While Colombian chef Leo Espinosa and beverages director Laura Hernández Espinosa invested time, energy and love masterminding a new home for Restaurante LEO in Bogotá’s Zona Rosa district, the pandemic had different plans for the mother-and-daughter team – and the May 2020 launch simply wasn’t meant to be.
“Hospitality was badly hit and we’d invested a lot in the 2020 opening, even hosting a Bogotá Madrid Fusión event there,” says sommelier Laura. “But the pandemic meant we never opened, which ended up being a blessing in disguise because of the risks that a launch can imply. We did, however, have to take the difficult decision to sell the two storefronts of Misia, our Caribbean food restaurant, in Bogotá and Cartagena de Indias.”
Laura Hernández Espinosa: "This was a rebirth for us"
With LEO shuttered and the decision to shelve the Zona Rosa project (at a substantial financial and other losses) taken, the business partners found themselves with unexpected time on their hands. When the opportunity arose to demolish a warehouse in the trendy food district of Chapinero, Leo and Laura went back to square one, embarking on an ambitious architectural project to build a brand-new made-to-measure establishment. “I don’t usually use clichés, but this was a rebirth for us,” says Laura.
While Restaurante LEO has always been an extremely well-paired offering – Leo in the kitchen and Laura dreaming up beverage harmonisations for her mum’s tasting menus – the eventual 2.0 launch in June 2021 upped the pairing ante considerably. While their 'Ciclo-bioma' philosophy, which uses gastronomy as a tool for social and economic development in indigenous and afro-Colombian communities, remains paramount, two major changes further fuse their respective worlds of solids and liquids.
First, following years of tenacious investigation, sommelier Laura released Territorio, a ground-breaking line of handcrafted spirits that pays tribute to Colombia’s biodiverse ecosystems and ancestral practices. Second, using Territorio’s current portfolio of five spirits whose very names – Bosque de Niebla (Foggy Andean Forest) made from fermented honey and Piedemonte (Andean Foothills), combining two of Colombia’s most revered Andean ingredients coca leaves and cacao nibs – transport you to exotic terroir, she has created a cocktail list that can be sampled at La sala de Laura as well as at La sala de Leo. That’s right, diners should make double reservations, one to enjoy the sommelier’s eponymous cocktail bar and eatery found on the first floor, while the ground-floor restaurant complete with stunning open kitchen is obviously Leo’s space; both are housed under one single roof in trendy foodie district Chapinero.
“Territorio was going to form part of our 2020 calendar,” says Laura, “but the pandemic gave me more time to decide where I wanted to take the project next. While I’ve been researching and creating a liquid world next to the solid one for more than a decade, without the pandemic, I wouldn’t have had such a complete cocktail offering, which of course, is in continual motion.”
Leo says: “We each now have our own space although I can now express myself in Laura’s. Although we use the same ingredients and adhere to ‘Ciclo-bioma’, we use flavours differently. Laura's dishes are about every-day dining, along the lines of what people are used to eating. And while I remain emphatic about the flavours I want to project, and never conform to simply creating a dish and leaving it at that, I did want to change our 16-year philosophy and maintain a hallmark that offers experiences. I really took my time to think about it, meditating a lot, and that helped to define it.”
Leo Espinosa: “Laura doesn't work for me and I don’t work for her”
Business partners as well as parent and child, Leo and Laura never took a formal decision to join forces in the restaurant, though perhaps it was always written in the stars, given that Laura simultaneously studied for a political science degree and sommellerie. To the question ‘how do you keep it professional, working together?’, they both laugh, Leo coercing her daughter to answer first.
“It’s pretty traditional for Latin American children to work with their parents in the family business, ‘helping your mami’, but it actually generates frustration. We are very respectful when it comes to working together, and inspire each other equally. In 2015, I took over managing the restaurant and while we were less compatible in that aspect, I enjoyed it. The most important thing is that we are both okay with both making decisions, and we can understand each other without having to speak out loud. We’re close and good friends, and don’t really have a traditional mother-daughter relationship – plus we have the marvellous fortune of shared passions,” says Laura. To more howls of laughter, she adds: “It’s hard to say exactly when I started ‘to help mami’!”
Leo adds: “Not everyone has the capacity or the sensitivity to work towards the benefit of something collective, but that has transformed us into business partners. Laura doesn't work for me and I don’t work for her, because what we have is a common purpose and there isn’t a hierarchy. While day-to-day operations might mean we have disagreements, just yesterday Laura said we are twin souls.”
While Leo and Laura are Colombia’s highest-profile women working in gastronomy (the 2017 Basque World Prize for their work for FunLEO foundation and ranking in the World’s 50 Best for several years assure that position), female chefs continue to gain prominence, according to Leo.
“Colombian women have always had an important role in the kitchen, both at home and in restaurants and hotels. There have been lots of references in the past 20 years and it doesn’t surprise me that this wave of women keeps on growing,” says Leo, who in January organised a brunch at Bogotá’s Prudencia restaurants to showcase the work of chefs Jennifer Rodríguez of Mestizo and Denise Monroy of plant-based Elektra. It’s not the same, however, in beverages.
“While there’s been a relevant advance in mixology that uses local and seasonal ingredients, there are few women professionals in both sommellerie and bartending at a national level. It’s behind compared with gastronomy,” says Laura.
An enormous canvas of two inter-linking trees adorns La sala de Leo, a captivating work by Noemí Pérez that almost deviates the eye from the chef’s slick open kitchen. There’s a communal table right in front of the work stations, as well as a small cocktail bar to perch at, while an illuminated cellar holds Territorio’s beautifully handcrafted ceramic vessels.
Natural elements, well-lit wooden table tops and bespoke clay dish-ware created by Maria Cano, and the multiple ingredients that weave a bio-cultural story adorning them, transport you to Colombia’s biomes, every dish detail lovingly explained by suited staff sporting green and white Stan Smiths: peach palm, mojojoy larva and pirarucú river fish from the tropical rainforest, big-assed Santander ants from the Montane forest, Tatacoa cacao from the desert and caiman from the wetlands.
On the first floor, low lighting, comfy sofas and a captivating work formed by dozens of stones created by Nicolás Bonilla coerce you into changing down gears. Given that the bar is the focal point, simply let Laura in her own saloon, guide you through her astounding world of liquids. (My tip for an unexpected shamanic moment? Order Territorio No. 6 cocktail, Piedemonte, wild red vermouth, Coquí vanilla and a glass pipe stuffed with herbs to puff on.)
This is LEO 2.0, two souls, a mother and her daughter, intrinsically joined, continually complimenting each other, who have created a legacy by sharing Colombia’s secrets with us.