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Meet Leonor Espinosa: The World's Best Female Chef marrying food with art and politics

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Leonor Espinosa aims to use gastronomy as a tool for socio-economic development
Leonor Espinosa aims to use gastronomy as a tool for socio-economic development   -   Copyright  Luis Acosta/AFP
By Theo Farrant  with AFP

From its jungles to its deserts: the world's newly-crowned best female chef, Leonor Espinosa, draws her inspiration from Colombia's vast biodiversity and painful history. 

"My cuisine tastes of relegated cultures, of forgotten regions, it tastes of ancestral techniques, of smoke... of pain," said the 59-year-old after she was voted World's Best Female Chef 2022 by the prestigious UK food and drink consultancy William Reed, which elects The World's 50 Best Restaurants.

"It also tastes of joy, of plantain, of cassava, of the soil after it rains, of a desert ecosystem. There is a lot of poetry in my kitchen."

A taste for social change

Daniel Munoz/AFP
Leonor Espinosa gestures during an interview with AFP in BogotaDaniel Munoz/AFP

She is not only a cook but also an activist, having travelled to all corners of her motherland to study indigenous cuisine and give a voice to people who feel abandoned in areas blighted by poverty and decades of violence.

In naming Espinosa its winner, the 50 Best panel described her as a "multi-talented Colombian chef marrying art, politics and gastronomy."

Her restaurant named 'Leo' in Colombia's capital city, Bogota, showcases flavours from across the country, particularly from Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. 

"She has forged a unique, cerebral and profound cooking style that sets her apart from her contemporaries, at the same time as she seeks to use gastronomy as a tool of socio-economic development," said the 50 Best Restaurants panel. 

Self taught prodigy

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Leonor Espinosa and her assistant prepare a dish at her restaurant in BogotaLuis Acosta/AFP

Espinosa grew up in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and taught herself how to cook.

She studied economics and arts and worked in advertising before making the leap to the kitchen at the age of 35.

In 2017, she was was named Latin America's best female chef. 

To give her restaurant its trademark native-infused menu, she has criss-crossed all over Colombia to document its culinary history.

She incorporates many traditional ingredients into her repertoire - everything from exotic fruits and Andean tubers to ants and larvae. 

The world of haute cuisine has always been a mostly male-dominated industry but Espinosa has become a global reference for other aspiring female cooks to look up to.  

She hopes to continue using her cooking to promote the socio-economic development of Colombia’s most impoverished regions. 

Check out the video above to see Espinosa's culinary skills in action

Video editor • Theo Farrant