Steak Tips Susanne, the $21 entree at the Hilton Garden Inn in Manchester, N.H., arrived as a carefully composed plate: strips of sirloin, sautéed peppers and caramelized onions atop a bed of linguine with a side of garlic bread.
Then the dish underwent the Jeb Bush treatment. The garlic bread was instantly banished to the plate of a nearby aide. The pasta was conspicuously pushed aside.
A sympathetic guest at the table, convinced that Bush, 62, could not possibly be sated, offered him a piece of her salmon.
Was it true, the guest asked him, that a stomach shrinks during a diet, easing the pangs of hunger? Not at all, Bush replied.
“I am always hungry,” he said.
Bush is thinking of running for president. And he is starving.
As he prepares to challenge an almost universally younger and svelter field of Republican rivals, Bush has adopted a drastic weight-loss program that is melting away pounds at a staggering rate even as it inflicts an unhappy toll: regular bouts of dietary crankiness.
The monthslong experiment in deprivation - little to no starch, dairy or refined sugar, in adherence to the in-vogue Paleo diet - may seem extreme. But unlike a mountain-biking brother, and his still-trim nonagenarian father, Bush has long struggled to keep the pounds away, trying everything from climbing 22 flights of stairs a day to joining the low-carb Atkins craze of the early 2000s.
The rigid abstemiousness runs the risk of putting him at a dietary distance from an American electorate that still binges on carbohydrates and, after eight years of a tea-sipping president, craves a relatable eater-in-chief.
Breaking bread with Iowans? Try having almonds, Bush’s preferred high-protein snack food.
Bonding over hamburgers in New Hampshire? How about salad with grilled chicken, his monotonous go-to lunch.
During a meeting with veterans in Colorado Springs a few days ago, a thick stack of pancakes was placed in front of Bush at an IHOP, along with a second platter of eggs, bacon and hash browns. The veterans dug in. Bush left his breakfast untouched, to the disappointment of the restaurant’s staff.
So far, Bush has shown remarkable fidelity to the diet, inspired by the simple ingredients available to our Paleolithic ancestors, losing around 30 pounds since December, according to envious friends and close observers.
In South Florida, Bush’s culinary home base, his leaner 6-foot-4 frame is the source of constant conversation and speculation.
Nino Pernetti, the owner of Caffe Abbracci, a popular power-lunch spot in Coral Gables, Fla., where Murano glass sculptures stud the walls and Miami politicians fill the seats, noticed the changes immediately (an untouched bread basket; a less jowly face).
But, bound by what he said was the unspoken diplomacy of an Italian restaurateur, he dutifully delivers Bush’s sautéed branzino with clams and mussels (hold the risotto) without commentary.
“You don’t want to say, ‘A year ago you were chubby,’” he said.
“You say nothing,” he added. “Of course I see it. I notice it.”
Old friends have dispensed with the etiquette. “It’s really working,” said Al Cardenas, a longtime Bush confidant and adviser.
So well, in fact, that Bush has started buying a new wardrobe to replace oversize shirts and having wide pants that no longer fit his diminished figure taken in. Besides following the Paleo diet, Bush is subjecting himself to almost daily sessions on a treadmill or laps in a pool, aided by a successful knee operation recently.
This is not, of course, Bush’s inaugural stab at slimming down.
“I went through several different diet phases” with Bush and his wife, said Josh Butler, the executive chef at the governor’s mansion during Bush’s tenure (among them: a vegetable phase).
One spring, he tried giving up breakfast and lunch for Lent, telling a constituent that the lengthy sacrifice left him famished.
Those who know Bush say he is refreshingly candid and, for a man in public life, self-deprecating about his difficult relationship with weight.
“He’s been very open about his own struggles,” said Art Smith, a Chicago chef and author who has cooked for Bush family events in the past.
Not even schoolchildren were spared Bush’s frankness. As governor, he received a stream-of-consciousness email from Matthew Ross, a middle school student who wondered whether Bush liked pizza. “Mom and me had pizza for dinner. We like Little Caesars,” Matthew explained.
“I love pizza,” Bush wrote back, “but I am too old and fat to eat it often.”
In Tallahassee, he confronted the endless sugary temptations of a state government office: doughnuts, sheet cakes and holiday candies. Bush insisted on jogging up and down the stairs in the Capitol, daring lawmakers and aides to join him.
The invitation was not always welcome. As they chatted in a Capitol hallway, Bush once asked Dominic M. Calabro, the ample-bodied president of Florida TaxWatch, to tackle the steps with him. Calabro demurred.
“Jeb,” he said, “you don’t have enough liability insurance.”
At the governor’s mansion, Bush and his wife, Columba, requested a menu of lighter fare, recalled Butler, now a chef at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground, a restaurant and social club in Senoia, Georgia.
Butler recalled the Bush family’s typical daily intake: oatmeal and fruit for breakfast; roasted fish atop a salad with oranges and fennel for lunch; Mexican meatballs in a tomato sauce for dinner; fruit sorbet for dessert.
Butler spoke admiringly of Bush’s recent weight loss, but he admitted to feeling sensitive about Bush’s comparative heft when the governor was under his culinary watch. “People say the chef fattened him up,” Butler said. “I tried to make their meals as nutritious as possible.”
The new diet has seemingly blacklisted two of Bush’s favorite Mexican dishes: enchiladas and chilaquiles, a shredded tortilla dish that his wife loves. But Bush is the first to acknowledge that he occasionally cheats. He confesses to a weakness for wine, a calorie-laden no-no for Paleo-ites.
During his campaign swing through New Hampshire last week, Bush held up a plump slice of blueberry pie on a paper plate for every last camera to see. Then he slid a plastic fork into it.
“Hell with the diet,” he declared mischievously. “Where are the french fries?”
Bush, however, did not finish the slice.