Cooking Up a Storm


Dominican Wife Relishes Kitchen Diplomacy, Promoting Nation

Caribbean beauty Minerva Espinal, wife of Dominican Republic Ambassador Flavio Espinal, was cooking in her kitchen one Saturday afternoon at the end of 2006. It was obvious that at the couple’s official residence on Edgevale Terrace, the kitchen is the heart of the house—much as it is for many American families. Everyone dropped in to see what was going on, including two teenage daughters, an off-duty ambassador and curious staff. But nothing was going to keep Minerva from making a gourmet home-cooked meal for her older daughter Carla, 17, and her 11 classmates from the Edmund Burke School—not even an interview with The Washington Diplomat.

“I started serious cooking when we were in Charlottesville, [Va.],” said Minerva. “While Flavio was working on his doctorate for five years, I was so bored I had to do something.”

She had just finished preparing a big baking dish of gratinado de papas con parmesano and the potato and cheese dish looked even better than its picture in Vanidades, a major Latin magazine. “I collect recipes and cooking magazines. This one dated 1989 is from my mother-in-law. It has all the best recipes. See, apricot and meringue pastry.”

The rest of the evening’s delectable menu featured apple-stuffed roast pork with honey mustard and garlic, sweet plantains with cinnamon and sugar, as well as chocolates for dessert.

“I’m in the right business,” Minerva observed. “I enjoy doing this. I’ve always loved parties, dressing up, listening to music and dancing. It’s my favorite thing along with traveling.”

Just then, younger daughter Maria, 13, appeared to chat with her mom. “I never get treatment like this,” she said. “When my friends come over to hang out, we order pizza and watch TV.”

Minerva was unfazed by the sibling rivalry, focusing instead on cooking and answering questions. Staff members started to arrive with various provisions, and Minerva began to orchestrate the evening. “I made paella last night and had all the embassy people,” she said. “We had a full table.”

Then Carla appeared with her school chum and began setting the table in the connecting formal dining room. Their teenage chatter and clanking silverware added to this increasingly noisy but intriguing interview site. At one point, five different conversations were going on around our own.

The hot oil spit loudly as the pork was added for braising, so Minerva just raised her voice. “Our country is a fabulous place to visit,” she shouted. “And when everyone knows that, we have done our job here.”

Just then, as if on cue, Ambassador Espinal walked in, his perfectly starched shirtsleeves rolled up. With a big smile under his signature mustache, he seemed to enjoy surveying the homey scene. Minerva was ready for him to take over the conversation while she instructed her kitchen help. Residence chef Alta Garcia Candelario was away and Minerva was relishing being back in the kitchen.

“Tell Gail how Americans love our country, how warm and kind Dominicans are. Tell her how safe it is. How Columbus landed there in 1492 and about our Colonial Zone,” she instructed her husband.

“We are a small but beautiful and historic country with beaches, some of the highest mountains in the Caribbean and wonderful valleys,” began her handsome husband, a fit runner who’s preparing for the Miami Aids Marathon on Jan. 28 by running 20 miles twice a week.

“Our capital, Santo Domingo, was founded in 1496 and is the oldest European settlement in the hemisphere. The old Colonial town is a major tourist attraction,” he explained. “We’re the number-one nation for tourism in the Caribbean. Now we not only have those all-inclusive, massive resorts, but more sophisticated resorts for ecotourism, golfing, water sport and cultural tours.”

He added: “As America’s fifth-largest trading partner in Latin America and the Caribbean, we have a Cyber Park and many sophisticated businesses like telecommunications, medical devices, designer clothing and jewelry. And we have six international airports so now it’s easier to fly nonstop.”

This husband-and-wife team clearly knows how to promote their country. Minerva, who majored in marketing at the National University Pedro Henríquez Ureña in Santo Domingo, puts her knowledge to good use on behalf of her island nation. For instance, the couple planned a trip for the Washington Ballet to visit the Dominican Republic to celebrate former Washington Ballet star Michele Jimenez’s triumphant return to her home stage in Santo Domingo.

Minerva also gave her husband a glitzy 48th birthday party that most would have reserved for a much higher age. And, most recently, their “cigar and rum” night for 300 guests in their tented garden gave a boost to their country’s traditional exports.

Flavio Espinal is a former law professor and dean who holds a master’s degree in political sciences from the University of Essex and a doctorate in government from the University of Virginia. He didn’t plan to become a diplomat but thinks he has been “well trained” for the job, which demands political and economic analysis, promotion and public relations, keen observation and creative participation.

