Meet Colombian chef and restaurant owner Leonor Espinosa, acclaimed as the World’s Best Female Chef in 2022. The panel that elects the World’s 50 Best Restaurants described her as a “multi-talented Colombian chef who has forged a profound cooking style that sets her apart from her contemporaries, at the same time as she seeks to use gastronomy as a tool to socio-economic development.”
Espinosa grew up in Cartagena on the country’s Caribbean coast, an area where she says, “People love to seduce you with their cooking.” She earned a double degree in economics and fine arts, taught herself to cook, worked for a decade in advertising, before making a plunge into the kitchen, 24 years ago at age 35. When she made the move, no one took her seriously. How could she become a chef when she had never even gone to culinary school?
By 2005, when she opened her restaurant, Leo, with a focus on native-infused dishes, she had proved the naysayers wrong. To study Indigenous cuisine, she criss-crossed Colombia into areas marred by poverty and years of civil conflict. In 2019, Leo was the first Colombian restaurant to make the World’s 50 Best list. In 2022, it earned the No. 48 position as well as No. 13 in the list of Latin American winners. Today Leo, with its 13-course tasting menu, is the go-to spot in Bogota, the country’s capital city.
Espinosa was the keynote speaker at SATW Convention in September, wowing attendees with tales of learning about Indigenous ingredients and ancestral techniques from the Colombia’s ethnic communities. She spoke with VacayNetwork about her growing notoriety and the importance of honoring her nation’s food heritage.
VacayNetwork: Congratulations on winning the prestigious award for World’s Best Female Chef. How did you feel when you heard this news?
Leonor Espinosa: I cried with joy because now my voice can be heard a little more and that allows me to continue to support gastronomy, especially in developing countries. This award is not only for me, but also for the ethnic world that inspires me.
VacayNetwork: Women have traditionally been responsible for feeding their families in Colombia, but the haute cuisine you are practicing has been dominated by men. How did you bridge that gap?
LE: You must be thick-skinned and tenacious. I am not afraid to speak up.
VacayNetwork: What does a woman chef bring to the kitchen that a man doesn’t?
LE: I think women can be more subtle, more intense, more passionate. And we have very good communication skills. With this award, I can be an inspiration for more women to show them they can have these opportunities in a man’s world.
VacayNetwork: In addition to being thick-skinned and tenacious, how would you describe yourself?
LE: I have never been what other people wanted me to be. I am my own person. I am curious, rebellious, and irreverent. I can even be intimidating.
VacayNetwork: How would you describe Colombia’s food to foreigners?
LE: Colombia is a country of a thousand cuisines. We are the world’s second-most biodiverse country, with two oceans, two deserts, three mountain ranges, two jungles, and seven different climate zones. Our cuisine is just as varied. The food has been influenced by the different cultures who settled in each of these regions.
VacayNetwork: Where do you draw your inspiration?
LE: From Colombia’s vast biodiversity, its painful history, and traditional communities. My cuisine tastes of ancestral techniques, of joy, of smoked plantain and cassava. There is a lot of poetry in my kitchen.
VacayNetwork: In 2005 you opened Leo, based on your “ciclo-bioma” philosophy. Tell us what that means.
LE: It’s based on finding innovative ways to incorporate little-used species into a new kind of modern Colombian cuisine. It’s an impetus for social and economic development in Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.
VacayNetwork: Describe Leo and the menu for us.
LE: The kitchen is open and the dining area has high ceilings, concrete floors, and wooden and black steel accents. It’s stunning. The origin of each ingredient is represented on a map of Colombia. I want customers to see where every ingredient comes from. The menus aren’t online. When you eat here, you trust the unexpected. We serve the food on hand-crafted plates and bowls designed specifically for each menu item.
VacayNetwork: What are the traditional ingredients you incorporate into the dishes at Leo?
LE: Ingredients I get from all over the country. We use different types of native corn in a variety of dishes such as arepas [corn patties]. We use a lot of tropical fruits like borojó and copazú. Even ants and larvae. We use Andean tubers called uyuco azlot and a lot of aromatic plants from the Andean mountains.
VacayNetwork: What are your biggest challenges today?
LE: We need more cooks to showcase Colombian food. We need the government to be more supportive to the access of traditional ingredients. We need locals to become proud of their food. I want to give a voice to people who feel abandoned, people who live in areas devastated by poverty and decades of violence.
VacayNetwork: You have said that your cuisine is political. What message are you trying to communicate?
LE: That sourcing ingredients from a variety of communities is our way to help solve the poverty in the country. These rural Afro and Indigenous communities are vulnerable territories that have a great biocultural richness.
VacayNetwork: By bringing these ancient foods and traditions to new audiences, do you think this is a way for to bring Colombian cuisine to the world?
LE: Right now there is only a small group of restaurants working with this first step in the supply chain and with the traditions and local food. We are a minority. But we are working on it and we are growing in numbers. Colombia struggles with its own identity. It is often easier to find restaurants that serve European food than it is to find ones serving local ingredients. I want to change that.
VacayNetwork: When you go to a different community to study their cuisine, is the thrill finding a local ingredient that’s new to you that can inspire a dish in your restaurant?
LE: The thing that excites me more than discovering a new ingredient is to live in a territory, with the people, and discover their culture and their habits.
VacayNetwork: In 2008, you created the Funleo, a socio-environmental foundation. Tell us about the work you do there.
LE: Funleo is a non-profit organization. Our focus is to support the gastronomic traditions of the country’s communities. We have supported more than a dozen food-based initiatives, such as creating the Providencia Black Crab Route and gastronomy labs for children on the island of Barú. Currently, we are working on a project with the Sucre region government to promote it as a tourist destination.