Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa: “I faced a world of men where I was not even respected in my kitchen”

The best female chef in the world, as chosen by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, reflects on the ego, deforestation and food security

Leonor Espinosa
Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa at her restaurant in Bogota.Andrés Cardona
Catalina Oquendo

Leonor Espinosa stands up from the table where she has given countless interviews and heads to the kitchen. “How’s the stew going?” she asks.

The response from the team at the restaurant Leo is inaudible, but judging by the silence, everything is going well. Espinosa has talked for hours, and all she wants is to go back to her kitchen.

Since The World’s 50 Best Restaurants named her the best female chef in the world, she has not stopped receiving messages. One in particular makes her stop and remember her Caribbean origins in Sucre, where she grew up. “I know your uncle Gabriel,” says the caller, who wants to “humbly” request an interview for the local radio station. “I would appreciate your respectful attention.”

“This reminds me of a region where people are very friendly, very formal. In the savannah of Sucre and Córdoba we still find these obsolete kinds of behavior and language. I was raised that way, with that politeness and that show of respect. That’s why it’s hard for me to sneak into a party, or arrive at someone else’s house at the wrong time without warning. I was trained like this, with the ‘don’t be impolite.’”

Espinosa laughs, enjoying the memories behind her childhood gastronomic heritage. The town of Sincé, in the department of Sucre, reminds her of wild rabbit stewed with coconut milk and allspice, parboiled cassava, duck pebre. “My best moments go back to that region, and they are still very present in my kitchen.”

Leonor Espinosa
Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa.Andrés Cardona

Question: Everyone knows you as the chef laureate now. What goes through your head on a day like today? Do you remember the low moments, what it took to get here?

Answer: I don’t know. Sometimes I’m like a little mountain animal that runs and walks without looking to the sides. I feel like I’m just starting to understand it, because when they announced it I was a little bit in shock. But the days go by and you have to come to work and you have to do everything. This morning the former best chef in the world, Pía León of Peru, sent me a message. She said, “Leonor, you’re going to see what this means, you’re not going to have time for anything except being on the phone.”

Q: And after that what happens? What did she say, having already experienced this?

A: I didn’t ask. I’m not curious in that sense. I prefer for the days to go by, and tomorrow I can narrate how I experienced this. I believe that my days do not have to change and my life does not have to change. Everything can remain the same. I am still the same Leonor, the same worker, tireless, persevering, consistent. You know?

Q: You say you hope this award doesn’t give you an ego trip. How do you keep it under control?

R: I used to be a very arrogant person. At one point it got to my head, and I realized that. At first I had to face a world of men where I was not respected even in my own kitchen. I had to be brave and have balls. So I was kind of arrogant and aggressive. And I got that reputation. Today I am a different person.

Q: And a perfectionist.

A: Sure, I’m a perfectionist. I like to work with people who like to be perfect. The pandemic and having only a very small circle of friends led me to be much more introspective and my meditations—I am not Catholic but I believe in a god—have led me to be thankful and ask for my ego not to overcome me. I have been thankful for two weeks, saying “this will be forgotten, all this is media noise, one piece of news takes over another, and another will come to overshadow it.” This is not eternal. The ego does not lead anywhere. I see people who hold public office and they become inaccessible, like gods. I don’t want that to happen to me.

Leonor Espinosa chef de Colombia
Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa with one of her employees. Andrés Cardona

Q: What does this recognition represent for women in haute cuisine?

A: People wonder why there is no award for the best male chef in the world and why there is one for best female chef in the world. I think it’s because these awards also reclaim, promote and make visible women’s work in a part of the kitchen that has not belonged to them and that hasn’t been easy, just as it hasn’t been easy for women filmmakers, or women construction engineers, just as surely it has not been easy for men who today do activities that have traditionally belonged to women. So the award is not to generate a gap or differences between genders, but to recognize the value of women who work in haute cuisine, which is really a hard space with physical work.

Q: In the popular kitchens you visit on your travels, the matriarchs are in charge.

A: Oh, yes! They tell me, Ms. Leonor, that’s not how you do it. Get out of the way, you don’t know how to do it! It makes me laugh because, of course, they are absolutely right, they are women who preserve this memory and take on the responsibility of raising, planting, taking care of the food.

Q: You claim that cooking is political.

A: With me basing my cuisine on the memories of the territories and their problems, it is already a political act. Considering that there are new ways to generate wellbeing and development is a political act. The fact of working conscientiously for a responsible kitchen is a political act, and there are many political acts involved in the profession. Just now, cooks are understanding that they have a responsibility in the face of food insecurity, of bad eating habits. That is a political act.

Q: You work with fermented coca leaves, and you recently told a US diplomat who came to your restaurant that coca leaves are not cocaine.

A: The man has every right to think that coca is cocaine. I respect him, but he was in my house, and we very decently changed his drink because our job is service, but we do not accept those positions here. Whoever comes into my house must come with an open mind. Here there are no structures with regard to certain ingredients. Here we are in a free state of gastronomy.

Q: Your foundation has a project with chefs from around the world who have recently visited the Amazon to learn about deforestation. How is this topic linked to gastronomy?

A: Deforestation is a problem that not only destroys biological species, because basically it is for monocultures or extensive cattle ranching. What is worrying about this is what is going to happen to the worldviews, the societies there, because their customs, their memories and a large part of our heritage will disappear. Humans will find ways to produce, and in the kitchen the food will be artificial, because we will eliminate new forms of life. We have seen it in movies and in comics. The Israelis have survived in a desert territory, and today they have one of the most advanced approaches to farming in the world, so we will surely advance. But that will mean that the human being will be alone on the land, because he is the only one who has the capacity to evolve. Other living beings will be sacrificed by humans’ excessive exploitation.

At the end of the interview marathon, Espinosa finally returns to the kitchen to celebrate with her six closest friends–”Those who have been there for me all my life,” he says.

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