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“It was an honor to serve Obama”

EL PAÍS reconstructs the US president’s first dinner in a Havana restaurant

The Obamas with waiter Reinier Mely in Havana.
The Obamas with waiter Reinier Mely in Havana.

Wearing black bowtie, white shirt, apron, black pants and shiny shoes, 33-year-old waiter Reinier Mely Maldonado entered a private room in the San Cristóbal restaurant in Havana at around 7pm on Sunday night and spoke to the president of the United States. “Hello, welcome to San Cristobal paladar. My name is Rei and I’m gonna be your waiter. And, it’s a great honor for us.”

Barack Obama looked at him, gave him a dazzling smile as only Barack Obama can, and replied: “It’s an honor for us, too.”

“Then I introduced him to Jorge, the other waiter who’d come in with a basket of warm bread,” Mely says, his knees still shaking an hour after Obama left the restaurant.

Jorge Alberto Cotilla Espinosa, a 26-year-old Santa Fe native, says he remained around a meter away from the president but did not offer to shake his hand in accordance with the protocol the Secret Service had explained to him. “A pleasure, George,” Obama said.

The president’s first dinner in Havana was a sirloin steak with grilled vegetables, while First Lady Michelle Obama chose “steak in red wine sauce,” Cotilla Espinosa remembers. When they served her the dish, she said it reminded her of the pepper steak her grandfather used to make. Sasha, the couple’s youngest daughter, and the president’s mother-in-law, Marian Shields Robinson, also both opted for the sirloin steak. Malia, the older daughter, chose pork skewers.

I offered him wine but the president said he had to work tomorrow”

Waiter Reinier Mely Maldonado

The First Lady asked for a pinot noir but the waiters recommended the house Ribera del Duero. She and her mother drank three-quarters of the bottle. The girls and their father drank only water. “I offered him wine but the president said he had to work tomorrow,” Mely says, as he sits in the same chair at the same table where the US president ate the last meal of the Cold War.

The table is round. There is an old clock in one corner and a wooden statue of a Virgin Mary with tears streaming down her cheeks in another. On the wall behind Michelle Obama’s seat hangs a zebra hide. But, the first thing Obama noticed was a framed picture of Nat King Cole on his left and then another of Beyoncé and Jay Z from the singers’ 2013 trip to the restaurant.

Jorge Alberto Cotilla Espinosa minutes after serving the Obamas on Sunday night.
Jorge Alberto Cotilla Espinosa minutes after serving the Obamas on Sunday night.

The restaurant’s owner, Carlos Cristóbal Márquez, says “the word paladar comes from a famous Brazilian novel set in Cuba in the 1990s about someone who lived in a small town and opened a restaurant called Paladar. The novel was titled Vale Todo... In 2010, with the liberalization of the Cuban economy, I decided to open this paladar... Since then, paladares have helped a lot in creating jobs, have helped the country.” A happy 52-year-old man, Márquez is wearing an American flag pin with the Secret Service star on his chef’s uniform.

Five years ago, the restaurant where the Obamas dined was a residence that a persnickety housing inspector would most likely have condemned. “The roofs were caving in,” says Raisa Pérez, Márquez’s wife. Now it’s the site of a business employing 25 people and decorated with antiques and wooden toucans hanging from the ceilings.

Mick Jagger ate there in October and may well come back after Friday's Rolling Stones concert in the Cuban capital. Chile’s sitting President Michelle Bachelet and former President Sebastián Piñera – political rivals at home – shared the lobster a la Hemingway here, while former Uruguayan President Pepe Mujica once came here and ordered the hogfish.

Obama was unable to finish his sirloin. “He said he was very full,” Mely recalls. The president then stood up to go to the restroom, flanked by his bodyguards. “On the way there, he was smiling and greeting everyone he encountered.”

Mely at the table where the Obamas had dined an hour before.
Mely at the table where the Obamas had dined an hour before.

The family ate pudding and flan for dessert. Obama and his mother-in-law each then had a cup of coffee. Afterwards, the president asked for the check: $34 per person. He took a “a small bundle of money” out and paid the tab, leaving a generous tip.

At around half past midnight, Reinier Mely Maldonado gets ready to leave the San Cristóbal restaurant. His parents are waiting up for him at home. Still wearing his white waiter uniform, he straps a backpack on and, before heading off, says: “It was an honor to serve the president of the United States.”

English version by Dyane Jean François.

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