‘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 mother, who immigrated to Washington, D.C., from Cuba in 2009, recalls through a translator what kind of child her son was. “Very sweet, very intelligent, very naughty, very restless, studious, a great reader,” she says, a smile widening on her face. “In other words, the perfect child.” When he was very young, she read books to him, and then one night he stopped her midway through a bedtime favorite and recited the rest of it to her. Even though he couldn’t yet read, he had memorized it.
When he was 11, Mendizábal was chosen to attend the Instituto Preuniversitario Vocacional de Ciencias Exactas Vladimir Ilich Lenin (Vladimir Ilich Lenin Vocational Pre-University Institute of Exact Sciences), a boarding school for gifted students being groomed as Cuba’s future. “[The school] had tremendous resources, but they took resources from everyone else to give it,” Mendizábal says. “We were being told daily that we were better than the rest of them. [It was] an island within an island, surrounded by a country living in poverty.”
Almost every day in the early part of his six years at the school, the principal called Mendizábal’s mother to come get her son, who found the rigid rules irrational and regularly voiced his objections. “Then they just realized that was the kind of child he was,” his mother recalls. “They couldn’t really punish him because he got good grades, and they didn’t want to expel him.” By 15, he was reading Proust, even though it wasn’t allowed; the school favored a heavy Russian education, including Dostoevsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Chekov and Tolstoy. “The Russians are very intense,” Mendizábal says, “but there is something to be said for a Russian education. I love American culture, but I love the Russian discipline. They are solid in science, and I was exposed early to Russian physics and mathematics.”
Mendizábal remembers the day he knew he had to leave his country. It was during the Mariel boatlift, the period between April 20 and October 31, 1980, when Fidel Castro allowed Cubans to immigrate to the United States. “One day, [our teachers] took us to the house of one of my classmates. Her family said they were going to leave, so they kicked her out of school. We went there to scream obscenities and throw eggs and write graffiti. I saw her face in the window; she was so frightened. And something clicked in me,” he says. “I left Cuba because I found communism ugly. Not about politics—a 9-year-old isn’t political. The architecture is ugly, the speeches are ugly, the dresses are ugly. The music becomes ugly. It’s the opposite of the imagination.”
After graduating from the Lenin Institute in 1988, Mendizábal continued his math and physics studies at the University of Havana, but he became increasingly vocal about his dissatisfaction with the government. Something had to give.
On Aug. 30, 1994, Mendizábal, then 23, and four friends assembled a raft from plywood, inner tubes from tractor tires, and a tarp and set out on their 90-mile journey. At any given time, two rowed, one kept an eye on a compass and two slept. The waves were 12 feet high; the sun was cruel. Water, because of its weight, was in short supply and rationed at a cup a day per person. Food was chocolate and hard-boiled eggs. Eating too much meant defecating, and defecating meant sharks. Mendizábal didn’t fear sharks—he’d been diving forever—but still. “Let me make very clear that I’m not a religious person. Not at all. But in Cuba we have this religion—Santeria. There is the goddess of the sea, Yemaya. I always felt this presence around me in the sea and I’ve never been afraid of the water.”
His mother knew he was leaving. “My heart stopped, but what was I going to do?” she asks. “If he stayed in Cuba, he was going to have problems. He didn’t agree with the regime. I knew at some point this was going to happen, but we have a saying in Cuba: It’s one thing to call the devil, another to have him show up.”
Cuban refugees were automatically granted asylum if they reached the United States, but on Aug. 19, 1994, President Bill Clinton had ordered that refugees would no longer be accepted. Mendizábal and his raftmates were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard after five days in the water and taken to a refugee camp set up at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Mendizábal remained there for a little over a year. “It was rough. [We were] living in tents surrounded by barbed wire with Marines guarding us, but many of them were sympathetic,” he says.
