This week, President Trump announced the formation of a council of CEOs and business leaders he said will provide the White House with advice for reopening the economy as the coronavirus pandemic stretches on and as Trump agitates to get the nation’s businesses humming again. Among the 200-plus invitees were two dozen from the food and beverage world, a list that included mostly chiefs of chain restaurants, including McDonald’s and Starbucks, and large manufacturers such as Coca-Cola — with the notable exception of four restaurateur/chefs: Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud.

The roster, announced by the White House on Tuesday night after a hasty, chaotic process that left a number of participants unaware that they were being named to it, immediately drew criticism. Among the grievances aired on social media about the group who will provide Trump with guidance for reopening the hard-hit restaurant industry? It’s too white, many commenters said, too male (there were no women on it) and includes no representation for the thousands of laid-off restaurant workers.

Keller, in particular, came under fire for a Wednesday night tweet in which he proclaimed himself “honored” that Trump had tapped him and his fellow chefs to serve on the body. “Proud to work together towards a strategy where the safety of Americans is top of mind in conjunction towards economic revitalization,” he wrote.

The message drew criticism, much of it from apparent critics of the president.

Membership on the panel appears to be based on previous interactions with the White House. Many of the representatives from the big chains participated in a call with Trump last month about the impact of the coronavirus on the restaurant industry. Keller, Boulud, Puck and Vongerichten also had a call with the president this month in which they reportedly pressed a number of issues, including urging insurance companies to reverse denials of restaurants’ claims for business-interruption insurance stemming from the pandemic.

It’s unclear how much influence the new advisory group will have. On Wednesday, the president participated in a handful of calls with its members, including one with those representing restaurants, retail, banking and real estate. Puck, who was on the call, said several members representing some of the biggest companies spoke, including Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post). “I listened, but they shut down before I could talk and before several others could talk,” he said. 

Puck said much of the call focused on the need for widespread testing to allow businesses to reopen and on the Paycheck Protection Program, the relief loans managed by the Small Business Administration, which announced today that it had run through its $350 million in funding. Even though he didn’t get the chance to weigh in on Wednesday, Puck said he thinks the White House is open to hearing the concerns of the restaurant industry, which he noted is the largest private employer in the country. He said that in the smaller group conversation with Trump this month, the president seemed to listen and understand their concerns.

“I hope the president will do the right thing,” he said. 

Puck said he and many other restaurateurs share Trump’s desire to get the economy moving again. “We know how antsy the president is,” he said. “And we want to open up. Safety is first — so we have to figure out a way to protect employees and customers and open up without these big fears.”

He isn’t sure when the group will convene again, but he’s hopeful that the White House will take steps he said are needed, including extending the PPP through October. Other priorities include leaning on the insurance companies to pay out restaurants’ claims for business interruption and providing stimulus even once restaurants are permitted to start serving again.

He also said the concerns that the advisory group only included high-profile owners of large restaurant groups — himself, Boulud, Keller and Vongerichten — are misplaced. He says they are trying to speak for the industry as a whole, including the mom-and-pops without the kind of name recognition they enjoy. “We’re not doing this for us — we are all in this together,” he said. “Chefs are a tight fraternity, and we have a solidarity, big or small.”

He brushed aside criticism the chefs garnered for working with the polarizing president. “This is not about politics, it’s about the survival of our industry,” he said. “[Trump] being controversial — that’s not the point.”

José Andrés, the humanitarian chef and sometimes Trump critic who was not named to the council (despite many on social media who had called for his appointment), said he’s glad the president is thinking about the future of America and how to jump-start the economy. At the same time, he said, there’s still a lot of unfinished work in the present.

He would like to see a council created for the Americans who are suffering right now. The humanitarian crisis has not been given the right support. I think we are taking for granted that people are doing well,” Andrés said. “We have food banks that are overwhelmed. We have more hungry people, more people without jobs. Not everybody has a mask. There are not enough masks. We have farmers that don’t know where to sell. We have that problem as we speak. I don’t think we’re doing enough, period. We need to do better on that front. That is where I’d put the emphasis right now.”

The full list of members in the food and beverage sector, per the White House:

Marvin Irby of the National Restaurant Association; Chris Kempczinski of McDonald’s; Gene Lee Jr. of Darden Restaurants; James Quincey of Coca-Cola; Ramon Laguarta of PepsiCo; Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-A;  John Chidsey of Subway; David Deno of Bloomin’ Brands; David Gibbs of YUM Brands; Rob Lynch of Papa Johns; Todd Penegor of Wendy’s; Walt Ehmer of Waffle House; Kevin Johnson of Starbucks; Ray Washburne of M Crowd Restaurant; Jimmy John’s founder Jimmy John Liautaud;  Michael Mullen of Kraft; Dirk Van Dongen of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors; Robert Cresanti of the International Franchise Association; and Paul Brown of Inspire Brands.

Tim Carman contributed to this report. 

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