How Leonor Espinosa Became the World’s Best Female Chef
Colombian culinary star Leonor Espinosa has been named the world’s best female chef in 2022. LEO, her flagship restaurant, also made the list of the 50 best restaurants in the world.
Her mission to bring ancient Colombian ingredients and techniques into an international scene, as well as her support of small local producers, have given Leonor all the rights to her most recent recognition.
Leonor Espinosa was born and raised in Cartagena, Bolívar. She spent her childhood watching her family cook. In fact, despite the recent spotlight on her award, she has been cooking since she was old enough to turn on the stove in her grandmother’s country house.
Before becoming a chef, though, she studied economics and later went to a fine arts school. She moved to Bogotá in 1990 with her daughter, Laura, and began a career in advertising.
By the mid 2000s, Leonor started traveling all around Colombia, studying typical dishes, observing ancient techniques and learning everything about her country’s biodiversity.
She saw a perfect opportunity to give rural workers further means of employment by using their ingredients in her own restaurant.
That is why, in 2007, she opened LEO (previously known as Leo Cava y Cocina), her main restaurant, in a small but cozy location of downtown Bogotá.
Along with her daughter, Laura, who is also the restaurant’s sommelier, they strive to build a new narrative of Colombia’s gastronomy by highlighting the country’s biodiversity.
Leonor believes that the best way to create a new recipe is by first experiencing the product in the territory and inside the culture it really comes from.
“My modern interpretation is based on the daily life, products, crops and the crafts of the communities,” she explains.
“That is why there are a lot of ancient techniques in my cooking, because they are not different from the actual Colombian flavors, those that are connected to our history.”
This approach is clearly manifested throughout her restaurant, even in the tableware itself, handmade by local artists. The fine dining experience at Leo takes you through two different rooms: Leo’s and Laura’s.
Leo’s room offers a wide selection of dishes inspired by the seasons and traditional Colombian techniques. The ingredients, exotic as they might sound, actually represent specific regions of Colombia.
Some of them include: giant leaf cutter ants from Santander, mucilage from Tayrona cocoa plants, and mojojoy larvae and the skin and tongue of the piracurú fish, both from the Amazon.
This way, customers are able to “taste” the sea, the mountains, the páramo, the jungle and the mangroves.
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Trout, caviar, banana passionfruit and Melipona honey. The honey comes from indigenous communities in Guainía (a region in the eastern Colombia) and is produced to help preserve the ecosystem.
On the other hand, Laura, a beverage-experience designer, focuses on fermented drinks, macerations and distillations from botanical ingredients typical of local cultures. In her room, the bar takes the center stage.
Here, customers are able to sample innovative cocktails under the name Territorio, which include Caribbean, Andean and Wild Red vermouths, Coca, Borojó and Naidi fermented drinks and tomaseca, a purportedly aphrodisiac liquor from the Pacific.
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Tropical dry forest and fermented corozo air. This drink is made with corozo, a fruit found in the low and dry areas of the Colombian coasts.
But what is actually on the table? At LEO, the menu is called Ciclo-Bioma, a way of presenting local products and ancestral knowledge through extensive culinary research. With so many options, customers can choose between an eight-course tasting menu, which takes approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes, or a thirteen-course tasting menu, almost three-hours.long.
Within each menu, you will find various appetizers, main courses, pre-desserts, desserts and drinks such as coffee, with an optional alcohol or alcohol-free pairing. On top of that, each ingredient shows exactly where it was sourced and how far the chef has traveled to master the specific technique for each dish.
Ciclo-Bioma changes depending on the season but, fortunately, food travel blogs and social media give us an idea of what we can expect. For example, a tasting menu at LEO might start with a palate cleansing drink similar to horchata and a sample of Colombian bread and butter.
Next, you’ll have an amuse bouche, a single-bite appetizer, which can include pairings such as crayfish and coconut milk, yogurt cheese and limonero ants, or albacore tuna with ants and molasses.
Similarly, main courses can be grouped into a series of pairings of the most unusual, yet Colombian, ingredients. Some of these combinations include a ceviche made with seasonal white fish, leaves from the páramo and copoazú, a fruit found in the Amazon. You can also taste crocodile tail meat in a peach-palm and black pepper sauce, a duck meat taco made with a cariaco corn tortilla, or ponche with a taste of native red beans.
Finally, you can eat a pre-dessert, such as a tangy Colombian Caquetá cheese with mojojoy worms. Desserts include arazá, an Amazonian fruit, meringue tiles, hearts of palm, feijoa or, less-uncommon, a chocolate truffle.
The tasting experience ends with a drink, which could be a rum, an Afro Colombian type of coffee or aguardiente flavored with native herbs.
LEO, now one of the pillars of Colombian gourmet cuisine, had been chosen as the 49th and 46th best restaurant in the world in previous years. This time, though, it’s Leonor herself who takes the accolade.
Both selections were made by London-based organization The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, composed by 1080 culinary experts from around the globe. The list of voters is kept anonymous and is carefully divided into three groups of highly skilled chefs and restaurateurs, food writers and gourmet travelers.
Leonor, who had already been named Latin America’s best female chef in 2017, is receiving all the attention at the moment. William Drew, culinary director of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, praised her for becoming “one of the most iconic Latin American chefs of her generation, a defender of her country’s biological and cultural diversity like no other. She is a self-taught chef who still wants to learn more and teach others as well.”
That desire to help the community has been more than just words. In 2008, she created the FUNLEO foundation, which promotes a food culture that showcases the potential of traditional food, biodiversity and national identity.
Leonor knows that gastronomy has the ability to be a source of income and generate development across the country. Thus, her foundation aims to support rural communities and help small producers to reach the market.
Now, as the best female chef in the world, she is even more confident in continuing her mission: fostering biodiversity and showing Colombian flavors to the world. She believes that ethnic territories have been neglected and female chefs have been shown little recognition. However, she wants to turn this around.
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“I receive this prize with much joy because now my voice will be heard a little more, which will allow me to continue laying the grounds of gastronomy as a leading instrument to generate socio-economic welfare, especially in developing countries,” writes Leonor upon learning the news.
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022 ceremony will take place at Old Billingsgate market in London on July 18th.
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My name is Javier Cataño García and I am pursuing a M.A. in Spanish, with focus on linguistics and literature, at the University of South Florida, Tampa, where I also teach undergraduate Spanish courses. I was born and raised in Colombia, but I have lived in the United States since August 2021. I have always had a special interest in foreign languages and geography, and I am looking to channel that interest through Latina Republic. I also have some training and experience in English-Spanish translation and interpretation. Although my professional career has been centered in teaching, I enjoy delving into other areas such as music, cooking and journalism. I hope to find new directions in my career through Latina Republic.