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Discovering Colombian cuisine with Leonor Espinosa

The chef tells us about the importance of her homeland.

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Colombia might not be very high on your list of culinary destinations, but according to Leonor Espinosa, it should be.

Named Best Female Chef in Latin America 2017, Leonor Espinosa is one of South America's most prolific chefs. Her restaurant LEO showcases Colombian cuisine and ingredients in innovative, exciting ways, while her casual eateries in Bogotá and Cartagena, named Misia, highlight the same culinary traditions in more accessible and affordable ways. 

She has fallen into a position that allows her to promote Colombian gastronomy around the world, and through this, Leo and her daughter Laura set up the Leo Espinosa Foundation, or FUNLEO, which works to preserve Colombia's food traditions while highlighting local production and sustainable practices. To find out more about her work, we sat down with Leo and her daughter Laura to ask her about their relationship, dedication to native ingredients and more. 

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Colombian traditions

Did you know that many people pronounce Colombia wrong? It was the first thing Leo taught me when I met her – it should be pronounced Col-OH-mbia, not Col-UH-mbia. Clearly, she holds her homeland dear to her heart.

The menu at LEO is jam-packed with ingredients from all over Colombia, many of which we don't have here in Ireland. The decision to highlight Colombian traditions was a conscious one, Leonor told us. 

"100 per cent of ingredients that we use at LEO come from different ethnic groups and rural communities in Colombia," she said. "We use lots of different types of native corn, tropical fruits like borojó and copazú from humid forests. We have ants too, Andean tubers called uyuco, different types of peppers like baskit pepa, poultry like cocá and snails called copey. We have an ecosystem that is called the páramo which is the high Andean mountains, so we use lots of aromatic plants from there."

Interest in South American cuisine has grown rapidly over the past number of years, with many restaurants from around the continent routinely winning awards and making their way onto the World's 50 Best lists. With the world's attention focused on South America right now, Leonor believes that this is a crucial time for Colombian food. 

"Leo has been a platform in the past number of years to promote the culinary traditions of Colombia," she said. "That’s what we’ve been doing but Colombia hasn’t been known for its gastronomy. Our initiatives like LEO or bringing us to Food On The Edge help our country to be more visible internationally. Things like winning Best Female Chef Latin America have helped too."

A sample of Leonor's food.
A sample of Leonor's food.

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The title of 'Best Female Chef' has been hotly debated over the past number of years, with other chefs like Dominique Crenn blasting the title previously, calling the 'Best Female Chef Award' stupid and accusing the organisation of treating women like “sport". 

When asked if Leonor took issue with this title, she told us that any recognition for one woman in the food industry helps to boost all women. 

"You always have to look on the bright side. Any time I’m recognised is great, as it helps to recognise the role of all women in gastronomy," Leo told us. "It is important to gather women together, not to mark our difference from men, but to work together for the industry. Men don’t unite to make a point a difference, so we women should focus to be united, not as a separate thing.

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Laura Espinosa.
Laura Espinosa.

A family affair

Since opening LEO, Leonor's only daughter Laura has joined her mother in her work. A trained sommelier, Laura studied international affairs and politics to try and differentiate herself from her mother. In the end, she realised that food was a way for her to help develop her homeland and she returned to her mother's side to run the FUNLEO organisation. 

"When I was an adolescent I didn’t want to be like her, I wanted to do something different, but I think right now I’m lucky to share with passions with her," Laura told us. "I found gastronomy as a way to contribute to the development processes in my country. I’m also a sommelier so I’m putting it all together. Now I’m finally working with her, which I really like. This is my way to do what I’ve always wanted to do through gastronomy. It’s something that really makes my heart beat, it’s something I love."

Summing up Leo's career is nearly impossible. She's worked to promote her country's cuisine, set up Colombia's most popular restaurant and established a network of local producers that benefits communities. How could you pick a highlight from such an illustrious life? Leo told us it was easy to pick the highlight of her career.

"I think it has to be my social responsibility projects," she said. "Promoting ingredients that indicate biodiversity and show to the world that this biodiversity in Colombia is real has been very important to me."

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