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The year that has just drawn to a close is destined to be a memorable one for Leonor Espinosa.
In the space of just a few months, this chef was assigned the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants Best Female Chef award and the Basque Culinary Prize, which immediately put the international spotlight on Colombian cuisine and her restaurant Leo Cocina y Cava in Bogota but, above all, on the development projects she is committed to in her country’s rural communities.
It would be a gross understatement to define Espinosa’s career as “atypical”. Born and raised in Cartagena, the chef studied Economics and Fine Arts at university, before going on to work in the marketing and advertising business. For the past twenty years, however, she has been totally dedicated to cooking.
The Leo Cocina y Cava restaurant opened in Bogota in 2007 and one year later she set up the FUNLEO Leo Espinosa Foundation, whose mission is to develop rural communities through the 'preservation of Colombia's food traditions while highlighting sustainable practices and local production’. Espinosa works alongside her daughter, Laura Hernandez Espinosa who, following her studies in international cooperation in Argentina, became a sommelier and now heads the FUNLEO.
During Care’s, we met both of them to discuss this extraordinary year, their work and their plans for the future.
You have won a number of awards this year. How important are these kinds of awards? Also, where do you stand on the controversy surrounding the awards for female chefs? Some would argue ‘best chef’ awards should not be genderised.
All international accolades are a cause for great pride. It is especially important for the younger generations to believe in the future of Colombian cuisine. It is also very important for women who are still only a small minority in this business. Many start to work and then give up. There may be a hint of chauvinism in “gender” awards, but I don’t want to linger on these considerations. The going is tough so it is nice to be acknowledged and these awards prove that women can be successful, that the difficulties which certainly exist can be surmounted.
To what extent has your somewhat unconventional and “atypical” background impacted your work?
I have considered myself an artist since the age of 12, so I tend to think out of the box. I have applied artistic processes to my cuisine.
How did the idea to create FUNLEO first take shape?
Leonor: When I started to travel and become more familiar with the country, I realized that there was an enormous problem that no one was trying to address. There were – and still are – communities living in utter poverty: they receive no form of governmental support, they have no access to any sort of technology and they have no agricultural policy.
Laura: The foundation was set up in 2008 as the material expression of all my mother’s ideas. When I decided to return to Colombia, after university, I began working on it immediately. We started out by dealing with food and tradition, before going on to encourage growth through the recovery of biodiversity. Now, for instance, we are working in the region of Chocó engaged in building a holistic culinary centre for the local native community, with a community garden and a community restaurant. This is the world’s second most important biodiversity hotspot: we want to preserve it and make it a vehicle of growth for the community, also comprising plants with magical or religious connotations.
You work quite closely with your daughter Laura: how does that dynamic work day to day in a professional sense?
She’s the boss! We each have our own work patch and when we do have time to spend together, we don’t discuss work. At times, we do not see each other for relatively long periods. When we started to work together, we had a good relationship and I was afraid of spoiling it, but that has not been the case. Laura: When I was younger, it was more complicated. But, generally speaking, learning from your mother is always a difficult process.
Have you ever felt in risk going about your work out in the field?
Yes. These are strategic areas for drug trafficking. Every now and then you have to suspend work and wait for the situation to return to “normal”. All we can do is suspend operations and wait.
Do you believe Colombia can become the “new gastronomic capital of the world”?
We think we are working in the right direction but the road ahead is still a long one. In our country, certain links in the food chain are missing and the producers are not connected with everything else. Consumers need to start valorising local products and traditions. We are doing everything possible to promote Colombian cuisine and to empower its players, but it is still very difficult to start speaking of growth for our country.