By Emily Walz
Restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone follows a traditional formula for defining appropriate dinner conversation: no discussion of religion or politics at the table—or in his restaurant. Or, as much as he can help it, in discussions of his restaurant.
“We really truly never speak about politics. When you own a restaurant, never walk around the restaurant and talk about politics,” he says. It’s an odd stance for someone who in 2012 launched his own short-lived bid for Congress.
But for someone who wants to keep business and politics separate, he couldn’t have picked a worse building for his first D.C. restaurant.
When Borgognone and the team behind the 4-star omakase-style Sushi Nakazawa began their quest to spread the concept from its New York City base, they scouted other cities–Miami, L.A., Chicago, San Francisco–before choosing D.C. They fell in love with D.C., they say, but more than anything, they fell in love with the Old Post Office Pavilion, a historic spot that re-opened last year as the new Trump International Hotel.
But perched on Pennsylvania Avenue, that very building has come to embody the entanglement of money and politics, playing host to any number of foreign interests and domestic hangers-on, precisely because of its political significance. The forthcoming restaurant seems to have come late to the realization that this may make for a degree of unpopularity in D.C., where citizens voted overwhelmingly against the company’s namesake, Donald Trump, and protesters make the building a regular target.
It’s not the first time that restaurateurs have run into obstacles at the Trump International Hotel. José Andrés and Geoffrey Zakarian both pulled out of their deals to site restaurants there over then-candidate Trump’s comments about Mexican rapists.
Comparing himself to this precedent, Borgognone said he “feels bad” for the other chefs. Unlike them, he’s said previously, “My decisions are not clouded by political views or what I feel in my heart, right or wrong. Anytime that we decide something on business, it’s what’s best for the business.”
Borgognone views people who refuse to join him in treating politics as a hermetically sealed realm as being rude in not leaving their opinions at the door.
“Everybody is entitled to their opinion,” he says. “It’s a problem when you say, ‘you know, I don’t like what you’re thinking and you’re wrong for basically supporting someone.’”
On the issue that so upset his fellow chefs, Borgognone anticipates a question on Trump’s immigration views and their impact on the restaurant industry before it’s even been fully asked.
“He’s an immigrant,” Borgognone says of Chef Nakazawa. “I’m a son of an immigrant. We’re here legally,” he says.
Borgognone denies that any new Trump Administration anti-immigrant measures would impact any of his workforce, either. “See, an immigrant can work anywhere if you have the correct paperwork.”
As to whether he’s concerned about any more general hostility toward immigrants, legal or not, in the current political environment, he says, “No. It’s not a restaurant thing, it’s not us.”
This while José Andrés, also an immigrant and a successful D.C. restauranteur, is becoming a darling of the left-of-center D.C. crowd for deciding that it is a restaurant thing and publicly sticking his neck out for other immigrants, and gaining attention nationally for mobilizing his restaurants’ supply chains in a new model of disaster relief and his month in Puerto Rico feeding hurricane victims.
Asked if he’s worried he’ll still be seen as tied to this administration’s views, Borgognone is nearly indignant. “These two immigrants? How? You please tell us. Do we come off as bigots, do we come off as racists?”
Borgognone posits an alternate reality to discredit the critiques, falling to increasingly bizarre arguments. “If [Trump] didn’t run for president, when this hotel was opened, would it have been busy?,” he asks. “Isn’t he still a bigot? What changes? Just that he ran for president?”
Even without the presidency, “he’s still in power, he’s a billionaire,” Borgognone says. “Those are the real players.”
Borgognone’s fatalism about the moneyed class might be apt, considering dinners at Sushi Nakazawa will start at $120 a head.
Of the possibility that customers might stay away for reasons beyond typical partisan politics that are rooted in a distaste for being part of exactly this kind of money-buys-influence mix of business and politics, the team is equally unconcerned.
“Maybe they’re jealous,” suggests Jessica Rosen, a publicist for the restaurant. “I don’t really think that, but just to play devil’s advocate. Maybe they’d like to have a hotel with their name on it, you know.”
You get the sense they’re all being pushed into trying to support positions that are difficult to defend.
The team’s ultimate hope is that once their restaurant opens, they will be judged on the quality of the Sushi Nakazawa dining experience alone, something in which they have full confidence. They’ve set out to mimic the New York flagship as closely as possible, from the décor to the cuts of fish on the menu.
Chef Daisuke Nakazawa, the name behind the restaurant, is a master of his craft with a winning manner that could put anyone at ease. He seems poised to delight the row of customers, who for $150 per person, can claim a spot at his sushi counter.
“A customer is a customer. If you want to come to my sushi [restaurant], I [will] just make sushi for you. I don’t care who you are, you are my customer. That’s it,” says Nakazawa.
While he won’t be in D.C. permanently, the new restaurant’s executive chef Masaaki Uchino has trained with Nakazawa for years.
Borgognone himself took heat for an interview last year in which he suggested that D.C.’s food scene is underdeveloped and that his restaurant didn’t face any competition. He’s walked back those comments, suggesting that he was talking about a D.C. of a bygone era. Last year, he told the Washington Post he meant D.C. 15 years ago. Now, he puts further distance between himself and his early comments: “We’re talking about D.C. thirty years ago.”
He’s careful to say nicer things now.
“People enjoy going out to dinner here. We have such an eclectic crowd,” he says of the city. “You have the people who are speaking thirty different languages, you have the natives, and then you have the politicians, the lawyers, and so on.” All these people enjoy going out to dinner, they enjoy food. So hopefully, you know, we fit into that.”
But despite the will of the Sushi Nakazawa team and their sense of fairness, offering a superior dining experience alone might not be enough to guarantee success for them in D.C.
While still disavowing any connection, Borgognone concedes that the Trump administration’s actions might change things for them.
“It could. Absolutely,” he says. “Will it affect our business? We have yet to see that,” he says.
It’s an inkling of a realization that the political elements he dismissed as outside the realm of business might, ironically, turn out to be bad for business.
The building casts a long shadow. From inside it, they risk being obscured.