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

Leonor Espinosa, 59, elected the best chef in the world, gets up from the table where she has given countless interviews and heads to the kitchen.

“How’s the cocoa going?”

The response of the Leo restaurant team is not heard, but judging by the silence everything is going well.

Espinosa has talked for hours and hours, but all she wants is to go back to her kitchen.

Since her election as the best chef in the world was announced, by the organization of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, she has not stopped receiving messages and audios, but one makes her stop and remember her Caribbean origins, in Sucre, where she grew up. “I know her uncle, Gabriel de ella,” the caller tells him that she wants to “gently” request an interview for the local radio station. “I would appreciate your deferential attention from him,” she ends.

“This reminds me of a territory where people are very friendly, very formal. I would think that the savannah of Sucre and Córdoba (in the north of Colombia) is where we still find these disused forms of behavior and language. I was raised that way with that permission and that respect. That’s why it’s hard for me to sneak into a party, arrive at someone else’s house at the wrong time, without warning. I was trained like this, with the “don’t be reckless”.

Espinosa laughs and seems to enjoy those memories that constitute his childhood gastronomic heritage. Since, the town of Sucre, is reminiscent of wild rabbit stewed with coconut milk and allspice, parboiled cassava, duck pebre. “My best moments correspond to that land and they are very marked in my kitchen and are still valid”.

Chef Leonor Espinosa, owner of the Leo restaurant in Bogotá, May 17, 2022.
Chef Leonor Espinosa, owner of the Leo restaurant in Bogotá, May 17, 2022. Andres Cardona

Ask: Everyone knows the laureate chef, what goes through your head on a day like today, do you remember the moments of low flight, what it cost you to get here?

Response: I don’t know, sometimes I’m like a little mountain animal, that runs and walks around without looking to the sides or anything. It is that I feel that until now I am measuring it, because when they announced me I was a little like 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, the Peruvian Pía León, sent me a message and Leonor tells me, you’re going to see what this means, you’re not going to have time for anything, except to be on the phone.

P: And after that what happens? What does she say that she already has that experience?

A: I did not ask him. I’m not curious in that sense. I prefer that the days go by and that tomorrow I can narrate how I lived the experience. I believe that my days do not have to change and my life does not have to change. Everything remains the same. I am still the same Leonor, the same worker, the one who is tireless, the one who is persevering, consistent. You know?

P: She says she hopes this prize doesn’t infect her with ego. How does she keep it flush?

R: I was a very lofty person, at one point my smoke went up 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 get balls. So I was kind of arrogant and aggressive. And I stayed with that fame. Today I am a different person.

P: And perfectionist.

R: 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 always in my meditations —I am not Catholic but I believe in a god— they have led me to thank and ask for the ego not to invade me. I have been thanking for 15 days and saying ‘this is forgotten, all this is media, one news covers another and a week comes another that overshadows it. This is not eternal, the ego does not lead to anything. I see people who hold public office and they become inaccessible and gods and I say I don’t want that to happen to me.

Chef Leonor Espinosa, with one of her assistants at the Leo restaurant, in Bogotá.  May 17, 2022.
Chef Leonor Espinosa, with one of her assistants at the Leo restaurant, in Bogotá. May 17, 2022. Andres Cardona

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

R: People wonder why there is no award that says the best male chef in the world and why there is a best female chef in the world. I think because these awards also want to vindicate, promote and make visible the work of women in a segment of the kitchen that has not belonged to them and that has not been easy, as it has not been easy for women and filmmakers, as It has been easy for women construction engineers, just as it has not been easy for men who today surely carry out an activity that has 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, of physical work.

P: In the popular kitchens that you visit on your travels, the ones who rule are the midwives…

R: Ah, no, they tell me, Mrs. Leonor, that’s not how you do it. Get out of there! You don’t know how to do it and it even makes me laugh because, of course, they are women who are absolutely right with this memory and destroy the responsibility of raising, planting, taking care of the food.

P: You claim that cooking is political

R: The fact of basing my cuisine on the memories of the territories and on the problems of the territories is already a political act; Considering that there are new ways to generate well-being and development is a political act. The fact of working conscientiously for a responsible kitchen is already a political act and there are many political acts against the trade. Until now, cooks are understanding that there is also a responsibility in the face of food insecurity, of bad eating habits. That is already a political act.

P: You work with fermented coca leaves and recently told (via twitter) a US diplomat who came to your restaurant that the coca leaf is not cocaine.

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

R: In your Foundation you have a project with chefs from around the world and they have recently visited the Amazon to delve into deforestation. How is this topic linked to gastronomy?

R: Deforestation is a problem that not only kills 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 worlds, to the cosmovisions that inhabit there, because finally their customs, their memories and a large part of our heritage will disappear. The man will finally find ways to produce and the food will be artificial, because we will end the new forms of life, we have seen it in the movies and in the comics. The Israelis have survived in a desert territory and today they have one of the most advanced ways of farming in the world, so we will surely advance, but that will mean that the human being will be left alone on the land, because he is the only one who has the capacity to evolve and that beings, other living beings, will be sacrificed by the excessive exploitation of the human being.

Only until the end of the interview marathon, Espinosa will be able to return to the kitchen and celebrate with his circle of just 6 friends. “Those who have supported me all my life,” she says.

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