Although she never studied to be a chef, Leonor Espinosa has been at the forefront of innovation in the gastronomic industry for 15 years. At her restaurant Leo in Bogotá, she has forged a unique, cerebral and profound cooking style that sets her apart from her contemporaries, at the same time as she seeks to use gastronomy as a tool of socio-economic development.
In her youth, the trailblazing Colombian cook studied economics and fine arts, then worked as an advertising executive until the age of 35. Although she soon realised that this line of work couldn’t satisfy her creative spirit, she never stopped practising the arts and studying the economy – she simply began to do so through a gastronomic lens.
After teaching herself how to cook, Espinosa opened her restaurant, Leo, in 2007. Her concept, called ‘Ciclo-Bioma’, is based on finding innovative ways to incorporate little-used species into a new kind of modern Colombian cuisine. The idea has more than stood the test of time, as Leo has been voted into eight editions of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants to date and became the first Colombian venue to break into The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2019, most recently securing the No.46 position in the 2021 ranking.
The year after creating Leo, Espinosa joined forces with her daughter Laura Hernández-Espinosa to create the non-profit Funleo. With Hernández-Espinosa – a graduate in development studies as well as Leo’s sommelier – as director of the foundation, the mother-and-daughter team unearthed a new paradigm for their gastronomy. The secrets of the indigenous ingredients and ancestral techniques that were providing inspiration for Leo’s menus were preserved by Colombia’s ethnic communities, and Funleo was the answer to their desire to support them.
One of Leo's dishes: crab, galanga, peach palm fruit and crustacean
In 2017, Espinosa received the Basque Culinary World Prize for her ground-breaking work with Funleo. Today, the foundation continues to identify, reclaim and promote the culinary traditions of indigenous communities while promoting their wellbeing and health with programmes that enhance the use of autochthonous ingredients and empower the groups towards food sovereignty. At the restaurant, the project manifests itself in the unusual ingredients found on the menu: big-bottomed ants, mojojoy worms, the skin and tongue of the Amazonian piracurú fish and Tayrona cocoa mucilage.
When the pandemic threw a spanner in her plans to move the restaurant to a new location in 2020, the resourceful chef didn’t panic. Instead, she and Hernández-Espinosa took the time to reflect and evolve their ideas. Leo reopened in June 2021 in a new home in the neighbourhood of Chapinero featuring two concepts under one roof: Leo’s dining room, where Espinosa showcases her creative tasting menus, and Laura’s dining room, where her daughter reworks the same Colombian ingredients into more casual preparations, accompanied by Territorio, the line of indigenous spirits and cocktails she developed.
With a strong sense of social responsibility and a humble attitude, Espinosa has become a global reference that aspiring cooks look up to. Her gastronomic art has already enthralled countless lucky diners while it also contributed to the socio-economic development of Colombia’s most remote communities. As she receives The World’s Best Female Chef Award 2022, sponsored by Nude Glass, there is no doubt her star will continue to shine ever brighter.
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