Donald Trump Jr. says he didn’t find out that Geoffrey Zakarian would no longer open his restaurant at the Trump International Hotel from the celebrity chef himself. He read it in the New York Times.
“We had had prior to that, a pretty good personal relationship,” Trump Jr. says in a deposition for the lawsuit with Zakarian that followed. “Had dinner a bunch times and became quite friendly. So I was a little surprised.”
The two had talked the previous day, on July 8, after fellow restaurateur José Andrés announced he was backing out of his lease in the hotel because of Donald Trump‘s controversial comments about Hispanic immigrants.
As Trump Jr. recalls, Zakarian called him on his cellphone and told him his investors were concerned. “I guess he was concerned because he’s on TV as well,” he says.
As Zakarian tells it, “I said, ‘Donnie, it’s a very difficult phone call for me to make… You got to tell me that he’s going to publicly apologize and put this behind us.’ And he said, ‘He’ll never do that.'”
Trump Jr. followed up by forwarding Zakarian a statement from his father on Mexico, to which Zakarian replied, “Thanks. This is in no way an outright apology. I respect you enormously. Thanks for your kindness and respect.”
Trump Jr. suggested they discuss further in person. They still had a design meeting scheduled for the next day. “And it basically went radio silent, you know, from there,” Trump Jr. says.
But it turns out there were tensions between the Trumps and Zakarian long before the restaurateur backed out of his lease. Deposition transcripts detail clashes over design, the Trumps’ skepticism over Zakarian’s motives for parting ways with the hotel, and more.
Even before Zakarian signed a lease, the Trumps had some hesitations about him. The restaurateur had filed for bankruptcy in 2011 after being sued by kitchen staff at Country, one of his former restaurants in New York, over pay issues.
“I recall telling my brother to make sure that he got a good guarantee, because I had heard from a partner of mine that Zakarian had treated him very badly in a deal that he had done with him,” Ivanka Trump says in her deposition. That partner, Moshe Lax, who Ivanka knew from the jewelry business, was one of Zakarian’s partners in Country and had been embroiled in another legal battle with the chef.
Preparations for the buildout of Zakarian’s restaurant, The National, also had some bumps. In the weeks leading up to his split with the hotel, Zakarian and the Trumps butted heads over the design finishes in the dining room. The Trumps thought the fabrics and other materials weren’t luxe enough. Zakarian wanted a more casual look.
“Ivanka came in and said, ‘I don’t like this, I don’t like that, I don’t like this, I don’t like that,'” Zakarian says. “And we said, basically, that’s too bad, that’s what it is… I put up a stink like, this is ridiculous, she’s second-guessing everything.”
Zakarian also took a jab at the fashion entrepreneur’s design sensibilities in his deposition: “I’ve forgotten more than she knows about fabrics. She’s not even skilled at this, saying this stuff.”
While neither side was shy about discussing design issues, the Trumps claim they weren’t aware that Zakarian had a problem with their father’s immigration rhetoric until after Andrés announced his split. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the Andrés news, there was talk about approaching Zakarian to operate another restaurant in his place.
“We had had numerous conversations and never anything about the politics until José pulled out,” Trump Jr. says. “And so I believed that Geoffrey was, you know, following the bandwagon to avoid scrutiny, now that José had done it.”
Ivanka Trump was likewise skeptical of Zakarian’s motives: “I don’t think that Geoffrey has strong political or emotional convictions… I think he sort of went with the wind of what José was doing. From what I had been told, Geoffrey was highly opportunistic in a negative way. So that’s the filter through which I know Geoffrey. I don’t know him otherwise.”
Zakarian, however, says he was “aghast” by Trump’s “morally reprehensible” comments, even if he didn’t voice it immediately to the Trump children. “I was hoping that he would come to his senses and show us that he’s not out of his mind after all and apologize. So I was just going along hoping that this thing was a bad dream,” he says.
Ultimately, Zakarian felt that the presidential candidate “poisoned” the project. Given the number of Hispanics who work for him, he worried about his ability to hire employees. He worried that many diners would boycott the restaurant. And lastly, he says he worried about his reputation.
But even after everything that has happened, Zakarian says in his deposition that the Trump kids are “really nice people—they’re nothing like [their father].” He calls Trump Jr. a “sweet guy” and Ivanka Trump a “lovely member of the Trump family.”
“If they should be suing someone, they should sue Donald senior, because he fucking did this. He did this,” Zakarian says. “He rendered this Chernobyl. He did it. So they should sue their dad.”