WASHINGTON — President Trump was in a Washington food fracas before he was even elected.
He landed in the middle of two lawsuits in the summer of 2016 with restaurateurs who had backed out of opening establishments in the Trump International Hotel near the White House, and by 2017 was tangling with the owners of the Cork Wine Bar, who claimed the hotel amounted to unfair competition.
Those were on top of his eating fried chicken with a fork, and an unfortunate taco bowl incident. His first meal as commander in chief was an overcooked steak with ketchup, which set off a minor freakout among food critics. Local restaurants waited in vain to serve a new president, who they soon discovered prefers burgers and the White House meatloaf at home.
Of the myriad Obama administration policies and practices that have been upturned by Mr. Trump, his approach to dining and nutrition is clearly not the most significant. But it has left a notable mark on the culture of the White House and the nation’s capital.
Gone are the days of local chefs parading through the East Wing, running cooking demonstrations on the South Lawn or making sweet potato agnolotti for a White House state dinner. A culinary diplomacy program at the State Department has been closed. Beyond the White House gates, Trump administration officials have increasingly found themselves in the cross hairs of liberal rage while dining out.
“It has changed a lot,’’ said Victor Albisu, who owns Poca Madre and Taco Bamba and who cooked at the White House under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “I have not cooked for anybody in the administration. It’s a polarizing time for people, and a table full of food and drinks is the place to put aside those differences. I think this has been a net loss for everyone.”
The change reflects Mr. Trump’s lifestyle and political differences from the previous administration. The Obamas took an unusual interest in eating out and food policy — refashioning school lunch menus was one of Michelle Obama’s central causes. So far, the only restaurant the Trumps are known to have frequented in Washington is the steakhouse at the Trump Hotel.
Mr. Trump, a proud and well-documented non-foodie, prefers fast food and overflowing bowls of ice cream to charred brussels sprouts or shakshuka from Washington restaurants with wait-lists. Mrs. Trump, who does not share her husband’s eating habits — she is partial to fruit and fish, with an occasional weakness for pasta — has maintained Mrs. Obama’s White House kitchen garden, but it has not been the focus of East Wing events.
The exceptions are Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who dine out at some of the city’s hot spots: Chez Billy Sud, Fiola Mare, RPM Italian and Le Diplomate. They have also found a comfortable landing spot at Cafe Milano, an outpost of bipartisan consumption of overpriced pasta.
The Trump’s only state dinner so far, honoring President Emmanuel Macron of France, featured American and French touches — goat cheese gâteau, a rack of spring lamb, burnt cipolline soubise, jambalaya and a nectarine tarte with crème fraîche ice cream for dessert. Among the guests was the celebrated French chef Guy Savoy, who was invited by Mr. Macron — not to cook but as a member of the official French delegation. It was a rare chef sighting in the White House, even if Mr. Savoy was not in the kitchen.
A number of chefs said that although the Trumps might not be asking, they feared the backlash from liberal patrons if they turned up in Mr. Trump’s kitchen. “I don’t know a chef in their right mind who would cook in this White House,” said Dan Barber, the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester County in New York, and who served on Mr. Obama’s fitness commission.
A spokeswoman for the East Wing declined to comment for this article.
A slow march to culinary diplomacy at the White House
The history of cooking at the White House reflects much about the country’s political history.
“Most of the cooks in presidential history have been family cooks, enslaved people, military cooks and African-Americans who were not professionally trained in terms of going to culinary school,” said Adrian Miller, the author of “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas.” Professional cooks, he said, are “really more a phenomenon of the modern presidency.”
Over the years, professionals were sometimes called in to help with large events at the White House. “When my husband needed help for things like Luci Johnson’s wedding, he got some chefs to come down and work after they were cleared by the F.B.I.,” said Carole Haller, the wife of Henry Haller, who served as the White House chef for five administrations.
As first lady, Hillary Clinton shook up formal dinners at the White House by showcasing American cuisine and replacing the traditional butler service — guests serving themselves from silver platters held by white-gloved staff — with plated meals. When she became secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton deployed iconic American chefs to work as “culinary ambassadors” overseas, and to bring back what they learned about the foodways of other nations.
The Culinary Diplomacy program, which ended with the Obama administration, was the ultimate form of soft diplomacy, its supporters said. When Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Secretary Clinton invited Vice President Xi Jinping of China for a state luncheon, Ming Tsai, a famous Chinese-American chef from Boston, created the menu.
“I escorted V.P. Xi into the Monroe Room to introduce him to the vice president and Secretary Clinton,” said Capricia Marshall, a former chief of protocol. “Secretary Clinton then introduced Ming to V.P. Xi and I immediately saw his eyes light up. He was so taken by the gesture, the honor. He and Ming began to speak to one another and not even the interpreter could keep up. It was clear that we had achieved our goal, diplomacy through this culinary engagement. And the meal was spectacular.”
But the ultimate marriage of chefs and politics was made during the Obama White House, when Michelle Obama’s policy agenda of improving children’s eating met culinary fandom.
“We entered the White House with a very clear objective of trying to lift up food and chefs and the entire culinary world,” said Sam Kass, a former White House chef and senior policy adviser for nutrition.
“The first thing we started doing was bringing in guest chefs for state dinners,” he said. “That was a really big deal, although not everyone loved the concept at the time.”
Among the stars was Marcus Samuelsson, an American citizen who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, who cooked at a state dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India.
The White House garden also became a showcase for chefs, with harvest parties featuring chefs like Tom Colicchio and Rachael Ray on the South Lawn. The ultimate event was the annual Easter egg roll, which under the Obamas became a combination egg hunt and health fair. Celebrity chefs like José Andrés and Spike Mendelsohn were almost White House regulars.
No longer, at least as far as anyone can tell. “There could be some high-caliber chefs who have been in there and we just don’t know it,” said Eddie Gehman Kohan, who is writing a culinary biography of the Obama White House. “If you cook there, you’re not going to publicize it because a large portion of your clientele will hate you. People are well aware of what the risk is if they are not in a hard Trump area of the country.”
Administration officials meet hostility at dinner
The risks extend to Trump administration officials who have been yelled at by patrons while dining out. Among them are Scott Pruitt, the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary. Stephen Miller, Mr. Trump’s senior policy adviser and a hard-liner on immigration, was heckled and called a fascist at a Mexican restaurant, and later complained that a bartender at another restaurant followed him into the street and raised both middle fingers when Mr. Miller went to pick up a sushi order.
Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, found himself shouted out of the fancy Italian spot Fiola when he went to dine with his wife, Heidi, after Mr. Cruz’s vote to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
“During the Obama years, I remember popular lists featured on various media outlets highlighting all of the Obama’s and their administration’s favorite culinary hot spots,” said Kwame Onwuachi, the chef of Kith/Kin, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant on the Wharf waterfront in Washington. “I would say things are definitely different here at this time.’’
Oh, and all those lawsuits? The ones with the restaurateurs were settled, while a federal judge told Cork Wine Bar owners that they failed to make their case, which was dismissed. Check please!
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a Washington restaurant. It is Le Diplomate, not Le Diplomat.
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