Chef Raynold Mendizábal: “Cuban to the Bone”

Chef Raynold Mendizábal: “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.

BY DAVID HAGEDORN | BETHESDA MAGAZINE Published: 2019-07-29 09:30

It’s a Saturday evening at El Sapo Cuban Social Club in downtown Silver Spring, and Havana-born chef and owner Raynold Mendizábal is working the door. He’s wearing an immaculate white short-sleeve chef’s coat, a cotton towel tied bandana-style around his neck, and mod glasses with lime-green half frames. The restaurant’s glass garage doors are open, and lush notes from musician Manuel Pelayo’s saxophone commingle with the dusk’s pleasant spring breeze. The place vibrates with positive energy, from the cooks in the open kitchen to the waitstaff, bartenders and bussers.

At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, Mendizábal, 48, is an imposing figure. He loves manning the host stand and does it with the confidence of proprietorship. Thanks to favorable word-of-mouth and rave reviews—El Sapo recently earned the fifth spot on Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s list of the 10 best new restaurants—the 100-seat establishment is fully booked. Mendizábal relishes the challenge of accommodating walk-ins throughout the night, calculating when guests will leave and rearranging parties on the floor plan he keeps on his iPad. That he does this with rigorous precision is not surprising, considering that he was an academic who specialized in mathematics and earned a bachelor’s degree in physics before he left Cuba on a homemade raft in 1994.

Raynold Mendizábal and general manager Judita D’Oliveira at El Sapo Cuban Social Club, where D’Oliveira’s artwork is displayed on the wall. Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny.

In between seating guests and bussing, wiping and resetting tables, he and general manager Judita D’Oliveira, whom he has known for 19 years, occasionally pick up Pelayo’s beat, shaking maracas, clacking wooden claves and dancing. “My culture is loud. We make a lot of music. We are vibrant and noisy. We have been through rough times in my country,” Mendizábal says. “I want El Sapo to be this flamboyant laugh with a lot of Cuban flavor.”

He’s gregarious, charming and welcoming, hugging return guests and regulars from Urban Butcher, the meat-centric downtown Silver Spring restaurant he opened in 2013. But he gives as good as he gets. Guests who simply put two fingers in his face and declare, “Table for two!” are met with a discomfiting, sarcastic “Good evening! How are you tonight?” and a tally mark notation on his clipboard, where he tracks—for no particular reason—the number of people who are rude. (By 7:30, there are six marks.) Parents who don’t control unruly children receive a withering glance. His philosophy? “People have gotten sitters to come here and have a nice time. This isn’t Chuck E. Cheese.”

Guests arrive generally predisposed to enjoying themselves, and most are ebullient when they leave, especially those with whom Mendizábal and D’Oliveira have shared on-the-house rum shots laced with ginger. On the way out of El Sapo (which means “the toad” in Spanish), many comply with the cheeky sign on the conga drum at the door: “Bang me for good luck.” People who earned tally marks earlier leave thanking Mendizábal and lavishing praise on his Cuban fare.

While other chefs might go out drinking or wolf down a sandwich while hitting the DVR to unwind after a 12- to 16-hour workday, Mendizábal partakes in math. He doesn’t have a television and isn’t on social media. He has never smoked or done drugs, and although he’s a casual drinker who loves wine, he says the last time he was drunk was when he was 16. In his two-bedroom apartment a block from Urban Butcher, he’s turned an entire living room wall into a dry-erase board. Mathematical equations in a variety of colors are scrawled all over it. Sheets of 81/2-by-11-inch paper filled with tangential calculations are taped here and there like Post-it notes.

During an interview in his apartment one afternoon in April, I ask Mendizábal what the equations represent. “I’m working on spin bundles on the symplectic,” he says. My eyes glaze over as he starts explaining—“…distance…elementary particles…symmetry…”—and then he catches himself. “It is too technical; let’s leave it at that. You can’t talk to people about math. It’s a language.”

On the floor in front of the wall are three oxygen tanks; Mendizábal is an advanced scuba diver and adrenaline craver. “My last trip was to North Carolina,” he says. “There are a lot of sunken ships there. I like diving in the wrecks or the caves in Mexico. I love danger. I wouldn’t dive on a reef in the Bahamas—there’s no challenge in that. If there’s not the possibility of death somehow, the dive is not interesting at all. When you are in 500 feet and deep in the belly of a ship, you’re on your own down there. There’s no light, it’s just you and your partner, your instrument and your wit.”

Mendizábal serves lunch in his open-concept kitchen, proffering a plate of grape tomatoes, warm country bread and Spanish olive oil to go with slices cut from a whole country ham, scarfing down a slice for every one he offers. “This is how I eat at home all the time. I’m happy with just this. Isn’t this ham amazing?” he asks. It is. He pours two glasses of Blanc Fumé de Pouilly. “Let’s bring [the late winemaker] Didier Dagueneau into the conversation because I think you will like his company. This gentleman was a true revolutionary. He makes wine in Pouilly-Fumé [France], but he does it different from the classification so he can’t call it Pouilly-Fumé.” Mendizábal likes people who do things their own way.

