Superstar Chef Leonor Espinosa Tells Colombia’s Story Through Food

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The Bogotá restaurateur discusses preserving traditions, finding inspiration, and being named Latin America’s “best female chef”

A report by Paola Miglio for Eater.

When Leonor Espinosa, Colombian chef and owner of restaurants Leo and Misia, accepted the controversial award for Latin America’s Best Female Chef 2017 (bestowed by the people behind the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list), there was palpable excitement inside Bogotá’s Julio Mario Santo Domingo theater. But that feeling changed almost immediately when Espinosa took the microphone and asked the crowd in Spanish: “Could all women chefs stand up, please?” Only a few people stood. Then, Espinosa said: “Now, could all the male chefs stand up, please?” Dozens did, inspiring silence and then nervous giggling. Was it embarrassment? Perhaps.

While many American diners might not yet know her name, Espinosa has been cooking since she was old enough to turn on the stove in her grandmother’s kitchen in Cartagena. The recognition came later, and with it the desire to show the world, and especially Latin America, that women can also be influential figures in gastronomy.

In 2007, after working with locals, producers, and biologists to research Colombian food traditions, Espinosa opened Leo in a cozy but pragmatic space in downtown Bogotá. The restaurant’s tasting menu (which she calls the Ciclo-Bioma) is inspired by the seasons and ancient Colombian techniques. And in 2008, Espinosa founded Funleo, a non-profit organization that works to identify and preserve these traditional techniques, as well as raise awareness around sustainability and local food production.

The research informs the food and drinks at Leo, where Espinosa and Laura Hernández, the chef’s daughter and Leo’s sommelier, have developed fermented drinks according to the traditions of indigenous communities. But, the chef’s artistic background shapes many of the the smaller details of her restaurant. Espinosa studied fine arts in Cartagena and everything on the table speaks to this experience, from the simple, rustic dishes to the tableware, handmade by local artists.

In 2015, Espinosa expanded her influence on Bogotá’s culinary scene by opening Misia, a more casual restaurant dedicated to the traditional cuisine of the Colombian Caribbean and Pacific Coast. There are now two Misia locations in Bogotá, and both Misia and Leo are among the city’s essential restaurants. Eater recently caught up with Espinosa to discuss winning the title of best female chef, how art informs her work, and what she has in store for her restaurants.

This award was given to you for best female chef, not best chef. How do you feel about that?

It’s the first time someone has asked me that question. I’m a not a conformist, I think that few women dare to stay in this profession because of the challenges we face, and staying is where the courage lies. Those of us who remain are generally women with great strength. I believe that the recognition of women’s work is different — it is a hope for all those that are trying to fight and have a position in the industry.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of arrogance or ego — recognition is good — but the important thing is that I like what I do. I know what work means to me, what is behind it. Perhaps, the most important recognition does not always come from an award but when the work has been consistent and benefited many. What is better than that?

Are you telling the history of Colombia through your kitchen?

Of course, and not only culinary history but the economic and social history too — all the social conjuncture. How a territory with a tremendous amount of wealth through its heritage of oral, musical, and folkloric traditions can also face poverty and exclusion is unimaginable. So, yes, I tell stories and I don’t fast forward my creative process. I can see something, then save it and use it later — usually between 4 and 6 in the morning, when I have lucid dreams.

What is your approach to creating new dishes?

The best way to create a new recipe is through experiencing the product in the territory it comes from and embracing the culture that cultivates it. A culture that has been in existence for centuries has a deep history and dreams that can be discovered in its dishes.

Do you consider food to be culture or art?

It is a cultural issue, but culture can have different manifestations. Art is not as it used to be anymore; contemporary art has so much to do with emotions. The position of an artist confronting a topic has changed, and so has the way he or she approaches it socially, economically, and politically. The artist today is totally different than the artist of yesterday, and cooking is a part of that diversity. But, it seems that some chefs are seeing the art of cooking only for the aesthetic purposes and are forgetting the background and the context.

What does it mean to be a chef in Colombia and in Latin America today?

I believe that the eyes of the world are on Latin America. But in the case of Colombia we are selling big expectations regarding the kitchen. Colombia, with all its biodiversity and heritage, is plunging into a critical time of discovering itself. That implies more responsibility for me, and it means I can’t make mistakes in drawing inspiration from the traditional Colombian kitchen. I also see chefs trying to promote an influential identity not only to this country but to all of Latin America. We are generating a trend that can lead us to a good place. There are visible and responsible leaders that have tenacity and are doing things right.

You have two restaurants now, Misia and Leo. How are they different?

While Leo is my fine-dining proposal, Misia showcases Colombian cuisine on a slightly higher gourmet scale. It’s more refined. It remains the same but better presented. Leo’s cuisine is based on two pillars: the study of species that can be adapted to the culinary realm and the study of tradition. Misia tells where the history of Colombian food comes from. It’s my personal kitchen, it’s where I’ve lived, it’s the dishes that I’ve liked, and of course it’s my origin: my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchen.

There are already two Misia locations in Bogotá. Do you have plans for any others?

Misia has grown fast, but I think the market offers many more opportunities. We are thinking about expanding to other cities, such as Cartagena, where there are not many places where people can enjoy traditional cuisine. I think we are going for that.

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