Through her work, the Colombian chef, plastic artist and activist Leonor Espinosa wants to portray the narratives and the customs of marginalized communities in the Colombian Pacific – and thereby transform their reality.
Macambo, mojojoy, mambe and borojó. Courtesy of Restaurante Leo.
ZOTEA Integral Culinary Center in Coquí, Chocó, Colombia. Supported by the FUNLEO Foundation. Courtesy of FUNLEO.
Fish, water quiche, güesgüin, copoazú, pea. Courtesy of Resturante Leo.
Leonor Espinosa, a Colombian plastic artist and activist, is first and foremost internationally known through her work as a chef. In recent years she has received several prizes and awards for her work, including Latin America’s Best Female Chef 2017 and, just a few weeks ago, her restaurant Leo earned a place on the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019.
Born 1963 in Cartago, Colombia, Espinosa spent most of her childhood and youth in Cartagena de Indias as well as in other parts of the Colombian Caribbean. In her cooking, she applies her life experiences and everything she has learned on her journeys.
To her, food is a channel of expression for her art, aesthetically represented in her dishes and on the menu of her restaurant Leo in Bogotá. In addition to its artistic value, her work also has a strong ethical component as well as a social commitment towards the isolated rural communities in the Colombian Pacific – communities which have often been affected by the long armed conflict in the country.
Using local ingredients and native produce and working with women from the aforementioned communities, the FUNLEO foundation, created 11 years ago, seeks to visualize and promote the culinary and agricultural wealth from these often marginalized Colombian communities.
C&AL: Part of your professional education was in art. Can you talk about the relationship you have created between food and art?
Leonor Espinosa: Contemporary artists express sensitive visions of the world – real or imaginary – through the use of plastic, audible or linguistic elements. Thus, the world(s) are narrated in realities with alternative perspectives, that try to resolve or propose solutions to conflicts or break with traditional language. After visiting art school for the second time, I began to apply that same concept to food and it gave me the idea to base my proposal on research, observation and experimentation, not only of culinary memory, but also of biocultural plentitude. My objective is to transcend the act of cooking by working from a place of multiplicity and adding value through culinary initiatives in communities in vulnerable territories with social and economic problems.
C&AL: What do art and food have in common? At what point do they diverge or what sets them apart as a discipline on one hand and as the object of handicraft on the other?
LE: Cooking involves aspects of physics, engineering, mechanics, anatomy and biology. Art on the other hand is observed more in the mixture of ingredients, colors, textures and flavors; that is, in the beautification of food in terms of form and content. In this sense, gastronomy transcends the limits of the cooking profession, and its objective goes beyond the mastery of a technique and can even become a transforming axis of society. This approach involves other disciplines such as anthropology, history and geography, and shows us that there are no diverging points but rather meetings and crossings. One way to understand the connection between cuisine, gastronomy and art is through science.
C&AL: What is the purpose behind the FUNLEO foundation?
LE: The purpose of FUNLEO is to identify, reclaim and reinforce the culinary traditions in Colombian communities based on their biological and cultural heritage. Further, we seek to promote welfare, health and nutrition. We create projects that apply the principles of gastronomy as a vehicle for economic and social development. Those projects then in turn contribute to improving the living conditions in both rural and urban areas.
C&AL: How has your vision of art changed through the work in FUNLEO? And how has your activism influenced your view on gastronomy?
LE: I have been traveling in very diverse territoires throughout Colombia for more than a decade now. It has led me to better understand the social and economic needs of rural ethnic communities settled in biocultural territories and how gastronomic processes can help generate welfare. From my point of view, both as an artist and as a chef, I create realities from experiences framed by research and knowledge as a means to bring forward certain ingredients and let them tell stories that relate to memory and traditional usage and customs. It is a way of connecting different life forms and making them visible. That to me is art.
C&AL: How do you see your work on the global stage with people doing similar projects along the same principles?
LE: Today the art of cooking is seen from other important edges of which chefs from all over the world are increasingly aware. For example, the perception of heritage as a source for generating goods and services, the participation in the discussion of the impact of climate change on alimentation, or support in humanitarian crises caused by political and social factors. It comforts me to know that projects exist which aim to improve human conditions through gastronomy. I admire the work of Turkish chef Ebru Baybara Demir, who in the midst of the migration crisis used food to restore the cultural links between Turkey and Syria, working with migrant women to salvage culinary traditions as well as emphasize the value of land for agricultural uses. I also highly respect the work of María Fernanda Di Giacobbe, a promoter of Venezuelan chocolate through projects such as Kakao, Cacao de Origen and Río Cacao, each of which articulate a network of education, research and entrepreneurship in Creole cocoa producing communities centered around identity, and cultural and economic wealth. Finally, I would like to mention Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez and his project MIL Centro, a model for restoration and interaction with local communities which integrates sustainable agricultural practices, knowledge exchange and multicultural dialogues.
Juliana Duque is a food editor and consultant. She holds a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from Cornell University.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen.