In a country not widely recognised for its gastronomy, one chef has made it her mission to bring back local traditions and restore a sense of pride in Colombia's produce. Leonor Espinosa is the cook at the forefront of a movement that she hopes will eventually see her nation’s cuisine celebrated around the world.
While Peru is known for ceviche and Mexico for tacos, Colombia hasn't yet reached global foodie consciousness with any particular national dish – in part because of a recent history of drugs-related violence that has held the country back. Through her flagship restaurant Leo in Bogotá, voted Best Restaurant in Colombia in 2016, and the more casual neighbourhood restaurant Misia, Espinosa has been working for more than a decade to put homegrown ingredients such as fermented coca leaves and big-bottomed ants onto the plates of locals and gastronomic travellers alike.
Espinosa is known not just for her efforts to use Colombian ingredients but also for the immense creativity with which she does so. At Leo, a tasting menu starts with a series of snacks including seared tuna coated with crushed ants, and camu camu, a berry-like fruit, with carne oreada, a jerky-like steak typical of the Santander region. Every detail is taken care of, from the Afro-Colombian coffee that comes from Espinosa’s cultural foundation to a non-alcoholic drinks pairing featuring an elaborate selection of local fruit cocktails.
Aside from her work as a cook and restaurateur, Espinosa is also deeply committed to her foundation, Funleo, where she researches, reclaims and promotes Colombian culinary traditions and ingredients while highlighting sustainable practices and championing local producers. Led by her daughter Laura, who is also head sommelier at Leo, the project helps local ethnic communities, especially Afro-Colombians, to revive and sustain local production and bring to market their products, many of which are then used in Espinosa’s kitchens.
The cook, who originally trained as an economist and an artist, is widely respected in Colombia and further afield. Earlier this year she won the Basque Culinary World Prize, an award for chefs whose projects have improved society through gastronomy, and she has written books including Leo El Sabor, an account of cooking stories told through seven ethnic communities.
Through her work with Funleo and her efforts to promote Colombian cuisine via her restaurants, Espinosa is gradually helping her country to achieve international status as a gastronomic destination. Her new title of Latin America’s Best Female Chef is further recognition of her achievements and contributions to Colombia’s promising culinary scene, and to Latin America’s collective food status.
See inside Leo restaurant in Bogotá:
Get to know Espinosa in 50 seconds:
Calle 27B #6-75
Portrait: Renata Bolivar