Sam Kass is standing in front of his Cutchogue home like Adam surveying Eden. A flowering row of corn plants marches down one side, a thicket of white strawberries adorns the far corner and a tangle of cucumber and zucchini seems to be getting bigger every minute. Fat yellow squash blossoms peek from under large leaves, and butterflies and bees are everywhere. “Now will start to be a real pollinator time, soon the monarchs will start showing up,” Kass said. “A lot of life is a wonderful thing to have at your doorstep.”
Former White House chef Kass and his wife, Alex Wagner, a journalist and co-host of “The Circus” on Showtime, bought the house in 2015. “The first time I walked out here, I said, ‘Here’s where the garden is going to go.’ It was a giant circular driveway,” he said. “We put in raised beds, spent a lot of time on making compost and making sure we got good nourishment in the soil.” Their children, Cy and Rafael, were born a few years later. Now the garden produces more than enough food for the family all summer long, and the corn they planted this year was Cy’s idea.
You can’t call Kass a typical home gardener. During his time as White House chef from 2008 to 2014, he not only built a kitchen garden on the most iconic lawn in the world, he guided food policy and helped Michelle Obama establish her healthy-living initiative, Let’s Move. The White House garden was part of a bigger strategy to improve nutrition in the country, especially for kids. “We were symbolically putting a big stake in the ground and sending a message to the country; figuring out if it was the right time, is the country ready, and would it resonate,” said Kass. “It surely did.”
The line from the White House garden to Kass’ garden in Cutchogue runs like the flight path of a pollinator. On a recent visit, he led the way to his favorite plant, a tree grown from a cutting of the White House fig tree. That tree came from a tree at Monticello, cut from a fig that Thomas Jefferson grew. I heard that Kass saved a White House fig tree from an overzealous volunteer gardener bent on composting it, a story that sounded a little too close to George Washington and the cherry tree to be true.
“Yes, that is a true story, and it was probably one of my proudest moments, outside of my children,” he said. “Whenever I had a rough day I’d take a walk down to the garden, take a minute, take a deep breath and go back to work. One day I had this feeling, a weird feeling, and I randomly went and checked the compost. The fig tree – really just a stick with some roots – had definitely been there a couple of days. It was very mad at me, didn’t grow for two years and then it just exploded. As you can see it’s another beautiful tree.”
Kass is planning to put more fruit trees on his tiny farm, enough for a little orchard, and more berries. So why would he plant a garden like this with so many great farm stands within walking distance? “First of all, so I can get shiso, daikon radishes, beans and certain kinds of squashes. I grow different varieties that people don’t grow around here. Lots of chili peppers,” he said. “But it’s really more the process of watching plants grow; how fast they grow, how fragile or resilient they are.”
His advice to someone looking to put a toe in the water of kitchen gardening is to start with something green and leafy. “It’s hard to mess up lettuce,” he said, although he has been brought to shame over melons. “I’ve been gardening intensively for twelve years and I still can’t grow a melon to save my life. I get fruit, it tastes terrible. I just don’t know what I am doing. Hopefully one of your readers reaches out … Send melon help.”
He follows a practice he established in the White House — where kids came to plant and harvest — with his own children. At times, the line between harvesting and eating in the Kass-Wagner household gets blurry. “I’d be walking around the garden and see a cucumber lying around with a bite out of it, or a half-eaten pea on the vine,” said Kass. “They take pride in the garden, and that’s everything.”
Kass sees an educational opportunity in every aspect of farming, even at this small scale. Today’s lesson was illustrated in corn, as Kass pointed out that Cy’s row of corn is taller at one end than the other because it gets more light. “You can see the power of the sun,” he told his son.
After taking several loads of spent garlic tops to the compost pile, 4-year-old Cy proudly brought out four shapely heads of garlic that could have been plucked from a still life.
“I planted and harvested all these!”
“We’re in his garden,” said Kass. “I’m just his spokesperson.”
When Kass and Wagner were looking for a place to put down new roots, the North Fork’s locally grown products and rich food scene were a draw. “We came out here for a couple of weeks one summer six years ago and just loved it,” he said. “The vibe, the food, the wine, low-key nature of it. This place is very special.”
He’s a satisfied customer of Sang Lee Farms in Peconic, as well as 8 Hands Farm and Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, because, he said, “the way they do it is firmly rooted in this place.” Although the family dinner the night before came out of the garden, (purple cauliflower figured prominently) this chef also likes to indulge in take-out “whenever I possibly can.” He’s partial to Pizza Rita in Mattituck, Stirling Sake in Greenport, the North Fork Table and Inn food truck in Southold, and Jennie’s at Drossos snack bar in Greenport for fried chicken.
Kass said some of the most profound garden lessons illustrate the effects of a warming planet on the food supply. Tropical Storm Elsa had brought heavy rain and wind that morning, and Kass’ mother spent some time tending to mayhem among the corn stalks. “That big storm that just blew through — storms like that are definitely more frequent and more intense. It’s OK in my one little bed but if you’ve got 5,000 acres, you’re done,” said Kass. “We’ve gotten early heat where plants are tricked into putting out buds, pushing out fruit … then you get a cold snap. This increasing volatility is going to be really tough to deal with.”
Kass says the way forward for food production in a volatile climate is for farmers to raise a range of crops on their land, and his garden demonstrates that. “My cucumbers are late, but the eggplants are coming, the beans are coming, zucchinis, corn. The fall is the best, all the radicchio and the bitter greens.” Kass fretted a little that he hadn’t grown sweet potatoes this year for the first time. “The microcosm of the solution that’s embedded in a garden is the diversity that you plant. Look at how many plants I have to eat. As a model there is something profound and powerful about what is represented here.”
The work that Kass jump-started during his years as a senior advisor for nutrition policy in the Obama administration continues. Now an advocate for sustainable agriculture and consultant to businesses who want to adapt smarter practices, Kass is increasingly concerned about large, industrial farms centered around a single crop. “We’ve largely put all our eggs in a few baskets and that’s extremely risky. That works when we had a stable climate and unlimited resources of water and soil. We are carrying so much risk in terms of food security with so little diversity in our system. That’s something that’s got to change.”
For Kass, a garden is where meaningful change can start. “We don’t need to turn everyone into foodies,” he said. “We do need a lot more people to have a basic awareness and to care. That is the real work. It was a great joy [at the White House] and it has turned into a great joy here.”