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I’m A DC Chef Who Hates Trump’s Policies But I Would Serve His Staff


Mike Friedman, the owner of The Red Hen, a wonderful neighborhood restaurant in Washington DC, dropped by yesterday morning. He told me about telephone calls he has received from around the country and the number of death threats, presumably from Trump supporters incensed that a restaurant with the same name in another place denied service to the White House press secretary.

My favorite story about a restaurant’s refusal to serve a customer was one Jean Louis Palladin told me in the early ‘90s. In case the name is unfamiliar to you, Palladin was Washington’s first truly great chef. Incongruously located in the unfashionable basement of the Watergate Hotel, his restaurant was internationally important. Jean Louis contributed greatly to our development as a food culture, but that’s another story.

Shortly after it opened in 1979, Jean Louis at the Watergate was reviewed by Robert Shoffner, the Washingtonian Magazine’s critic. He savaged the restaurant. The review was really remarkable. Jean Louis said, “Never in France have I read a review such as that. He didn’t merely write about what he ate, he attacked me. He attacked my taste and my talent. If I were to believe him, I would go out there (into the Potomac River across the road) and disappear.”

Although Jean Louis moved to Washington when he was a Michelin two-star chef, the youngest person ever to have been awarded two stars, and although he was a man of great self-confidence, he told me 12 years later that he was so hurt by the review that “Every morning when I woke up my first thought was about what I could do to him, how I would hurt him the way he hurt me.” He got a chance only a few years later, after Shoffner had written a second negative review.

Police Forced Him to Serve. Here’s What He Did

Shoffner came to the restaurant one night for dinner. When Jean Louis was told that Shoffner had arrived, he walked out into the dining room and told Shoffner he would not cook for him. Shoffner told him that the law required Jean Louis to cook; his was a public accommodation and could not refuse a customer. When Jean Louis did just that, Shoffner called the police.

Jean Louis told me, “They came – there were two. One of them was ree-ally beeg and they were both wearing their pee-stoles and their talkie-walkies were loud.” Shoffner made his complaint to the police officers. After they conferred with each other, they told Jean Louis that the law required him to serve Shoffner.

Jean Louis retreated to his kitchen. He told his staff to prepare a dinner but to send none of the restaurant’s cooking. Instead they found a tin of fois gras a salesman had left months before. They served oysters on the half-shell with lemon, no sauces. They sliced prosciutto and bread and served butter and cheeses. For dessert they sent whole fruits.

The following day, I was told, Shoffner filed a complaint at the D.C. Office of Human Rights, but I don’t know what happened to it. I do know that Shoffner’s enmity persisted because I witnessed it more than ten years later.

Once We Disagreed, But With Respect

I have read a lot this week about a restaurant’s refusal to serve. I am an intensely political person and have been all my life. My political career began in 1948 when I walked door-to-door in a working-class neighborhood not far from my grandparents’ home in Baltimore to oppose the Ober Law that imposed a loyalty oath on public employees in Maryland.

I stayed political for many years, working in many political jobs. In the late 1960s I worked for a U.S. Senator, Joseph Tydings, a Democrat from Maryland. Because my responsibilities included his press relations, I got around a lot in the Senate.

One day I was in the press gallery to pitch a story on a criminal justice bill of which Tydings was the floor leader. Sen. Everett Dirkson, the Senate’s Republican leader, was giving a little press conference while Sen. William Proxmire was waiting to make a statement. I watched Proxmire, not the most light-hearted of men, subtly make faces that might distract Dirkson. When he finished saying what he had to say, Dirksen rushed toward Proxmire in the pretense of an attack, both of them laughing.

Cokie Roberts has pointed out that politicians of that era, including her father, could be rivals but they couldn’t be enemies because they shared something that shaped their lives and feelings and politics: World War II. Their feelings about having been part of something truly momentous, a common experience in which they were allies, was reinforced in an earlier Washington where politicians didn’t retreat on Thursdays to homes in their districts, but lived here with their families where their wives socialized and their children shared schools.

At Some Point, We All May Have to Choose

As Everett Dirksen said, “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.” That, as we all know, has changed. It’s hard to imagine such comity. When I was political, we were competitive and committed, but we were not angry. But now politics has left me and I am left only with those values that were always important to me.

This is a time of anger. This week I have been wondering how I would respond if the president’s press secretary decides to come to my bakery. Would I be uncivil in this uncivil time?

I wonder what is now going to happen and I wonder what is right. Harassing Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a Mexican restaurant. The discussion about whether all Trumpers should be harassed wherever they go.

How may we who own food businesses in Washington, any of which might attract Sarah Saunders or Sen. Mitch McConnell or Stephen Miller, express disagreement without incivility—or should we worry about incivility at all? I have read the argument of those who say that Trump enablers do not deserve civility.

I would be surprised if we in the heart of a residential neighborhood of Washington, populated not by transient politicians but by people who live their lives here, ever see a Trump supporter. But if one of those who work for the administration, or others to whom graciousness and honesty are foreign ideas, did come here, I think I would compromise. I don’t want either simply “to go high when they go low,” as Michelle Obama advocated, or, as Maxine Waters recommends, to harass people who are destroying our polity.

I think I would like to say simply to a Trumper, “’I want you know that I am furious about what you are doing to this country. What may I get you?”

This article is reprinted from the author’s blog, with permission.