president. Then he became the White House head chef. He also worked on national nutrition policy, the Let’s Move campaign, the White House garden and helping decrease childhood obesity. In 2011 Fast Company named him #11 on their list of “100 Most Creative People.”
And it all started when a baseball playing history student decided he would follow his passion for cooking.
What can we do today to add a little fuel to our passion? Who can we ask for an opportunity to learn more about something that interests us? It’s not always about degrees and diplomas but skills learned and action taken. Let’s start today.