The world’s second-most biodiverse country, home to 51,330 species, Colombia is increasingly carving out a territory on the international culinary atlas – and one woman has been the defining force behind that phenomenon. As Leonor Espinosa is named The World’s Best Female Chef, sponsored by Nude Glass, ahead of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022, Sorrel Moseley-Williams tells the fascinating story of the chef, artist and social entrepreneur
Leonor Espinosa’s mission goes well beyond applying haute-cuisine techniques to Colombian ingredients. The chef’s ‘ciclo-bioma’ philosophy uses gastronomy as an impetus for social and economic development in indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities – and her mission is now being more widely recognised.
Recent accolades include her restaurant Leo in Bogotá, Colombia, ranking in both The World’s and Latin America’s 50 Best lists, while her peers in the region also selected her for the Chefs' Choice prize in 2020. In 2017, she was anointed Latin America’s Best Female Chef and was also awarded the Basque Culinary World Prize for Funleo, her socio-environmental foundation – indeed, her legacy – that reintroduces ancestral culinary knowledge from some of Colombia’s 87 rural communities into mainstream gastronomic culture.
Funleo empowers marginalised farmers by bringing products such as ‘big-bottomed’ Santander ants, mojojoy Amazonian larvae and pirarucú river fish to the forefront and making it possible to serve them at the chef’s restaurant, Leo. The World’s Best Female Chef 2022 runs the award-winning establishment in Bogotá with her daughter, sommelier Laura Hernández-Espinosa.
Leonor Espinosa and her daughter, Laura Hernández-Espinosa, run the restaurant in Bogotá together
A childhood enriched by Colombian flavours
A double graduate with degrees in fine arts and economics, Espinosa was born and raised in Colombia’s Caribbean, a region she says is overflowing with flavours, warmth and happiness, and whose people “love to seduce you with their cooking”. That feeling and the taste of the Caribbean surrounded her while growing up, while some of her female relatives had already made names for themselves in the kitchen: her great grandmother was often found preparing manjares (delicious home-cooked dishes), while her grandmother led a troop of female cooks.
Colombia’s diverse pantry so enriched Espinosa’s childhood that she shares many such memories in her 2018 book Lo Que Cuenta El Caldero (Tales From a Cooking Pot), one of three tomes she has penned to date. She writes: “My most powerful food memory is at a farm in La Mojana, Sucre… Friends and family were gathered around an enormous table covered in banana leaves that in turn were laden with tasty dishes such as hare, smoked guartinajas [a lowland rodent] stewed in coconut milk, sancochos [soups and stews], roasted meats, rice dishes, mote cheese and yam soup, steamed fresh corn rolls, and fresh coastal cheese among others.
“I spent a large part of my childhood in rural regions dedicated to raising cattle and farming, and the flavours and aromas of log-burning fires are etched on my mind.”
One of Leo's signature dishes: crab, galanga, peach palm fruit and crustacean
An interdisciplinary profession
Following a decade working in advertising, Espinosa left that world almost overnight, turning her attention to cuisine at the age of 35. “That’s when I understood that cooking was an interdisciplinary profession,” she begins. “I’d worked for several agencies and from one day to the next I did a 180 turn because I didn’t want to be part of the corporate world anymore. A lot of things converged to show me that the true path to artistic expression was cuisine. I returned to Cartagena’s fine arts school, which I’d attended more than two decades earlier, and realised I could be an artist without being a ‘museum artist’, and that art could transcend beyond the visual.
“During my attendance, I based my work on contemporary exhibitions built on installations and video art. It’s from that time that my cuisine started to emerge from other perspectives and today it is established through elements such as research, observation and experimentation, and has given way to a means of interpreting reality. There now exist possibilities of connecting Afro-indigenous and rural communities to the paths of prosperity – and that’s why I believe my cuisine is political.”
Her socio-environmental foundation, Funleo, works hand in hand with her restaurant. This is due to the chef’s acute awareness that Colombia’s gastronomy is a cultural expression nourished by biodiversity, customs and memories, as well as traditional culinary methods from distinct cultures – threads woven into the tapestry of her country’s rich identity and heritage.
“This cultural diversity is reflected in the enormous number of preparations, techniques and ingredients found in every corner that make up this ‘country of a thousand cuisines’,” she reflects.
“Undoubtedly, cooking is a political act that embraces food production, and more so when factors such as climate change, deforestation, the wrongful exploitation of natural resources, war and monopolies – among others – affect food sovereignty and security as well as local consumption. In this way, gastronomy can contribute to reducing existing economic and social conflicts.”
Winning the Basque Culinary World Prize in 2017 allowed Funleo to strengthen its ties with ethnic communities, and one of the projects to benefit was the Zotea Integral Culinary Centre in Coquí, a community in the Chocó region of the Colombian Pacific.
The multi-function hub includes a greenhouse where vegetables and medicinal herbs are cultivated, a restaurant that exclusively uses ingredients grown by the community, a cooking workshop for visitors, and a purpose-built production centre for small entrepreneurs. One of these, Musa Velatina, harvests organic coconuts to produce cold-pressed extra virgin coconut oil, helping empower this small rural community in a sustainable manner.
During the pandemic, Leo relocated to the Chapinero district, in the north of Bogotá, Colombia
When the pandemic forced restaurant Leo to shutter temporarily, Espinosa and her daughter were already in the midst of finalising a relocation for the establishment scheduled for May 2020. When this didn’t come to fruition, the dynamic mother-and-daughter team used the time to rethink strategies and started over for a second time with a purpose-built project. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise: today, each woman has her own restaurant – La Sala de Laura and La Sala de Leo, or Laura’s dining room and Leo’s dining room – housed under one roof at Leo in Bogotá’s hip Chapinero district.
“Although we use the same ingredients and adhere to the ciclo-bioma concept, we use flavours differently,” says Espinosa. “Laura's dishes are about everyday dining, more along the lines of what people in Bogotá are used to eating. And while I remain emphatic about the flavours I want to convey, and never conform to simply creating a dish and leaving it at that, I did want to change our 16-year-old philosophy while maintaining our hallmark of offering incredible dining experiences. I took my time to think about it, meditating a lot – and that helped to define it.
“Leo’s cuisine has always been an advocate of sustainable biodiversity as an alternative way of strengthening cultural identity and generating wellbeing," says the chef. "We continue to work directly with farmers from different regions in Colombia and we don’t deal with intermediaries because we want to continue bolstering ties in the Afro, indigenous and rural communities we collaborate with. Around 90 percent of our ingredients come from hard-to-access regions, so they’re not found in markets and are generally little known to consumers. Leo uses these ingredients responsibly and sustainably in order to minimise waste, with the majority of the unused produce given to our comfort food restaurant, El Casual, while what isn’t useful gets composted.”
While Leo’s advice to young female chefs coming through the ranks is to believe in their dreams and achieve them without getting distracted by insignificant things, she also says that those women who shift the paradigm usually encounter greater hurdles than those who don’t – especially when they enter worlds to which they historically haven’t “belonged”.
“While I’ve never encountered any setbacks due to patriarchal systems, I also try not to pay attention to those men who take foolish stances. This is simply my way of defending equality and to stand out in a world where I also have rights. Unity creates new ways of communicating – that’s what the world needs right now.”
Watch the video with Leonor Espinosa:
Espinosa will officially receive The World’s Best Female Chef accolade on Monday 18th July at the awards ceremony for The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2022, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, in London. To be the first to hear about the latest news and announcements from The World's 50 Best Restaurants, join the community on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.