Recipe for Success Visits the White House

Gracie Cavnar
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Less than a week after First Lady Michelle Obama launched her Let's Move!  Initiative to eradicate the childhood obesity epidemic, I was sitting in the East Room of the White House with her chef, Sam Kass.  We were visiting about the idea of a national "shout out" to the country's professional chefs.  Something to encourage them to get involved in improving lunches and nutrition education at their neighborhood schools.

Chef Kass had heard good things about Recipe for Success and our Chefs in Schools™ program.  He especially like the way we make it easy for busy professional chefs to just drop into class for an hour, have big impact on kids and get back to work quickly.  Our framework of support takes the burden out of volunteering for 60 of Houston's best chefs and our Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education Program™ for elementary students is delivering impressive results. 

"When are you going to national scale?" was the question I had been fielding all week in meeting after meeting with federal agencies from Department of Education to Department of Agriculture.  And now Chef Kass was asking me, "If I do some sort of event with chefs in May, will you have your national program ready?" WhiteHouse_Kaas.JPG "No. But, we can have it for them by the time school starts in the fall," I assured.  Then I raced home to put our National Affiliate program development into fast forward. It seemed like just a few days after, but it was three months later when Sam and I started playing telephone tag in late-May. We finally connected, as he was climbing on a plane to Chicago for Memorial weekend with the First Family.  "Gracie, come to the White House and bring all your chefs! I'll email you the security forms right now and I need them back by Monday morning."   His call to action--Chefs Move! To Schools would be on June 4. His goal: to fill the South Lawn with white jackets, get the attention of national press, and whip up some excitement.  Imagine the sight!  June 4th--my 58th birthday. 

Was the timing inconvenient? Yes.  Was it going to be expensive? Yes. Was it going to be tough to round up enough folks to participate on such short notice? Yes.  Did I have the time to drop everything and get this organized? No.  Was I going to miss it? Not on your life. 

I have been working on childhood obesity since the mid-nineties, establishing Recipe for Success Foundation in 2005 to launch a school based nutrition education program designed around the volunteer engagement of professional chefs.  Our Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education™ is now the largest program of its kind in the country--we teach 3050 children each month; and I spend all my time trying to shed light and public awareness on this stealth killer.  Having the First Lady of the United States espouse a national call to action that sounds like it was written from the RFS playbook is like experiencing a lifetime of birthday celebrations rolled into one and handed up on a silver platter.

It took me about 10 minutes to rip out an email to my 24 board members and 60 Chefs Advisory Board members.  Only minutes passed before answers started coming back: Board members Bob Cavnar, Steph Walker and Rick Terry, the first to say yes; then chefs Monica Pope (t'afia) who would bring daughter Lili; Randy Evans (Haven); Michael Kramer (Voice) and Barbara McKnight (Catering by Culinaire) in short order. In an extraordinary act of generosity, Beth Madison decided to postpone her long-planned June 3rd Gala in Small Bites dinner, so that Chef Peter Garcia (El Meson) could join the group.  Then the news that Kiran Verma (Kiran's) would be with us, along with board members Melanie Wilson Lawson and Lucia Hamilton.  Before the sun set, we had our merry band of thirteen ready to roll.

June 4, 7:30 a.m. What a spectacle we are--resplendent as we stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue in our Recipe for Success branded aprons and chef jackets, on our way to a breakfast hosted by Share Our StrengthMonica&Marcus.jpg. Monica, swarmed by the Bravo TV crowd as she enters the room, is our megawatt star.  But not the only one who is recognized.  Everyone is hailing colleagues from all around the country and the air is thick with excitement and celebrity spotting.  Here is Marcus Samuelsson, there Art Smith, over there, Daniel Boulud and Tom Colicchio.   Is that Rachel Ray talking to Cat Cora??   Food Network stars are here in force and huge groups of chefs from IACP, Les Dames Escoffier and other clubs, circulating like large schools of fish.  US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan addresses the group about how important good nutrition is for learning.  Author Janet Poppendieck talks about the problem with school lunch.  Chefs are fired up to help and looking for a way to plug in.
Recipe for Success is definitely the little engine that could.  We are featured in the program on a short list of recommended resource for interested chefs alongside such national heavyweights as Share our Strength, Center for Ecoliteracy, Center for Science in the Public Interest, The Lunch Box, and the First Lady's own Let's Move! website. Our team takes it a step further--our pockets full of RFS information cards that we hand out like candy.

White House security gate opens at 10:30 and we are thinking it would be good to be there early and first in line, so we duck out of the breakfast and scoot across the street. It is already 90 degrees as we cluster outside the gate under a nice shade tree and "glow."  Five minutes later, the line stretches 500 hundred chefs around the block. 
Chit chat, take pictures, Sam comes out and talks to us. It becomes a game, people coming up to Monica . . ."I know you, weren't we at the xyz Food Festival together?" No. "Didn't we meet at this that or the other place?" No. "Wasn't it . . .?"   Well, maybe you saw me on Top Chef.  "Can I get a picture with you?"  

There is a buzz about Recipe for Success. "These guys make it easy for us to help," brags Randy Evans to a group as he hands out our cards.  Many had heard about us, saw us in the program, or read about us on the Obama Foodarama blog. WhiteHouse6.JPGI feel like The Godfather; chefs are pressing their cards into my hand. "Call me when you are ready for LA . . . .Are you coming to New York? . . . .I'm in Oregon . . . We need this in Miami . . . .Las Vegas is ready to roll, we would like to roll with you."  We are hot in more ways than one.
Finally, security ushers us through the gates and into the famous White House Kitchen Garden.  Everyone mugs among the eggplant and squash takes photos of each other and swelters, waiting until the last moment to peel away from the shade and breezes and take a seat in the blazing sun. 
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Our posse snares row two.  Apparently you have to have a TV show to score the first row.  We'll have to work on that one.  I am right behind Al Smith and we visit about meeting when he was in Houston to speak at the Jr Forum Dinner. We fan ourselves with programs, with promo cards, with the souvenir paper chef toques. We peel off our aprons and hold them overhead for shade.  We make relay runs for water and ice so that no one grabs our primo seats.  And then like a cool gush of fresh air, Michelle Obama walks out and takes the stage.  She is gorgeous and miraculously cool as a cucumber.  Everyone marvels.  She never breaks a sweat.
Mrs. Obama lets everyone else talk first and we politely listen, but it is the First Lady we want to hear and she doesn't let us down.  
WhiteHouse1.JPG Sam Kass & Mrs. Obama.JPG"You know the central role that food plays in the moments that make us happiest. Food is always there, whether it's at a birthday party, or Thanksgiving dinner, or quiet moments with friends. Food is at the core of what makes life wonderful." Mrs. Obama talked about all the reasons chefs should get involved in this issue--all the reasons our 60 chefs are so engaged at Recipe for Success.  They know about the adulation of a 4th  grader; the smiles when a child creates something yummy that brings rave reviews; the energy and excitement that permeates the class when they visit; kids treating them like rock stars.  Who wouldn't want that experience sandwiched with knowing you are doing a good thing--teaching kids to cook, leading them to healthier lives, establishing traditions and routines for a lifetime.  "You can make a salad bar fun -- now, that's something -- and delicious. You can teach kids to cook something that tastes good and is good for them; and share your passion for food in a way that's truly contagious." We know about that. Now Let's MOVE!