There are few things that connect us to our surroundings, experiences, and other cultures in the same way that food does. This is something that Chef Leonor Espinosa carries at the core of her relationship with cooking.
Named Latin America’s Best Female Chef in 2017, Espinosa is a culinary powerhouse. She brings an anthropologist’s eye to local flavors: through her restaurant, Leo, Espinosa uses fine dining to celebrate ingredients from the geographically and socially complex regions of her home country of Colombia. And by way of their foundation, FUNLEO, she and her daughter use food as a way to encourage progress and well-being in compromised parts of the country. “Through Leo, we’ve developed a relationship with these communities,” she says. “We have the opportunity to feature their ingredients and products, encouraging more outside interest in these regions.”
Unfortunately, in the wake of the pandemic, Leo is currently closed for operations. “Fine dining is an experience, and it wasn’t something we could replicate in a different approach like home delivery,” says Espinosa. Like many restaurateurs, Espinosa also had to make the tough decision of closing her two Misia locations, restaurants that featured more casual environs and a menu of the food she grew up with.
But Espinosa’s passion for food remains undimmed. She reports that the pandemic has accentuated her love for cooking, and has given her the space to continue building her creativity and knowledge. Here, she unpacks the role food plays in our lives, and how it can lift our spirits even in challenging times.
A Taste of Latin America
Latin America is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. With jungles in the Amazon, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on either side, and the valleys and mountains of the Andes, the area offers a vast array of unique ingredients. “This fusion of elements, combined with the fusion of cultures that took place in the discovery of America—and even before then—is manifested in our food,” says Espinosa.
To her, Colombia’s ingredients represent the unity and shared experiences of Latin America. “We can’t talk about the Colombian Amazon without referencing the Peruvian, Ecuadorian, or Brazilian Amazon regions,” she says. “The same happens with the Andes: they provide ingredients that are very specific to their land—land that extends across borders.”
These are the connections and relationships that chefs can feature in their cooking. “In fine dining, we get to tell the stories of what we have in common,” Espinosa muses. “Not just a territory, but a shared language, shared customs, and shared ingredients.”
A Flavorful Foundation
As part of her journey with food, Espinosa has been continuously influenced by her roots. Growing up in the Caribbean coast region of Colombia—a place that novelist Gabriel García Márquez categorized as a “different dimension”—she was exposed to a vibrant, energetic, fun-loving community. “This attitude was reflected in our food,” she says. “We’re also connected to the rest of the Caribbean through the land and the sea, and that’s clear in the food we eat.”
She also has clear memories of the flavors she would share with her family from the interior of Colombia. Smoked ingredients, coconut milk, peppers—these are all flavors she continues to use in her home cooking.
Now, in a season where she has more time than ever to cook for herself, Espinosa continues to treat herself and her close friends and family. “My connection to the action of cooking—and the action of creating and learning more about food—has grown,” she says.
Finding Comfort in Food
As we continue to navigate uncertainty, food can provide us with comfort and a link to places and people we’ve been cut off from. “The food that connects us to familiar flavors, a specific place, a memory is comfort food,” she says. “By generating well-being and happiness, this food helps us nourish our souls.”
For those who aren’t too comfortable creating these experiences for themselves yet, Espinosa suggests trial and error. “I think we can all cook: I find it hard to believe that anyone couldn’t boil an egg, at least” she says. “It’s important to try different things so that we know what we like and what we don’t.” To her, a recipe is just a guide—it’s up to the individual cook to add their own creativity and preferences to make the dish their own.
A New Path for Restaurants
While operations at Leo are paused, Espinosa and her team have focused their efforts on building a new brand that offers the food she cooks at her home. The food has Asian and Middle Eastern influences, and is delivered to customers in Bogotá. Meanwhile, she can’t help but think about the future of restaurants following the pandemic.
“The pandemic has forced restaurants to go back to local ingredients and reconnect with rural regions,” she says. “I expect that we’ll see more of this change going forward.” This will only be an opportunity to continue to celebrate the vast diversity of ingredients that exist in Colombia and Latin America.