The ham will soon be on a new menu at Urban Butcher, which recently underwent a renovation. “We aged these hams for three years, smoking them for a week every winter. They’re made from Ossabaw Island pigs [that] descend from ancient Iberico [Spanish] pigs. They are castaway survivors of Spanish shipwrecks left undisturbed on this island off Georgia for hundreds of years. The scarcities and vicissitudes of the island made them evolve in their own ecosystem and they created this creamy, marbly fat,” he says. (According to The Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit organization devoted to the preservation of rare breeds, the pigs now known as Ossabaws were brought to what is now Georgia in the 1500s by Spanish explorers, but more likely descend from Canary Island pigs.)

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 turned an entire living room wall of his apartment into a dry-erase board, and uses it to work on mathmatical equations. Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny.

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’s son, Liam, who is now 22. Courtesy photo.

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.

Mendizábal’s ID card from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he spent a little over a year. Courtesy photo.

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.

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.”

From 2006 to 2013, Mendizábal worked as a chef at Lima in downtown D.C. Courtesy photo.

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.”

In response, Mendizábal says, “One thing I never do is yell. I was trying to run a restaurant against a nightclub, and I had to stand my ground.” He adds that he has also undergone a lot of growth in the last 10 years.

In February 2010, while he was the chef at Lima, Mendizábal opened a fast-casual burger joint called Rogue States on Connecticut Avenue just south of Dupont Circle. Steptoe & Johnson, a law firm next door, raised a stink over the odor the burger shop was allegedly creating in their offices and sued Mendizábal and the building’s landlord. Mendizábal characterizes the suit as a David and Goliath story, with David losing. “The law firm assembled an army against me,” he says. “The only expert they had was this guy from West Virginia who sniffed around and said, ‘Oh yeah, I smell something.’ Our expert couldn’t detect any particles. He did it for free because he was so upset at what they were doing to me.”

The judge ruled against Mendizábal, ordering grilling operations to cease until the situation was rectified. The restaurant reopened in June 2011 as Black & Orange (the original name was too similar to another business) after Mendizábal installed a costly new ventilation system. He opened a second location of Black & Orange on 14th Street in Logan Circle in February 2012. Soon after, he sold both restaurants.

In December 2013, Mendizábal opened Urban Butcher, which features house-aged beef and craft charcuterie. The focal point of the space is a glass-enclosed aging room where hams and sundry salamis dangle. “I got very good at fish at Pesce and I wanted to complete my education as a chef,” Mendizábal says of Urban Butcher. “Meat was a challenge, a personal curiosity. So the adventure of curing, butchering, roasting and brining, refining skills I had learned in my career, started.”

Mendizábal’s two- bedroom apartment in Silver Spring is a block from Urban Butcher. Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny.

Although he now owns two critically acclaimed restaurants, Mendizábal has no airs about his profession. “Cooking is not a high art. We’re not painters, we’re not sculptors, we’re not writers. We don’t make movies. Food is an easy art. We make it complicated to feel better about ourselves. The cooking part, I can do it with one hand. I don’t need to use almost any of my brain to do this job. The whole chef thing is air and smoke.”

He alludes to institutional discrimination in the restaurant business. “If you’re not French or American, you cannot make French food. We are encapsulated. That’s why I did Urban Butcher [before El Sapo]. If I could make it doing something where I’m not encapsulated, then I don’t have to prove anything anymore.”

Mendizábal maintains that respect and love from his staff contribute to his freedom. Rene Navarro, who started as a dishwasher and is now the chef de cuisine for El Sapo and Urban Butcher, Blanca Sanchez, the pastry chef for both restaurants, and dishwasher Marcelino Gonzalez have all been with Mendizábal for 15 years. Edwin Fuentes, the general manager of Urban Butcher, has worked with Mendizábal for 16 years. “He has people working for him as long as I have, and that doesn’t happen by accident,” Fuentes says. “On a daily basis, I see how kind he is to the employees who work for him. If I say, ‘This person lost her mother a few days ago, let’s [get] this nice arrangement for her,’ he will very discreetly say, ‘Let’s do something extra nice for that person, and let me contribute financially.’ ”

At 9:30 on the evening I trail Mendizábal at El Sapo, he and D’Oliveira, wielding giant sparklers and a bottle of bubbly, pull a cook into the middle of the dining room and sing “Happy Birthday” to him. The whole restaurant joins in, and Mendizábal beams with pride. “People used to come thinking it was loud, now they come tapping their feet. They sing ‘Happy Birthday’ loud for the people next to them, and when they all sing it in unison, it means the world to me,” he says. “El Sapo has been more than 20 years in the making. I love my culture, and it was about damn time. I don’t want it quiet because my culture is not quiet. I’m Cuban to the bone.”