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For celebrity chefs, politics proves precarious

Celebrity chefs tried to persuade billionaire Stephen Ross (pictured) to call off his fundraising for the US President, following the lead of Equinox and SoulCycle which have distanced themselves from Mr Ross.

[NEW YORK] On Friday afternoon, as Stephen Ross, the billionaire real estate developer and the principal owner of the Miami Dolphins, prepared to host a high-priced fundraiser for US President Donald Trump at his home in the Hamptons, it appeared that some celebrity chefs had failed in their efforts to persuade Ross to call it off.

This week, José Andrés of Mercado Little Spain, David Chang of the Momofuku restaurants and Christina Tosi of Milk Bar took to the internet to condemn Mr Ross, the chairman of the real estate company that owns Hudson Yards, where Mr Andrés and Mr Chang have recently opened restaurants. Mr Ross has a stake in Ms Tosi's dessert chain.

They were following the lead of Equinox and SoulCycle, which distanced themselves from Mr Ross, the chairman of their parent company, after fans started a boycott movement with the Twitter hashtags #CancelEquinox and #CancelSoulCycle.

Calls to boycott Mr Chang's restaurants, in which Mr Ross is an investor, have been fewer and further between, but the week's events underscored how perilous today's polarised political climate can be for restaurants and other business with well-connected investors and developers.

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Despite his frustration with his Hudson Yards landlord, Mr Andrés said in a Friday afternoon phone call that he did not intend to cut his ties with Mr Ross or distance his businesses from him. "If we are going to start tomorrow breaking with everybody that has relationships or supports people we don't agree with, we will be living in anarchy," Mr Andrés said.

On Wednesday, he posted a video to Twitter imploring Mr Ross to cancel the Trump fundraiser.

"I have great respect for Steve Ross. He's a good person," Mr Andrés said over the phone on Friday. "I believe Steve Ross has the freedom to express his opinion, just as I do."

Then Mr Andrés shifted from his disappointment for Mr Ross to his anger at Mr Trump. "The problem here is not Steve Ross or José Andrés or anybody that agrees or disagrees," he said. "The problem," he added, is that Mr Trump "attacks women, people of color, Hispanics. He attacks anybody that is not blond haired and blue-eyed".

Mr Andrés has sparred with the President before; after Mr Trump made disparaging comments about Mexican immigrants in 2015, Mr Andrés pulled out of a deal to open a restaurant in the Trump International Hotel in Washington. The parties settled a lawsuit in 2017.

Another chef, Mr Chang, asked Mr Ross to reconsider hosting the fundraiser for Mr Trump, in an expletive-laden address in his weekly podcast on Thursday. Mr Ross' efforts on the President's behalf, he said, contradict "what I hope to accomplish by taking your money in the first place".

"He is destroying our democratic norms," Mr Chang said of Mr Trump.

But Mr Chang did not indicate that he would sever ties with Mr Ross, his longtime investor, and said he would work to "figure all this out".

"Steve was the only potential investor who believed in the vision of what Momofuku could be and offered us the freedom to seek that out," he said. "Nevertheless, we're on the wrong side here. The fact is, our investor is supporting the campaign of a person I emphatically stand against."

A representative for Mr Chang said Friday that the chef wouldn't comment further.

A Tuesday article in The Washington Post revealed plans for the Friday fundraiser, where tickets cost US$5,600 to US$250,000.

"I always have been an active participant in the democratic process," Mr Ross said in a statement. "I have been, and will continue to be, an outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability, and I have and will continue to support leaders on both sides of the aisle to address these challenges."

Mr Ross is the chairman of Related Companies, one of the two private real estate companies behind Hudson Yards, a mammoth US$25 billion retail and residential development that opened in March on the West Side of Manhattan.

In addition to his longstanding friendship with Mr Trump, Mr Ross also has a financial stake in the President's business empire. Shortly after the 2016 election, Mr Ross' Related Cos. bought a US$80 million stake in Ladder Capital, one of Mr Trump's biggest creditors.

As he prepared to board a plane for Long Island on Friday morning, Mr Trump spoke highly of Mr Ross. "He's a great friend of mine; he's a very successful guy," the President said. "We were competitors, but friends in real estate in New York in the old days."