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Informal eating…but with style


Informal eating…but with style

By: Diana Herrera Rusinque.
Photos: Nancy Mora

Three years ago, Chef Ferrán Adrià, Catalan’s most distinguished gastronomist, dared to get involved with an area of cooking that is forbidden territory for any great chef: fast food. However, he brought his own personal perspective to the subject, offering diners a quick and light menu, but of good quality. Thus Fast Food met its alter ego: Fast Good.

The trend introduced by this Spanish chef has been successfully replicated in Colombia by Leonor Espinosa, a chef from Cartagena that the Colombian public came to recognize when her restaurant -–Leo Cocina y Cava– was chosen by the Condé Nast Traveler magazine as one of the best in the world, coming in at number 82. A broader Latin American audience will also recognize the name from the New Colombian Cuisine show on the Gourmet channel, available on pay TV.

Although an excellent chef, Leonor is first and foremost an irrepressibly curious artist. Her favorite topic is her artistic studies, followed by her extensive travels through the most remote parts of Colombia searching for the country’s lost culinary heritage and for sometimes long forgotten ingredients that in her hands become transformed into exquisite preparations.

Art and research also feature in his fast food offerings, which she has christened with the name Casual Food and that she serves in her second restaurant Leo’s Bar.

Leonor Espinosa recognizes that her inspiration comes from Ferrán Adrià’s great idea launched in 2005, but she is quick to point out that despite sharing some elements in common with the Catalan, she has adapted her style to the traditional Colombian cooking that now characterizes her food.

“I have been developing new ways of cooking for years” says the chef “based on my research into the country’s indigenous communities and those of African descent. This is just the latest development that is also healthy and innovative and seeks to let people know about the lost flavors and knowledge of our ancestral cultures, so they can be rescued and so their contribution to Colombian cooking can be recognized”.

This knowledge and these flavors have resulted in dishes that are, first of all surprising for their names and then for their effect in the palate. A busy executive with only minutes to spare for lunch can visit Leo’s bar and enjoy a buffalo burger or a sandwich with ingredients including delicious babilla (leg) meat, or Tucupí, a spicy Amazonian dish prepared from bitter cassava.

Naturally the way the food is prepared also plays an important part in the end result. However, in contrast to Fast Food, Casual Food also pays special attention to style, which is more complex. So although the food meets the needs of people who have to keep up with the ever increasing pace of life, it also incorporates better quality ingredients prepared in a more healthy way and presented so as to be a real pleasure to look at.

The concept also extends to the importance of the place where Casual Food is served. As the invited chef says, each element has to be in complete harmony with the whole concept. “We are trying to get away from the idea of franchises and places with cookie cutter environments and decoration that all looks the same, and we are trying to be more innovative. The bar illustrates this concept with lighting and decoration that are appropriate to the location, with bold colors inspired by Vintage art and Pin Ups from the 1940s, blended with reds, pinks and yellows, which are warm, friendly and comforting to the senses”.

The diners also participate in this game of sensory delight as they experience the flavors, smells and colors of the food. They have to be open to new experiences and to trying new combinations. They must not react with suspicion when confronted with new recipes. Casual Food offers an invitation to take risks, to walk on the wild side, to break with convention. And there will always be people who are willing to rise to the challenge, which is the reason why this new cuisine has achieved such success in such a short time.