There were a lot of shady characters at Guantanamo Bay—intellectuals don’t jump into the water, Mendizábal notes—but to him it was like an adventure because he had lived a secluded life among academics, away from everyday Cubans. Even so, he had learned how to hustle to make life a little easier. A version of a business he’d created in Havana—making wine out of potatoes and sugar from the black market—came in handy in the camp. He traded valuable cigarettes that had been issued to him for jelly packets, and then made wine out of them by digging a hole under his cot, lining it with garbage bags and filling it with the jelly, water and chewed up bread to activate fermentation. A month later, he had wine, which he bartered for shoes, food and protection from gang bosses.
“We made a life there from things Americans threw away,” he says. “There was a dumpster, and people fixed TVs from it and made radios. We used refrigerator gaskets and metal from cots and car-seat coils to make spearguns. We’d climb down the cliff to the water and go fishing.”
He taught himself English in three months, learning nouns and verbs, and using them to speak and write sentences in all 12 tenses. “So my vocabulary is good, but my accent is broken,” he says.
Mendizábal’s mother didn’t find out her son’s whereabouts until months later. She would go to a church every day to check the posted list of refugees at Guantanamo. One day, someone told her to check at the church of Yemaya, Mendizábal says. “That’s where my name was. Yemaya is associated with number seven. My tag at Guantanamo was 777-777. Yemaya was there when I needed her, whether I believe in her or not.”
In May 1995, the Clinton administration decided that Guantanamo refugees could be admitted to the United States. That September, through Catholic Charities, Mendizábal was sent from Guantanamo to Pittsburgh, where he was hooked up with a dishwashing job at Casbah, a Middle Eastern restaurant in the city’s Shadyside neighborhood, for $4 an hour. “If they had gotten me a job with a bank, I’d own a bank today. But I landed in restaurants, so I stayed in restaurants,” he says.
Mendizábal started learning how to do prep, then graduated to cooking on the line. He took various jobs around town, improving his skills along the way. He tried to get work at sophisticated restaurants but kept winding up at “cheap-ass” places. To become a serious cook, he reasoned, he had to be in a bigger city, so he, Caroline and Liam moved to Washington, D.C., in 2000. (Caroline attended graduate school at the University of Maryland.)
After a brief stint cooking at the Tabard Inn in the District, he lied about his experience to get a sous-chef job at Pesce, a fish and seafood restaurant opened by famed chefs Jean-Louis Palladin and Roberto Donna in 1993 but then owned by Jean-Louis’ ex-wife, Régine Palladin.
Says Palladin, “I am a woman of instincts. I could see that he was another kind of smart. He worked very hard and he was very organized, or at least he pretended to be. But because he was smart, he could make up for his shortcomings. I’ve never seen a chef like that prior. I was a little bit smitten, probably.”
Mendizábal claims he was doing the chef’s job, so he demanded, in front of the chef, that Palladin put him in the position instead. She laughs at the thought. “Could be. When he came, my [ex-] husband was dying of cancer. It was a tumultuous time. What I loved about Raynold was that he did not abuse that. He was there for me. I needed a lot of time off and I could trust him. He let me take that time. I was indebted to him for that.”
After three years at Pesce, Mendizábal worked for three years with Latin Concepts, a restaurant management group helmed by Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld. During that time, in 2004, he became a U.S. citizen. “The naturalization certificate is my best diploma,” he says.
From 2006 to 2013, Mendizábal was the chef at Lima on K Street in downtown D.C., a combination Latin restaurant and nightclub that closed in January 2015. (The restaurant rebranded as a Latin-Asian fusion concept called Fujimar in 2012.) Lima’s owner, nightlife impresario Masoud Aboughaddareh, got along well with Mendizábal but recalls rocky times. “You can interpret it however you’d like, but he had a very, very, very strong character,” Aboughaddareh says. “Some employees really had a difficult time working with him, but he also played the father role with a lot of kitchen staff. He took care of them. He took them hunting, he made sure that they’re OK if they had problems. But also, just like with a strict father, sometimes he yelled at them.”