Leonor Espinosa has earned international acclaim for her unique fusion cuisine that blends traditional Colombian flavors with modern culinary techniques.
As the winner of "World's Best Female Chef 2022," Leonor Espinosa has earned international acclaim for her unique fusion cuisine that blends traditional Colombian flavors with modern culinary techniques. The cuisine, however, is a part of a much larger picture: beyond the delectable flavors and stunning presentation, Espinosa's dishes have a deeper meaning as a means of healing and processing her country's troubled history.
Born and raised in Colombia, Espinosa has witnessed firsthand the violence and trauma that have plagued the country for decades, from the drug wars to the ongoing conflict with paramilitary groups. Rather than letting this trauma consume her, she has found a way to channel it into something positive through her cooking. Food has always been a way for her to connect with her heritage and culture, but as she has grown and learned more about the history of her country, she has realized that it can also be a way to confront and heal from the pain and trauma of the past.
These beliefs are what led her to finally quit a long corporate career in advertising and set up a foundation called "Funelo," with the aim to identify and preserve unique Colombian dietary traditions. The foundation has been active since 2008 and is now headed by Espinosa’s daughter, Laura Hernández-Espinosa. The foundation has made it possible to bring several indigenous foods and ingredients to the Colombian fine dining scene, all while being sustainable and empowering the communities that are a part of the project.
Thus, Espinosa's fusion cuisine was born, combining traditional Colombian ingredients with elements from other cultures to reflect the rich tapestry of her country's history. The chef's cooking also follows a revolutionary philosophy called "ciclo bioma", which means that each plate of food that she serves features ingredients from each of Colombia’s 20+ distinct biomes and the indigenous populations that call them home. From Spanish colonization to the African slave trade, her food tells the story of Colombia's diverse past and present. But beyond the cultural significance, Espinosa's fusion cuisine also serves as a form of personal catharsis, as cooking and creating new dishes is therapeutic for her, and she hopes it can be healing for others as well.
Traces of these trains of thought could not be more apparent in her flagship restaurant, "Leo," in Bogota, Columbia. The restaurant was founded in 2007 with the aim of showcasing the region’s biodiversity through a tasting menu. The scope of the endeavor would be broadened exponentially with the establishment of the Funelo Foundation the following year, adding human elements to Espionza’s cooking philosophy. The restaurant has worked with several mediums over the years to present the country’s rich culinary diversity to patrons, culminating in a series of tasting menus since the restaurant's reopening in 2021, post-COVID. The restaurant currently boasts two tasting menus of eight and thirteen courses each. The menus contain courses that fall under one of two categories: Leo sala de Leo or Leo Sala de Laura. The food under each label comes from two separate restaurants housed under the same roof; the courses labeled "Leo sala de Leo" are imagined by Espinosa herself, and the ones labeled "Leo Sala de Laura" by her daughter, who is also the beverage director of the restaurant. Laura's dishes are meant to be more approachable and representative of conventional Colombian fare, while Leo’s courses stay true to her 16-year-old philosophy of ciclo bioma.
The dishes served center around a range of produce that would seem unconventional or even shocking to most diners, from limonero ants to caimans. That said, the menus also feature several courses that are based on more familiar ingredients, such as crayfish and potatoes. All dishes that are served feature indigenous flavors, such as traditional yogurt cheese, herbs, coconut milk, et cetera. Each course of the meal is also accompanied by an alcoholic or non-alcoholic fermented drink from Leo Sala de Laura that features indigenous fruit and flavorants.
The warm, welcoming atmosphere of the restaurant reflects the philosophies that are applied to the food, as Espinosa wants diners to feel like they are coming into her home and sharing a meal. Food has the power to bring people together and create a sense of community, and Espinosa hopes that her restaurant can be a place where people can find comfort and healing. It seems that her message is resonating, as her restaurant has become a destination for both gourmands and those seeking solace alike. Her food features a playful approach to fine dining, with the aim of presenting guests with dishes that lie on the interstice of abstract concepts and real-world sensory experiences.
In a world that can often seem divided and tumultuous, Leonor Espinosa's fusion cuisine serves as a beacon of hope and healing. Through her culinary creations, she reminds us of the power of food to bring people together and help us confront and overcome the challenges of our past.