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Restaurateurs discuss ups and downs of catering to Washington’s political class

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Restaurant owners and managers gathered Monday to give a behind-the-scenes look at both the challenging and amusing aspects of catering to Washington’s political class.

The discussion, hosted by the D.C. chapter of Les Dames d’ Escoffier, an international organization of women in the food industry, featured Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of The Red Hen in Lexington, Va.

{mosads}Her restaurant made national headlines last year when she asked then-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family to leave the restaurant because of Sanders’s support for President Trump’s intention to ban transgender people from the military, sparking outcry on the right and praise on the left. 

Reflecting on the incident, Wilkinson told audience members at the National Press Club on Monday that the controversy, while not ideal for a restaurant owner, did lead to some positive outcomes.

“I take very much to heart the idea that we don’t, ideally, in this world want to have Republican restaurants or Democrat restaurants,” Wilkinson said. “That’s really not good for anybody.”

But she said she felt that the role of a restaurateur requires them “to stand up for some kind of conscience.”

“One of the unexpected benefits of what happened with us is that all of the charities in our little tiny town, Lexington, were flooded with donations from around the country,” Wilkinson said.

“It’s not how I would have wanted to create benefit for my community,” Wilkinson said, but “something good came out of it.”

On the lighter side, Ashok Bajaj, CEO of the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, told the audience just how far restaurateurs will go to satisfy a VIP customer in the nation’s capital.

When former President George H.W. Bush walked into Bajaj’s D.C. premier restaurant, The Oval Room, in 1995 with a party of four, he was very sure of what he wanted. 

“A lamb chop, medium,” Bajaj recalled.

“And then everybody, all together, said, ‘We will all have the same,’” Bajaj added.

Four lamb chops posed no problem for the restaurant and its New American cuisine, but when Bush decided he wanted mint chutney on his lamb, the Oval Room staff found themselves at a loss. They didn’t stock mint chutney, an Indian-originated condiment.

Bajaj dispatched an employee to a corner drugstore. No mint chutney there. Then Bajaj decided to check across the street at another of his restaurants: the Bombay Club.

They didn’t carry mint chutney either, but Bajaj found the next best thing: mango chutney.

“‘Well, this is delicious with lamb chops. Where did this come from?’” Bajaj recalled the 41st president asking him when he tasted his meal. 

Bush liked his mango chutney so much that he began frequenting the Bombay Club, Bajaj said.

Tags Donald Trump George H.W. Bush lexington National Press Club politicians Restaurants restaurateurs Sarah Huckabee sarah huckabee sanders Virginia
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