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Chef born into hunger with dreams of feeding those in need wins $250K from scratch-off

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Roberto Mendoza was just paying for his gas. The lottery ticket was a rare impulse buy.

“I scratched the top and saw the match for $250,000. I go, ‘Oh my!’ Then I started to jump and hit my friend,” the chef said. “My next reaction was basically ‘this is not my money.’ I’d been feeding little ones in Charlotte for five years, and I decided I was going to continue to do that.”

He was destined to do much more.

Born into hunger

Mendoza was born in El Salvador. With a war raging, food was scarce.

“When I was 14 or 15 years old, I went to bed without eating. I said ‘God, when I grow up, I do not want to feel hunger.'”

But the war got worse for Mendoza. He was kidnapped. The chef doesn’t give many details from there, but upon his release, the Salvation Army brought him to Canada. He eventually ended up in California, working at an Israeli delicatessen. From the deli, Mendoza got a job at a hotel kitchen. He went to culinary school and became a chef at the Beverly Hills Hotel. As his career flourished, he cooked for three U.S. presidents, a Saudi Arabian prince and the Tennessee Titans football team, among others.

“I was doing meals for a NASCAR event in Charlotte, North Carolina. There, we fed more than 400,000 people in one week. When I saw that much food, I remembered that prayer from when I was little,” Mendoza said. “God made me a chef because I suffered too much hunger in El Salvador.”

The chef drummed up support and contributions from around North Carolina, and roasted 600 holiday turkeys for Charlotte’s homeless at a university kitchen. A volunteer there first mentioned the Dominican Republic.

“She said ‘I wish I could do this for the kids in Bayaguana,'” he said. “I went to visit and I saw the poor village.”

The windfall

In 2013, the chef got a $10,000 tax refund. His reaction: “This can’t be my money.” It was, and he used it to buy land in Bayaguana for a cafeteria. He dreamed of a facility that could regularly feed the area’s poor, but the funds just weren’t there to complete construction — until he scratched off a lottery ticket in North Carolina.

Even after taxes are withheld, $250,000 was a lot to win, but it’s not a lot of money to keep Mendoza’s dream alive. There is still work to be done, and funds to be raised.

In the meantime, Mendoza said he plans to continue feeding people. From high-end catering at Charlotte’s finest events to weekly dinners he regularly prepares for the city’s homeless, he relishes the universal sounds of people dining, and knows too well what hunger sounds like.

“When you are hungry, there is no language — just your stomach growling,” he said.

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