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Chef José Andrés has a new bone to pick with the Trumps
[WASHINGTON] It had fitting features for a drama in the nation's capital: a celebrity chef, an opulent restaurant in Georgetown, a social club's after-party and the president's daughter. And then, of course, rounds of veiled accusations, clashing accounts and shifting positions.
José Andrés, the outspoken, Spanish-born chef with a small empire of restaurants in the city, tweeted a photo of himself early Sunday morning standing outside Cafe Milano, a favourite restaurant of moneyed Washingtonians. He claimed he had been denied entry to an after-party for the annual Alfalfa Club dinner, a gathering of political types known for speeches with self-deprecating humour.
Chef Andrés said Ivanka Trump, US President Donald Trump's daughter and adviser, had attended the after-party and passed chef Andrés on her way in while he was waiting to gain entry. In his tweet, he hinted that she had asked the owner of the restaurant, Franco Nuschese, to keep him away.
What really occurred outside the restaurant as Ms Trump entered remained a subject of dispute among several people involved, and an encapsulation of much of Mr Trump's Washington: unreliable narratives, petty feuds and the sense that one family controls all.
But chef Andrés' friends and colleagues immediately jumped to his aid. The television personality Anthony Bourdain called it "loathsome" and a "grotesque betrayal".
Jorge Guajardo, a friend of chef Andrés' and a former Mexican ambassador to China, tweeted that chef Andrés had been asked to leave "because his presence made Ivanka Trump uncomfortable".
Chef Andrés, 48, and the Trumps have a rocky history. Dismayed over comments Mr Trump made on the campaign trail disparaging Mexican immigrants in 2015, chef Andrés pulled out of a lease he had signed to open a restaurant in the Trump International Hotel in Washington. The parties settled a lawsuit in April.
But Ms Trump denied that she was behind the snub at Cafe Milano, an account backed up by the restaurant's owner.
"I had nothing to do with anything that transpired relating to him last night at the restaurant," Ms Trump said in a statement.
Chef Andrés soon came to agree, it seemed. Just over 12 hours after his initial tweet, he tweeted again, thanking Ms Trump, with whom he communicated by text on Sunday.
"I believe now that you personally had nothing to do" with the incident, he said.
In her statement, Ms Trump said she was "thankful for José's clarification". But after many phone calls and more tweeting on Sunday, the tide turned again. By early evening Sunday, chef Andrés went back to his original position: Someone in Ivanka Trump's orbit had ordered that he not be allowed in. He tweeted: "Let's not confuse my trying to Be generous and move on, with anything else. What happened happened and I stand by my account. I'm ready to move on."
In a phone interview, chef Andrés said guests had told him they saw Ms Trump and Mr Nuschese talking at the party.
"I was told I was not on the list. I was told I was not welcome," he said. "I was told I was making people uncomfortable."
He added, "It didn't make any sense that I was the only one Ms Trump was not "personally" involved, it was an attempt to "take the high road" and offer Ms Trump credence.
"I'm not a perfect boy, but I am a good boy," he said.
On Sunday, there was still disagreement over whether Ms Trump had talked to Nuschese.
Mr Guajardo, a close friend of chef Andrés' who spoke to the chef repeatedly on Sunday, said chef Andrés told him that attendees had confirmed Ms Trump was spotted talking to Mr Nuschese after she walked into the restaurant, which increased chef Andrés' suspicion.
While chef Andrés waited outside, he said, he asked security if he could speak with Mr Nuschese, an old friend who promised that he would step outside to check in. Chef Andrés said he was soon told that Mr Nuschese did not want him there, and that Mr Nuschese would not come outside.
In an interview, Mr Nuschese said he did not talk to Ms Trump at the after-party, and that chef Andrés was not on the guest list - a clear signal that he was not to enter. Mr Nuschese said party crashers were common at Cafe Milano - its exclusive ethos is a draw for the city's social scene - and that he was in pursuit of some last night around the time chef Andrés was told he could not enter.
"I'm sorry he was upset," Mr Nuschese said of chef Andrés. "It was a big misunderstanding. We both paid a big price."
Chef Andrés said he made peace with Mr Nuschese on Sunday, but remained firm in his belief that there was no reason for Mr Nuschese to deny entry to one of his friends.
"Everybody knows there is not a guest list for the after-party," he said. "Nobody was checking anybody."
He said that he had eaten at the restaurant since he was 23, and that when other guests at the after-party heard he had been turned away, they also left the gathering in a show of support.
Chef Andrés and Ms Trump have a relationship that predates the 2016 presidential election. When they saw each other at a reception before the Alfalfa dinner on Saturday, they chatted amiably for a minute. The two had previously talked about issues like aid to Haiti and other causes important to chef Andrés.
But his relationship with the Trump family has been fraught. In addition to the lawsuit over his planned restaurant at the Trump hotel, Chef Andrés was a prominent critic of the administration's hurricane response in Puerto Rico last year. Chef Andrés clashed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency as he undertook his own efforts to serve millions of warm meals there.
By Sunday evening, chef Andrés said he was tired of the attention his original tweet had received. He said he did not want Cafe Milano to "suffer". The back-and-forth on Sunday, he said, was revealing of just how small our politics can be.
"I am giving the benefit of the doubt to everyone now," he said. "Somebody made a bad call."