Leonor Espinosa has risen to prominence in Colombia’s macho society to become one of the best chefs in Latin America. Not only that, but she has helped bring Colombian cuisine to the international foodie stage, with her focus on local ingredients and ancestral traditional cooking.
Her restaurant, LEO, has been ranked as one of the top in the world and regularly appears in the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America list. Journalist Lucy Sherriff interviews Leo about her fresh approach to sustainable cooking.
Espinosa is driven by promoting disenfranchised communities, in particular indigenous and, afro-Colombian groups. Her foundation FUNLEO aims to preserve Colombian food traditions and champion sustainable practices among local producers.
“We work with communities to generate innovation by using local resources, while also pushing for economic development,” the chef explains during a rare break from her hectic schedule.
Colombia is substantially underdeveloped when it comes to infrastructure, meaning rural communities struggle to earn regular incomes through farming, as they have no means to transport their produce. Protecting centuries-old gastronomic traditions is also a challenge, due to mass internal migration and gradual erosion of indigenous lands.
FUNLEO has been working with rural communities across Colombia for the past eight years, holding workshops to teach food safety and good production practices.
Recently, the foundation worked with more than 150 ethnic Colombians to develop six gastronomy laboratories to research local traditions. The result was the publication of “Ancestral Taste”, a book of 50 recipes, which also noted cultural context and knowledge of the communities.
“Rural development can generate a positive impact in our country,” Espinosa says, when asked why she devotes so much time to social projects. “It’s vital we look to create new opportunities within these communities as there is so much potential to harness our traditions, cultural identity and resources.”
Espinosa’s two restaurants, both in Bogotá, showcase food normally reserved for street stalls. In the more casual Misia, customers can eat sweet arepa, stuffed cassava dough and butifarra – pork and beef sausage. In the upmarket LEO, the menu brings overlooked regional dishes to wealthy tourists and Colombia’s elite, and introduces a revolutionary “cycle biome” menu, based on Espinosa and her daughter Laura’s studies of different ecosystems in Colombia. Dishes include “the rainforest”: freshwater fish piracú with bitter yuca and “ojo de pez” – “fish eye”; and the purple beans of the Pacific paired with medicinal desert herb Santa María de Anís.
“Every restaurant should be looking at new ways of integrating local produce,” Espinosa continues. “We can help change rural producers lives for the better.” And, she continues, this is especially important in Colombia.
“It’s one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and our rural cuisines are the result of that diversity. However problems such as violence, distribution of land and lack of economic resources have been aggravated during the last 50 years of conflict.
“Nowadays food culture is getting more attractive for tourists. We can capitalise on this and can help increase rural economies, while recognising and promoting local gastronomies as an integral part of our culture.
“Understanding Colombian food means understanding Colombian culture. The only way we can keep all our ancestral traditions alive is by involving them in day to day life, and there is no better channel than through food.”
Despite her growing fame as a talented, innovative and experimental chef, she reiterates it is local Colombians who should be celebrated.
“We want to make these people visible. We all need recognition, and local farmers and traditional cookers need to be really proud of what they do. Because it’s simply great.”
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