Interview | Chef Sabrina Tinsley

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“I adore studying new cuisines and cultures, and I feel like you can truly get to the core of those by building the basics from scratch.” – Sabrina Tinsley

Thanks to renowned chef Sabrina Tinsley, cuisine from the Emilia- Romagna region of northeastern Italy can be found right in Seattle. Tinsley and her husband, Pietro Borghesi, co-founded their restaurant, Osteria la Spiga, in 1998. Due to their hardworking staff and supportive customers, Osteria la Spiga is known for authentic tastes and a welcoming atmosphere. On Oct. 5, the restaurant will be celebrating its 20th anniversary. Take a look at some questions we had for executive chef Tinsley, including how she maintains success. (Answers have been edited for space).

What is your background in cooking?

I grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, and lived the farm-to-table experience. My mom was brought up gardening and raising small livestock, which she passed along to us. I didn’t realize my passion for cooking until I left for college and began experimenting on my own. Once I had my own apartment, I was doing a lot of experimenting. I started with cakes and pastries mostly, then gradually moved into the savory.

Why did you choose to pursue a degree in elementary education rather than attend culinary school?

My degree was actually a matter of practicality. Right when I started college, I didn’t really know that I had a passion for cooking. I mean, eating food? Yes. But cooking it? Not so much. I was half-way through college before I started researching culinary schools and figured I should probably just finish my degree. Then I could pursue more of my passion during the summer.

After traveling Europe, how did you come to like Italian food the best?

Well, I think if you’ve ever been to Italy, you would understand. I really loved the Italian food I was exposed to growing up, but I realized, once I got to Italy, that I was an Italian food virgin. Their food is orgasmic, and I hadn’t experienced (anything) like that in any other country.

What was your goal with opening La Spiga?

I really wanted to showcase all the food that I had while I was living in Italy. My husband and I were on a roll as business owners — we had had successful businesses in Italy. So we joined forces with my sister, here in Seattle, to grow our business to the next level.

What’s it like working and maintaining a restaurant with your husband, Pietro?

We’ve been married for 25 years come December and we’ve been working together for about 24. So at this point it’s pretty natural for us. I can say that my level of patience is tested regularly, and we feed off each other’s energy — both good and bad. But the reward is that we’re working hard together toward common goals.

What’s it like working and do you ever want to move back to Italy to be around that authentic cooking?

We visit fairly often, so I do get exposed to the cooking there. The ultimate goal is to have a home in Italy so we can enjoy spending some time in both countries. As far as cooking professionally in Italy, I wouldn’t want to necessarily go back to work just because I prefer having my free time while I’m there. When we go back, I do enjoy cooking for friends and family, so that’s quite enough.

What do you do differently as a chef in your restaurant?

I can’t speak to what other chefs do, but I have some things that work for me. I am very hands-on with our line cooks until I feel con dent that they can produce our dishes to the highest quality. I also insist on a calm environment in the kitchen because the job is already stressful enough. Another focus of mine is taking care of my health. I pay attention to what foods I eat, drink wine and alcohol in moderation, and I work out regularly because it helps keep me focused on the job.

 How do you attract such a variety of people (locals, business people and celebrities) to your restaurant?

la-spiga-exteriorIt was a part of our original business plan when we first opened that everyone deserves to eat good food. So, I think we have succeeded in creating a very inclusive atmosphere that makes our guests, and even our staff, feel at home. I definitely give Pietro his props for that one.

Do you ever experiment in cooking other styles or kinds of food?

I do have two kids at home, 16 and 13, and now that they’re fairly independent it frees up a lot of my time for experimenting with new foods. I just finished a stint on Korean food and now I’m on Ethiopian. I always cook for my kids, and my son has recently become vegetarian, which presents a different set of challenges. But we definitely make it work. It’s second nature to me.

Elaborate a little more on your quote on the website: “If I can make it, I won’t buy it.” Does that apply to cooking at home?

That absolutely applies to my home cooking. I adore studying new cuisines and cultures, and I feel like you can truly get to the core of those by building the basics from scratch. Plus, the flavors are so much richer when you make it yourself, and it gives you better control over adjusting for personal taste.

 

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