Leonor Espinosa
Photos by Juan Pablo Gutierrez B.

Leonor Espinosa: “I’ve always been rebellious”

Short Profile

Name: Leonor Espinosa De La Ossa
DOB: 12 January 1963
Place of birth: Cartagena, Colombia
Occupation: Chef

Ms. Espinosa, as a chef and the owner of Restaurante Leo, would you say that cooking is art?

Cooking is art, definitely. It is for me, anyway. I think everyone has different opinions on this, but personally, my training is based on the arts — I studied on a scholarship at The Institución Universitaria Bellas Artes in Cartagena, but I chose cooking as my artistic expression. There would be no Restaurante Leo without art.

Aside from a background in art, you also worked in advertising, right?

That’s right. I am an economist and I worked for several years in advertising agencies, but since I was a child, I’ve always been rebellious, curious, irreverent. I’ve always had a talent and a desire to express myself artistically, so I went to art school, and then eventually I moved to Bogotá, which was where I discovered that cooking was my passion. I realized that I could turn cooking into my own version of art.

How did you accomplish that?

Well, in 2005 I started cooking and my first approach was connected to the Caribbean, where my family has roots. That was the food I was most familiar with because it was connected to my childhood, so I was trying to replicate my grandmother's recipes and the flavors I had grown up with. When I discovered the potential of cooking as an artistic and social expression, my eyes were opened, and I began to discover the origin of the ingredients that are not part of traditional palette. I tried to bring everything together in a beautiful dish that tells a story with big flavor. Food became a social expression. I was and am still trying to connect with the real Colombia, to vindicate it. Cooking is the expression that I discovered to tell the stories of all the forgotten territories and people of my homeland.

“Getting Colombia to be recognized for its gastronomy, to have the eyes of the world on our cooking, is a great achievement that I am very proud of today.”

It seems like for you, art means more than just something that is beautiful, it also holds an important social and cultural connection.

Absolutely. And this has been the result of years of work, many trips around Colombia, tasting many things, having adventures and meetings, and facing fears… It’s been a constant evolution and I can feel that it is getting better and better every day. Getting Colombia to be recognized for its gastronomy, to have the eyes of the world on our cooking, is a great achievement that I am very proud of today.

Unfortunately Colombia has long been associated with crime rates or danger, rather than its culture and people. Is that something you want to fight against through food?

Of course. We want the world to see Colombia as a gastronomic destination, not as a country of crime. Our menu at Leo reaffirms sustainable biodiversity to strengthen identities and generate wellbeing for our people; 80 percent of our ingredients come from areas that are difficult to access, they are not found in common markets, and they are not well-known by the consumer in general. We work directly with producers from different regions of the country, instead of using intermediaries, because we want to uphold work of our indigenous communities. We also use ingredients in a responsible and circular way, trying to minimize waste.

Are you also cooking traditional Colombian recipes?

Well, our goal and purpose at Leo is not really to make traditional food. But rather, we want to innovate while using Colombian ingredients, if that makes sense. We want to give visibility to uniquely Colombian ingredients. When I discover an ingredient, a species or a protein that is not commonly used and in the kitchen, we decide to give it a different flavor. We have a dessert made with mojojoy , which is the larvae of a certain Amazonian insect, and that has absolutely nothing to do with indigenous techniques, but it does give visibility to the this amazing ancestral ingredient.

You also spent some time travelling around the country to places that apparently not even the Colombian government would travel to.

Oh, traveling through the small territories in this country has been the greatest inspiration. I have many stories from that time, but there is one in particular that although it’s not one I remember most fondly, it did mean a lot to me. My daughter and I were going down the Amazon River in a boat, at a time of great violence and insecurity in the area, so in order not to make too much noise and avoid attracting criminals, the boat, which should have had two engines, had only one. And suddenly a storm was unleashed: the boat was shaking and flooding at every minute, while we covered ourselves with plastic sheeting and clung to each other…

Thankfully you survived!

To be honest, we thought we were not going to survive. It was hell, and it lasted almost an hour. I thought, "I don't care; if I die, I will die with my daughter," but fortunately it didn't happen! But experiences like those ones are the main reason we are able work with these small producers and farmers — because I traveled to their territories, even ones that are difficult or dangerous to access. As cooks, we are fundamental agents to support those the fishermen, farmers, culinary artisans.

Are you still able to immerse yourself in Colombian culture in that way, or has it become impractical now that your restaurant is finding so much success?

For me, immersion in these territories is still incredibly essential, it is part of who I really am. The philosophy of Restaurante Leo would not exist without the deep Colombia, the Pacific women, and those Colombians who are the root of our gastronomic culture. The reason that Leo exists is to tell not only my story, but the story of their knowledge and flavors.