Leonor Espinosa: the Colombian chef with a taste for change

Ants may sound unappetising, but in Colombia they are part of a rich culinary tradition, one being championed by Leonor Espinosa, recently crowned as Latin America’s best chef

The woman who is garnering a reputation as the best chef in Latin America says she doesn’t consider herself a cook at all. “I’m an artist,” says Leonor Espinosa. “Food is first and foremost about art for me. It’s also about memory, history and what’s ahead. It’s the story of our heritage, and it’s also the blueprint for our future.”

Espinosa is championing the food of her homeland, Colombia: a nation, she says, that has kept its culinary wealth buried in its larder for far too long. “There’s almost an embarrassment in my country about our food,” she says. “But that’s so wrong. We have immense riches to share. We’re about 20 years behind Mexico in terms of the international impact of our cuisine, but we have so much to offer.” Even more importantly, she believes, food has much to give the country as it climbs its way out of an era dominated by civil war and drugs violence. Not only can its cuisine put Colombia on the map for something positive, but food production can provide its people with alternative livelihoods to cocaine production.

Leo, Espinosa’s eponymous restaurant in Bogotá, was voted best restaurant in Colombia in 2016, and she has just won the Basque Culinary World Prize, worth £89,000, for her commitment to using gastronomy to drive ecology and social change. When we meet in San Sebastián in northern Spain, where she’s come to receive the award, the first thing she does is offer me a piece of chocolate. “I eat dark Colombian chocolate every day. It’s the key to keeping perfect, apparently.”

At 55, full of Latino passion and larger than life gestures, she is packed with energy and youthfulness. Cooking was a second career for her, after she chanced upon its potential as a single parent trying to make her daughter Laura’s teatimes more interesting; and she has the proselytising zeal of someone who feels she is still on the initial stretches of a long road.

So the crucial question is, what does Colombia have to tempt the world’s tastebuds? Mexico put mole and tacos on the table; Peru introduced us to ceviche; Argentina shared its dulce de leche. What will the newest Latin American kid bring to the kitchen block? The answer is surprising: one of Colombia’s signature flourishes, apparently, is a species of creature Espinosa describes as “The big ass ant.” Ants are a traditional delicacy in Colombia, she explains, and her favoured use of the big ass variety is as a crust on slices of tuna.

Using leaves as wraps is another common feature of Colombian cuisine. There are more than 150 leaf species that are used to create tamale-like parcels. “That gives you an idea of how diverse a range of food there is in my country,” says Espinosa. Among the dishes she serves in her restaurant is fish cooked in coconut, wrapped in plantain and dribbled with conch sauce. “My idea was to take traditional dishes and introduce them to a wider public, without losing the essence of what they were originally about.”

Espinosa’s childhood was imbibed with the tastes and sights and smells of meals being prepared, and she was introduced early to the bonding and transformative possibilities of food. The second of six children (“three of us had black hair and three had red, and I was one of the redheads”), she spent much of her girlhood at the finca owned by her maternal grandparents in northern Colombia. They were wealthy, and their homestead was the focus for not only the family, but the wider community – and food was at its centre.

“I didn’t have to read Gabriel García Márquez,” she explains, “because I was already living in one of his novels. I was raised in a world of magical realism. His books are full of images from my childhood. At 5am the gates would open and a woman would arrive with a basket full of empanadas – that was breakfast, with thin beef and onion and tomatoes on top. For lunch there would be soup, coastal cheese, corn wrapped in plantain leaves. The fire for cooking was burning from 6am to 9pm; and everyone gathered round, not just the family but villagers and people who worked on my grandparents’ land. It was the area originally inhabited by the Zenú people, who date back to way before the Spanish era. We were a community, and food and its preparation was right there in the middle of us.”

After school, Espinosa wanted to study art, but her family said no. “They said I could do art on the side, but economics was a more ‘proper’ subject, and that was what I should study.” At university she fell in love, married at 21 and had Laura, now 33. For a moment, she says, she teetered on the brink of a conventional life, but only briefly. “I realised very quickly that I was never going to be a traditional wife. My husband wanted more children. He wanted a traditional family, a traditional home. And I realised there was something out there waiting for me, something quite different from that.”

