Should D.C. Chefs Be Worried that Donald Trump Is Moving into the White House?
During Obama’s time in the White House, D.C. has become recognized for its exciting and inventive cuisine. But what will happen when a meat-and-potatoes president moves in?
The Columbia Room. Photo by Jai Williams.
It's been five days since the American public (or at least the electoral college) elected Donald Trump president, and it's just starting to sink in that this is indeed reality and not an elaborate, high-stakes practical joke or an episode of Black Mirror. For residents of D.C. this election is extra personal, because the new Commander in Chief, who coats his literal palaces with gold, is coming to town.
In this place District dwellers call home, we too have questions about how the incoming president will affect our housing markets and our schools and our daily lives. But we also question how it will affect the places we go out to eat and drink, because before Obama moved into that big house on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the city's dining scene was more a place of quiet but expensive meals and less one of bold, vivid excitement. But throughout the better part of the last decade, D.C. has worked hard to shake off its tired reputation as an antiquated steakhouse town where meat-and-potatoes reign supreme.
Perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, D.C. is a city of perpetual change. While all cities experience people coming and going, few (if any) are centered around an industry that's deliberately cyclical. As elected officials come and go, so do their ideologies, and so do their staffers. D.C.'s political system is powered by young people. Obama's presidency certainly seemed to accelerate this, and with falling crime and with ample available real estate, the city was primed for revitalization. With the Millennials, came opportunities for young, talented chefs and restaurateurs.
I don't know what a Trump administration will look like, but I know many people in D.C. are worried that it won't be filled with the same enthusiasm for bars and restaurants that we saw with the Obama administration
During Obama's time in the White House, the city has been increasingly recognized on a national level for having exciting and inventive cuisine. "In the last eight to ten years, DC has come into its own," says Ashok Bajaj, an award-winning restaurateur whose company The Knightsbridge Restaurant Group runs the stunning modern Indian restaurant Rasika. "This year Bon Appetit named Washington D.C. the best food city in America, and the Michelin guide came to the city."
What will happen though when our newest president, a man who seems to live almost exclusively on those aforementioned meat-and-potatoes—and who consumes no alcohol (which might explain why Trump Vodka is now defunct)—comes to town?
"I will say unequivocally and not related to his policies that Obama absolutely added to the scene," says Derek Brown, a nationally recognized bartender and writer, and co-owner of a number of famed D.C. establishments such as the Columbia Room, Mockingbird Hill, and Eat the Rich. "I don't know what a Trump administration will look like, but I know many people in D.C. are worried that it won't be filled with the same enthusiasm for bars and restaurants that we saw with the Obama administration."
The presidential family does wield a tremendous amount of influence though, and the Obamas are an excellent example of this. They regularly dined at many of the city's restaurants, generating much appreciated buzz for newly opened hotspots and bringing attention back to some of the city's established institutions that might have been in danger of getting less attention as more and more restaurants continued to open.
Cedric Maupillier, chef and owner of the lively and well-respected French-American restaurant Convivial, has doubts about whether Trump will generate the same kind of excitement. "I don't know if it's true that he likes fast food more than fine restaurants, Maupillier says. "It's very difficult for me to think about the future of presidents in the city after someone like Obama."
The influence of the Obamas, and potentially of Trump, extends far beyond just where they choose to have dinner. Maupillier believes the Obama's efforts to curb global warming and to encourage healthy living and sustainable food production have helped to improve D.C.'s dining scene. He's proud of the District's many farmers markets and he's worried that Trump's potential policies regarding business and climate change will derail any progress Obama has helped create when it comes to sourcing fresh, local ingredients and supporting small businesses.
"As a businessman, I think he looks at a larger picture, a global picture, of how he can sell more, how he can create more revenue," says Maupillier.
Then again, the restaurant industry's lobbying group said it expects Trump to lift regulations it says have stifled growth, according to the Wall Street Journal, which also pointed out that the President-elect likely won't raise federal minimum wage.
There's also the concern about the restaurants' current clientele moving out of town. Every four-to-eight years when the presidency turns over and the Executive branch is essentially reborn, jobs can evaporate at the end of an unsuccessful election cycle, and you have a city where sea change is a real possibility. Post-election analysis is very much still a work in progress, but given the fact that those currently working for the Obama administration have a very real reason to fear for their jobs as Trump brings his own set of staffers to the capital, it's not entirely unreasonable to think they might abandon the city. After all, it will soon be taken over by a man who stands in opposition to almost everything they, as a broad demographic, are reported to believe in and support.
But considering that in D.C. and the surrounding areas, incomes for young professionals are higher than average and the quality of life tends to be high for this demographic, it's safe to assume that the city will continue to have people with expendable income. The question that remains to be seen is whether those people will continue to frequent the same adventurous, globally inspired restaurants as D.C.'s current population of young professionals.
The machine of D.C. is not dependent on one man. It's its own entity. It's existed for a long, long time, and it will exist for a long, long time. And as long as it exists, bars and restaurants will exist with it."
Many people in the industry are not hopeful, and even talking about Trump's potential influence is too risky for some. Several prominent chefs, business owners, and food industry professionals firmly but politely turned down the opportunity to comment on this story.
Even Jose Andrés is publicly keeping quiet—you could even say supportive—despite (or because of) his contentious relationship with our next president, stemming from Andrés backing out of a deal with him to open a restaurant in Trump's D.C. hotel after Trump used negative language about Latinos.
In a grueling industry with razor-thin margins, it's not hard to see why chefs who will soon call Trump their neighbor are keeping quiet. There's virtually no room for error and alienating a new president—particularly one who has built a reputation as being vindictive, capricious, and xenophobic—might not be the best business move.
Hospitality is a good way to bury the hatchet though, and to welcome in potential new diners. Even Brown, who is skeptical about the future, offers some hope. The machine of D.C. is not dependent on one man," says Brown, "It's its own entity. It's existed for a long, long time, and it will exist for a long, long time. And as long as it exists, bars and restaurants will exist with it."