Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa recently received the 2017 Basque Culinary World Prize. She talks to Tina Nielsen about working with rural communities to rebuild their economies, while finding new and forgotten indigenous ingredients for the restaurant kitchen
Economist, artist and chef. So goes the career trajectory of Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa – but it would be the short version. Having found her way to cooking in her late 30s, Espinosa has made a name for herself in the culinary world while working to support rural communities in Colombia for the last 15 years.
She was working in an advertising agency when she realized that she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life in an office. With no formal training she set out to open her first restaurant, Leo, in Bogota 13 years ago. Two years later followed the social development foundation Fundacion Leo Espinosa, also known as Funleo, headed by her daughter Laura, who is an expert in development.
Espinosa has since become known as one of the most accomplished chefs in South America and Leo currently sits in 16th place on the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. In 2014 she opened Misia, a second more casual restaurant,
But her focus, she says, has always been on the communities. The food in her restaurant is based on investigative work carried out in rural areas where she supports local communities to develop their crop and establish a way to trade.
Her food is based on a deep interest in the biodiversity of Colombia, using traditional ingredients. “Leo is a restaurant with a cuisine of local flavours, ingredients based on our rich biodiversity and presented in a more modern language,” she explains. “These resources are often found in areas that are difficult to reach for reasons of poor infrastructure. Through the kitchen we can take part in the development of our country.”
Her intention behind Leo was clear from the start: to make it Colombian. She started to re-discover her country, influenced by the trips she had made with her grandparents as a child. She talks of two-month long trips into remote communities – journeys that thrilled a young girl with a love for adventure. Travelling by horse, canoe, powerboats and car they visited hard-to-reach areas.
“My grandparents had farms in remote areas that today are the focus of social conflicts. They were very generous people who thought about those who didn’t have anything,” she says. “In those days my grandmother was considered different, because, despite the comfortable life she was lucky to have, she mixed with all people. For her there was no question of race or class; everybody was equal.”
This is a feeling that seems to have informed Espinosa’s approach ever since. “Life is about giving and receiving, you know – it’s a two way street. In a country such as Colombia, at this intersection of economy, politics and social problems you simply cannot be oblivious,” she explains.
Lending a hand
When she set out on the journey to open her own restaurant she revisited the trips she had made with her grandparents and the same instinct kicked in.
“When I started these trips I related a lot to my childhood and I knew I had almost a moral obligation passed on from my grandmother,” she says. “We have a lot of problems and we need to lend a hand. So that’s my work: to figure out how to be a part of this economic development process in the ethnic communities.”
She realised there were some interesting resources available. “It’s one thing to get to know the traditional cuisine of your country through trips to restaurants, through your family and your origins, but it is different when you take on the task of really looking at what’s available in the regions, in the ecosystem and in the communities,” she says.
These investigation trips set in motion the establishment of her foundation. “You can’t go through this and ignore the problems. When you get home to your comforts you ask yourself, ‘how can I help? What can I do?’ and that is how the foundation started,” she explains.
The aim behind Funleo is to help communities convert the potential in the ecosystem around them, to a viable production of ingredients, allowing the farmers to trade directly. Ten years in, they have three or four producers who can offer crops to restaurants. But it is slow work.
“This is a lengthy process, it doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “You have to live with these people, understand their world and their way of thinking. You can’t just turn up and burst in because they won’t open the door.”
This summer the work with Funleo earned Espinosa the Basque World Culinary Prize, awarded by the Basque Culinary Center to a chef who uses gastronomy to affect positive change in society.
She says this recognition reinforces her commitment to creating a conscience around the home-grown through gastronomy. “For the communities this is a real joy because for years they have struggled to be recognised for their ancestral values and what they have contributed to the national cultural identity,” she says.
“Historically Colombia has always neglected the ancestral heritage of the afros and the indigenous and they have failed to see the biological diversity as a competitive advantage for sustainable development.”
Over time Leo and Laura have won the confidence and trust of the communities. “They accept us now because we share with them. These places don’t have plumbing and they don’t have hotels. We share their homes, their bathrooms by the river,” she says. These trips have not been without risk – venturing into FARC controlled areas and running investigation labs in so-called red zones can be dangerous. But then, she says, she has always been a bit crazy.
“I have always wanted to take on the world,” she says. This means she rarely says no and has walked into her work with the indigenous communities with an open mind. “I find it very easy to integrate. If they say to me, ‘today we are putting leaves on our faces to greet the forest,’ I’ll do it or if they want to cover my body in huito (a native plant) for some reason or other, I’ll go ‘OK.’”
At the heart of the problems was that there was a lack of any sense of belonging among this rural population. After years of guerilla warfare and fighting over land, so many people have been displaced. These big societal problems have created what Espinosa calls transitional agricultures. “They migrate, they move around and people just don’t stay in one place. The displacements mean that people leave and they leave behind their customs and traditions,” she explains and points out that as they move around they might go from humid and tropical forest to high altitude land and naturally the traditions change from one place to another.
She’s a pioneer among chefs; the first to venture into the rural areas, driven by her sense of social responsibility. “Yes, absolutely. This is something that has been a part of my family for a long time,” she says. “You are what you learn at home.”
Home was where she fell in love with the kitchen too. Not that she did much cooking growing up, but in her childhood home in Cartagena the kitchen was where interesting things happened. “In the kind of houses my grandparents lived in there was always the fancy kitchen at the front and then across the yard in the back was the kitchen where the cooking happened, with the wood-burning stove, the big sinks and where they cooked in large pots and pans,” she explains.
Full of mischief, young Espinosa would routinely get told off and she’d run off seeking refuge among the cooks in the kitchen. “Everything would revolve around the kitchen in the homes of the Caribbean, in the houses of magic realism that you can read about in the novels of García Márquez,” she says. “I liked witnessing what happened there, being there with my mother and my grandmother with all their stories. It fascinated me.”
Espinosa is proud to represent her country and believes it is Colombia’s turn to get attention, after Peru and Mexico have enjoyed the limelight, especially on a culinary level. Part of the problem, she says, is a lack of national pride. “The problem in Colombia is that people don’t give themselves credit. We still consider foreign things to be better than what we have here,” she says. “In Peru and Mexico people have pride but we always look to the outside.”
She’s hopeful, however, that this is changing. People are curious to visit, drawn by the geographical position, which gives the country great biodiversity. Also there is a variety of climates and an interesting topography that makes it very appealing to tourists. The financial crisis in Europe has drawn Spanish visitors and they in turn have brought more.
“It’s a chain, isn’t it?” she says. ‘People come here to have a nice time and they will talk about it – enticing more people to visit,” she says.
Looking ahead she says the restaurants might not last in eternity, but she is confident that the foundation will keep going – and growing. The next step is to establish centres in the rural communities that can sustain the support. But she also recognizes her standing and reputation in the culinary world as an opportunity to spread the word about her country. “Colombia needs people in the world to value it,” she says. “It needs ambassadors and that is something we need to take seriously.”