When Laura was one year old, Espinosa divorced her husband. Five years later, when her daughter was old enough to leave with her parents, she moved to Bogotá, determined to make her mark. “I wanted to eat up the world,” she says. “I was hungry for it.”

She found work as a publicist, gaining experience that would later prove useful. “But I started to realise that my future was in art; so while I worked as a publicist by day, by night I went to art school.” With Laura now living with her, Espinosa started to cook for the two of them at home. “And I really enjoyed it. It was so creative, and that was what I most liked about it. I realised that cooking was really a manifestation of my art. Friends who came to my house to eat with us said, ‘You’ve got a talent here, you should use it…’”

She quit her job and opened her first restaurant. “But it was difficult, much harder than I’d realised,” she says. In art there is freedom, but cookery brought discipline as well as creativity.” What started as a tough ask became a crisis, and she was forced to close the restaurant. “It was a dark moment. I’d just split up from a partner, I was looking for purpose in my life, and I ended up 5mm from the bottom. I didn’t quite feel the bottom beneath my feet, but I did come very close.”

But the truth, says Espinosa, is that she revels in the potential of drama in any area of her life. “I love it when life brings emotion and sensation. I adore being on a roller coaster. It took me a long time to grow up, and it wasn’t easy to get to the place where I wanted to be. I made a lot of mistakes, but you have to make mistakes in order to arrive at what’s right.”

She opened Leo a decade ago, in 2007. “It was a success from the start. By then I knew absolutely that I wanted to be a chef, and I no longer expected the process to be easy. Once you make the decision to do what you really want to do with your life, you have to accept some discomfort. Many people don’t have the balls to do what they feel they were born to do. But I’m a rebel and I believe in rebels. We were born with the possibility of opening new windows, and I knew this was my moment to do that.”

Putting her economics and publicity skills to good use to run and promote the business, she also embarked on what has become the signature element of her cooking – the quest to find traditional dishes and ingredients, and to give them a modern twist.

“I started travelling around Colombia, and I realised the true gastronomy of my country,” she says. “There’s such a rich culture of cooking but many Colombians don’t connect with it. Too many communities have been isolated and have lost their pride in the food they cook, and I want to help change that.” In particular, she says, Colombia can show the world a way of integrating many cultural traditions into its cuisine. The country’s heritage includes indigenous Amerindian communities, Spaniards from the conquest and Africans who were brought in as slaves by the Europeans – and all these influences have left their mark in the culinary traditions.

Today, diners at her restaurant can taste the fruits of her research. Among the ingredients she serves are crocodile and a large type of rodent that she says is preserved by smoking in the mountains. She serves pirarucu, which at 3m long is one of the biggest fish in the world, enjoys flavouring her food with an aromatic spice called “fish eye”, and uses coquindo, a seed considered sacred by the Indians.

But the role of any successful chef, says Espinosa, goes far beyond her or his restaurant. “At my grandparents’ house it was not only the food that inspired me, it was the way the community was one. My country is coming out of a difficult time, and food production can be part of the change.” Providing new markets for fruit and vegetables means helping communities switch from cocaine to “post-conflict crops”. Pineapples, which Espinosa describes as “honey gold”, have been an important part of that story. There are difficulties, she concedes, in transporting traditional ingredients from some parts of the country to Bogotá, but she isn’t afraid of challenges. FunLeo, the shorthand name for the Leo Espinosa Foundation, works to further these ambitions, and is run by Espinosa’s daughter Laura, who is also a trained sommelier.

In Latin America, as in most other parts of the world, top flight gastronomy remains male-heavy. “It’s definitely still a man’s world,” says Espinosa. “But the truth is that women are best in the kitchen. They tend to be more dedicated, more patient. And in ordinary homes the world over, women still tend to do the cooking. Which is why I think female chefs are so important. We stand for all the women who are quietly making meals. It’s crucial for all of them that we are noticed.”


Joanna Moorhead

The GuardianTramp

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