‘Cuban to the Bone’
Raynold Mendizábal left his country on a raft 25 years ago and ended up spending a year at Guantanamo Bay. Now the Havana-born chef owns two Silver Spring restaurants and solves mathematical equations for fun.
Mendizábal’s conversation reveals a love of jazz (he plays the saxophone, and Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman are admired musicians) and literature (he’s partial to Marcel Proust and James Joyce). He met Veronique Lemerle, the woman who became his minority interest business partner at Urban Butcher, then El Sapo, through literature. While working at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., in 2012, he overheard a conversation Lemerle was having with the owner about Boris Vian, a French author who had written one of Mendizábal’s best-loved books, L’Ecume des Jours, a send-up of existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. The two struck up a friendship. Lemerle owns the building where Urban Butcher is located, and the two went into business together.
“We both have mathematic minds and love the way that higher mathematics has poetry to it,” Lemerle says. “But the birth of Urban Butcher was not as easy as it sounds. Intense effort on Raynold’s part, more than on mine, did make it happen.” The two are very opinionated, she says, which led to clashes about the color of the walls and whether to open for brunch, “but that happens in any good friendship.”
Mendizábal refers to himself as a “pink macho,” explaining, “In the sexual spectrum I’m the opposite of gay—I just love women—but with a gay sensitivity. I was super macho, but also wondering about architecture and beautiful things.” That, he says, made him a sort of outcast in Cuba. “So my answer to that was to become very, very good at judo at an early age.” His role models came from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, which he read as a child. “I was in awe. I felt close to those people. They could smell flowers and write poetry and then slice you in half without thinking about it twice. The only problem with those Japanese guys is that they don’t dance, and I’m a Latin guy, so I’ve been like a Latin samurai—you slice somebody in half, you write the poetry and then there’s women,” he says, laughing. “But then you do your math.”
Mendizábal met his ex-wife, Caroline Kilner, in 1996 while working in a restaurant in Pittsburgh. Their son, Liam, who lives in Philadelphia and graduated from Temple University in May, was born in 1997. The couple’s 12-year marriage ended in 2009. The chef assiduously avoids discussing his private life, but talks freely about Liam, whom he sometimes refers to lovingly as “Stinko.”
“Oh man, Liam and I are tight, very close. He’s my diving partner. I’m an introvert, but Liam is the handsomest extrovert, the happiest little s*** I’ve ever known,” he says, grinning.
In a phone interview, Liam recounts a fishing trip with his father to North Carolina when he was 15. “My favorite moment was when we both worked together to pull up this especially large dolphin fish. And I remember looking at him as we pulled it up on board and put it in the ice and thinking, this man has been such a strong foundation to my life, and I’m so happy that I’m able to share this beautiful experience with him.”
Mendizábal’s face and mood darken when I press him about romantic interests, past or present. “Women? Oh, no. You’ll get me into trouble. When you talk about the women in your life, the incumbent woman always gets upset.” During our first interview, he was “absolutely in love” with the incumbent woman he had been living with for 3½ years. Two weeks later, they had separated.
“I’m married to my job and to my dream of freedom,” he says. “A lot of women don’t like that.”
Freedom is a frequent theme in Mendizábal’s musings, and everything he does is designed to move closer to attaining it. He tells the story of his great-great-grandfather, a slave who worked as a gamekeeper and sharpshooter on a plantation in western Cuba and saved up tip money to “buy his wife’s belly,” meaning her children were born free.
“I need money to buy my freedom, like my great-great grandparent bought the belly of his wife. That stays with me in my head all the time,” he says. “The other aspect to freedom is that you get to the point that you don’t have to prove anything to the world—only have personal challenges. I am getting there. I don’t have investors, and that gives me a lot of freedom, too. Veronique and I have been very disciplined, and the company is about to be 100% self-sufficient to build other projects without injecting more.” He employs 80 people now, and if a project he’s working on in D.C. gets off the ground—he won’t divulge anything about it—that number will grow to 150, he says.
One day in 1990, Mendizábal was spearfishing off the northern coast of Cuba and decided on a whim to swim with his inner tube to America. A day and a half later, after having been lulled to sleep in the calm water, the avid sportsman woke up and saw what he thought was the Miami skyline. It was still Cuba. The 19-year-old had drifted a few hundred miles along the shoreline. He had lost his fins, so he was forced to hitchhike, almost naked, back to Havana, taking care to avoid police scrutiny.
His second attempt to leave Cuba was on a raft with a group of friends in 1993. Barely eight hours into the trip, and still within the 12-mile territorial limit, the raft was spotted by the Cuban Coast Guard. “We were chased and caught, and they beat the s*** out of us,” Mendizábal says. He won’t say what happened after that.
The seed to leave had been planted when Mendizábal was 9. He was born on Jan. 21, 1971, the 47th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s death. His father, Umberto Mendizábal, and his mother, Carelia Betancourt Gonzalez, who was a gastroenterologist, divorced when Mendizábal was a year old. Mendizábal has a younger sister, Karelia, who now lives in Spain. When he was growing up, the family—including Mendizábal’s maternal grandparents and his maternal aunt and her husband—lived in a series of small two- or three-bedroom houses in Havana.