Leo Espinosa, an attractive, red-haired and freckled chef, known as “the kitchen diva”, has become a true ambassador of Colombian cuisine, devoting her efforts to rescuing the best kept secrets of the traditional cuisine of her country, and bringing directly from the garden to the table, local products that reflect the incredible agricultural richness of the Colombian landscape.
Chef Leo Espinosa.
Born in Cartagena and staunch admirer of her culture, Leo – as she is affectionately called – owns three of the best-known restaurants with the most sophisticated, delicious and exclusive cuisine in all of Colombia: Leo (better known as Leo Cocina y Cava), La Leo and Mercado.
She personally decorated all three spaces with different themes and for different audiences or occasions. Her dishes are elaborated with traditional ingredients (many of them unknown in popular cuisine) that are part of the cultural fiber of disenfranchised indigenous, black and peasant communities of Colombia, combined in surprising and fascinating ways and always presented with utmost creativity. Leo walks around her stove with the same grace she shows her guests, wearing sexy and snug chef jackets in vivid colors, polka dots or artsy prints, created by Colombian designers such as Sandra Cabrales or Carlos Valenzuela.
“I love to wear very tight jackets that highlight my femininity in a business dominated by men”, she says. “In addition, gastronomy is an art, and absolutely everything – decor, ingredients, dishes, presentation, tablecloths – has to reflect the personality of the artist, in this case, the chef”. In fact, Leo´s first love was art. She studied Economics, Advertising and Fine Arts, devoting herself completely to the latter to give free rein to her booming creativity.
1. Chef Leo Espinosa. 2. Laura Hernández.
As a single mother, she had to cook every day for herself and young daughter Laura. It was during those days that she discovered in the kitchen an art form she had never imagined. Food became her artistic stage. Her dishes achieved cult status, and soon she received an offer to work in one of the best restaurants in Bogota, Claroscuro, where she was in charge of the concept as well as the design of the menu.
In 2007 she was finally able to open her first restaurant, Leo, near La Macarena in Bogota. Soon Leo Cocina y Cava (as it is generally known) was chosen by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the 80 best restaurants in the world. Three years later, National Geographic Traveler chose it as one of 105 best culinary experiences on the planet. “It is my first restaurant, and in addition to being very “me”, it is my favorite,” she admits. “It was my artistic stage, and I took charge of every little detail, from choosing the matte red of the walls to the art pieces that adorn it.”
On the other hand, the restaurant allowed her to show an unknown side of Colombian cuisine: “Here we promote all the natural resources of the indigenous communities of Colombia, which had never before left their boundaries. Leo Cocina y Cava has much to do with our cultural heritage, our cuisine and traditions.”
Leo Cocina y Cava.
Dishes such as white fish ceviche with coconut milk vinaigrette, mango puree and a sorbet of mint with lemon, accompanied by crispy breadfruit; sea bass fillet on black coconut rice and raisins, bathed in a sauce of stewed snails, wrapped in banana leaf and grilled over charcoal; “mote” of coastal cheese with yam, bleo oil and sautéed onion, tomato and garlic, served with pigeon peas with coconut milk, or “sanchochito” of smoked creole chicken with coconut milk, sofrito from the Cauca Valley, mashed green plantains and crispy cassava strips, are just some of the house´s offerings
Years later, and after the overwhelming success of Leo Cocina y Cava, she opened La Leo in Bogota’s Zona Rosa. “La Leo was the next step in my culinary journey. It is inspired in the fusion created by the arrival of different cultures that influenced the local cuisines: Chinese, Arabic, Italian, Japanese, and French… “
Espinoza’s take on fusion includes artisanal smoked vegetables with chuchuguanza bark and seven Amazonian roots, cured goat cheese and walnut oil dressing; round steak stewed goulash-style in brown sugar, tamarind juice and vegetables, accompanied by mashed potatoes and sautéed peas with bacon, garlic and coconut; or crusted tuna with millet crisps, served with titoté and ginger sauce, alongside Japanese rice, macadamia quindianas, fried onion and roasted asparagus with marina sauce.
Mercado, the third of her restaurants, opened recently in a park on 93 Street. With an informal setting and dedicated to supporting local farmers, whose products often do not reach large markets, it is inspired in Colombian cuisine and is 100 percent organic, with chicken as its flagship product: “The chicken we serve is totally organic, with Colombian sauces that have a very special touch,” says Leo. “Mercado evokes a street cevicheria or an arepera, within a very contemporary concept. It reflects the casual atmosphere of a home, with an open kitchen and products displayed on a long table.”
The organic purity of the products she uses is part of Leo Espinosa´s mission, who in addition to her restaurants and her blog, has a wonderful Foundation called Funleo, led by daughter Laura, now 27 years old, who studied international relations and is a sommelier and a specialist in sustainable development.
Funleo, whose motto is “Gastronomy for Development”, is an initiative devoted to help the underserved black, indigenous and peasant communities of the country, investigating their crops and unique ingredients and working to optimize production and distribution from their place of origin. “We try to develop the local food, not just the cuisine: our attention is not focused only in the kitchen, but also in resources, local products from these indigenous communities that have lost, shall we say, a place within Colombian agriculture”, she explains.
Laura, on the other hand, organizes workshops on good practices, processes and responsibility, to ensure that the organic products they bring to the table at their restaurants meet all requirements.
“We raise awareness in these communities so they understand that the natural ingredients and recipes used by their ancestors will sustain national sovereignty and a unique identity in response to mass tourism. Every country has beaches, mountains and history. What makes us different is our gastronomy and music”, she adds. “Once we develop our gastronomic potential from the farm, once we promote and market our resources and crops, Colombia can become the new gastronomic capital of the world”, she concludes.
The dream of this passionate chef is to show the world the greatness of Colombian cuisine. And while she weaves her dream, Leo focuses on her daughter Laura—her best and most beloved friend— her three restaurants, a project to create a recipe book in keeping with the philosophy of each venue; on Funleo – her life’s mission, her great legacy-, and on her investigative visits to indigenous communities and trips abroad, promoting Colombian cuisine as its best promoter and steward. ■