In June 1996 after five years in Charlottesville, Flavio and Minerva thought they were finally going to settle down in the Dominican Republic. But two months later, an old friend of Flavio’s from when they were public defenders together had an irresistible request: Leonel Fernández, then the country’s president, asked Flavio to become the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS).

So off they were, back to Mid-Atlantic America for four more years. In 2000, they returned to their sunny country, where Flavio practiced and taught law, wrote a book and academic papers, published a weekly op-ed newspaper column, and co-produced and hosted the political television program “En Contexto.”

Then in January 2005, Flavio again got a call from President Fernández changing his family’s plans. Now he was being asked to be ambassador to the United States.

“So this is our third time in the United States, 11 years so far,” said the smiling political appointee. “And I have been here as an ambassador during two different American presidents: Clinton and Bush.”

Nevertheless, “DR”—as this Caribbean country is affectionately called by its citizens and friends—still beckons for the couple. As much as this diplomatic family feels at home here, they miss island life.

“I still feel more rooted at home,” admitted Minerva. “I miss the beach and the ocean, all the boats and the resorts. And I hate the cold.”

In fact, when it first became cold last fall, Minerva organized a trip to the Dominican Republic for their best diplomatic friends: Guatemalan Ambassador Jose Guillermo Castillo and his wife Flor; Nicaraguan Ambassador Salvador Stadthagen and his wife Analia; Costa Rican Ambassador Tomas Dueñas and his wife Diana; and Panamanian Ambassador Federico A. Humbert Arias and his wife Daphne.

“Flavio and I loved showing off our country, and we all got to know each other better than we ever would have in Washington,” she recalled. “This Caribbean escape was definitely a unifying experience. Now we don’t hesitate to call each other for anything, diplomatic or personal.”

Switching gears, she reminded her husband to “tell Gail about the art show,” while watching over her plantains. Taking his cue, the ambassador responded: “This wonderful exhibit will be here for three months, opening on Feb. 23 at the OAS Museum of the Americas. It’s the first exhibit to ever come from the Dominican Republic’s Centro León, the biggest cultural center in the Caribbean and Central America.

“You know we have always had many artists, designers and world-class athletes, and many of them are well known here,” he continued, proudly rattling off a list of notable countrymen. “Oscar de la Renta, who is known all over the world for his haute couture, is a partner in a Punta Cana resort. Jazz artist Michel Camilo … lives in New York City and performs there and at the Kennedy Center, and former Washington Ballet star Michele Jimenez now dances with the Royal Dutch Ballet. In sports, there’s baseball legend Sammy Sosa and now first baseman Albert Pujols, who plays for the St. Louis Cardinals, and Manny Acta, the new manager of the Washington Nationals.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Minerva told me how she met her gregarious husband in a repair garage while they were both trying to get their white Hondas fixed. From there, however, the two have disagreed about exactly what happened next, and the conflicting versions have become a family joke.

“He asked me for ‘tea,’” Minerva said, her eyes sparkling, her head coyly turned to her husband. “And we never drink tea at home. It’s not in our tradition, but then I learned that he had studied in England.”

At this point, all other conversations stopped and everyone in the kitchen was listening in.

“I never said ‘tea,’” the ambassador corrected, pointing his finger but laughing at the same time. “Since that day, we have never ever been apart!”

Even though she had been seeing someone else at the time, Minerva added, smiling. Everyone laughed and they hugged, the electricity between them obvious.

“You know, when she told me her last name, del Risco, I asked if she was related to Jackie del Risco, at that time our most popular TV show host,” Flavio recalled. “But when she answered, ‘He is related to me,’ I guessed that she was the daughter of someone even more famous—René del Risco [Bermúdez], our most well-known poet who wrote about the resistance during our civil war in the 1960s and ’70’s. I was a sophomore in high school when I first read his writing in my literature class and I will never forget it.

“Ever since then, she’s in charge of everything at home. She picks out my shirts and ties, our cars, our computers and even our houses. Our first apartment in Santo Domingo, she not only bought [it] but had the curtains up before I ever saw it.”

He winked, knowing how lucky he is. “Minerva loves to talk about her country,” he said. “She brings people together in a way that I’m not sure I could do myself. She has this extraordinary capacity to relate to people regardless of who they are, whether they live in the White House or are employees in our residence. She has this practical dimension that makes things happen. She thinks something up and then does it.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.