Leonor Espinosa on teaching yourself how to cook, creativity and the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship

Giulia Sgarbi - 06/12/2019

As part of the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship 2020, one talented aspiring cook will complete stages in the kitchens of Mauro Colagreco at Mirazur, Luke Dale-Roberts at The Test Kitchen and Leonor Espinosa at Leo. Apply by Friday 20th December for your chance to win the Scholarship.

One of Colombia’s most renowned chefs, Espinosa doesn’t have any formal culinary training – an art student in her youth and an economist by trade, she taught herself how to cook before opening Leo in Bogotá in 2008. Here, the woman voted Latin America’s Best Female Chef 2017 tells us why creativity is more important than technical knowledge, how she works with her team and what a stagiaire can look forward to at Leo.

For me, cooking, economics and art are interdisciplinary. They all share values, because my cuisine is political, art is political, and the economy is political. You need to know about economics to understand social and political processes, and you need to know about contemporary art to understand a new narrative of cuisine.

Cooking has always been a part of me. All the women from the Colombian Caribbean are women who cook. In the house, in the family, everything happens around the fire.

In an aspiring chef, I’m primarily interested in finding a desire for knowledge. Someone who will fall in love with the profession, who will understand a little how my brain works, because I’m very spontaneous and very ‘myself’ in my kitchen.


Leo's dish with clam, titoté (coconut caramel) and conopio

I needed a life that broke the mould. For a while, I worked as an executive in an advertising agency, but I was very bored. That wasn’t my world. In the kitchen, I found a manifestation of what I wanted to be, which was an artist.

When you look for inspiration in other cooks, sometimes you miss the opportunity to be more original, to understand that you can make it as a chef by being inspired by life stories, rather than by someone else's cooking.

My strength is creativity, understanding cooking from its origin and living that origin. I didn't go to a school that taught me how to use a knife or how to make sauces. I learnt that on my own. I know I have my weaknesses in terms of kitchen techniques, but a cook can't know about everything. I work in unison with my team to develop the ideas and the new products that I bring to the restaurant. It’s a joint effort where we recognise our strengths and weaknesses. The process is very transparent and honest.

I’m the kind of mentor who likes to go a little further, to the place where culinary values are really sustained, which is in their genesis, in history, in memory, in the territories inhabited by the first link of the production chain: the fishermen, the producers and the farmers.

With the [FunLeo] foundation, we travel through the territories of rural ethnic communities and do biodiversity research with the aim to improve the basic conditions of these communities. We have a bank of information from these trips, with ingredients and biological species that have not been used in gastronomy even if sometimes they were discovered seven or ten years ago.


Espinosa working in the kitchen with her team

For us, it’s very important that an intern understands all the processes of the kitchen – not only how to place a petal or finish a decoration, but also understand that the petal has a reason to be there, and that reason exists since the arrival of the ingredient at the restaurant.

People don't just grow in their profession; a good cook also has to grow as a human being. It's no use to know how to do your job if you aren't really recognising your qualities as a human and recognising how you can contribute to connecting producers and making them visible, to other colleagues, to the consumer, and to their country.

All the species and ingredients that we use at the restaurant first have to go through a process of generating awareness, so that [the local communities] understand how these ingredients can improve their economy. I don't care how long it may take, each product arrives to the restaurant at its right moment.

What I do in my cuisine is contemporary art, which for me is when the artist investigates, experiments and lives to be able to create their work.

I’m honoured to have the opportunity to open my doors to a student who comes from other horizons to understand new worlds, techniques and customs – that fills me with satisfaction with the full security that after their time here, their vision will be different. I feel honoured that among so many restaurants on the 50 Best list, a restaurant in Colombia was chosen [for the Scholarship] – a very authentic and original restaurant with 100% Colombian products.

Applications to the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship 2020 are open until Friday 20th December to chefs with less than three years’ experience in a professional kitchen. Apply now on the Scholarship portal.

Get a taste of Leo restaurant in the video:

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