If she can make it, she won't buy it. This is the food philosophy of Sabrina Tinsley, executive chef and co-founder of La Spiga Osteria, located in the historic Piston and Ring building on Capitol Hill. Tinsley and her husband, Pietro Borghesi, had the former auto body shop transformed into a magnificent dining space, boasting gorgeous woodwork with a hip but welcoming atmosphere.
"I grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, where I got my start in culinary arts," said Tinsley. "My mom was a gardener, and we lived a farm-to-table experience back before the term was even coined."
Taking advantage of the fresh produce from their Alaskan garden, and fresh, local fish and meats - Tinsley recalled always enjoying food and eating. Once she left for Michigan State, where she attended college, she started cooking and experimenting with food and found she loved the art and creativity of cooking.
"Although I studied elementary education and French in college, I actually dreamed of going to culinary school. However, I never did," she said. "Instead, I went to Europe and finished my college studies in France. I spent three months there and then I found a job in Salzburg, Austria. My goal was to work my way around Europe, learning the cultures, languages and food in different areas."
Tinsley met her Italian husband-to-be in Austria and eventually moved to Italy to be with him. There she learned Italian and gained an intimate knowledge of Italian cuisine, specifically the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna in Northern Italy, where her husband grew up. In 1998, after five years of running Italian food-related businesses, Tinsley and Borghesi moved to Seattle, where she and her sister opened La Spiga on Broadway and Union.
"I still love studying other foods and culture," said Tinsley. "I do a lot of serious Asian cuisines and Mexican. I'd like to explore more African cuisine, like Ethiopian. I do a peanut butter soup, which my family loves. I've seen it in many different countries in Africa. I'd like to dig a bit deeper into African cuisine."
It's of utmost importance to Tinsley all her ingredients are fresh, seasonal and the best quality available. Pasta is made fresh daily and organic, locally-sourced products are used as often as possible. Cheeses and balsamic vinegar are imported from Italy for a taste of real Italian cuisine.
"It's important to me to let the main ingredients shine," explained Tinsley. "There's often a tendency to overpower food with either too much garlic, or burnt garlic, or too much spice, or too much, too much, too much, and then you really can't appreciate the ingredients that you're trying to feature. I use the minimum amount of ingredients to bring out the flavors, and simply enjoy the food for what it is."
In addition to being published in local cookbooks, and being an "Iron Chef" contender, Tinsley also donates her time as a mentor to aspiring culinary professionals, and to diversity programs that advocate for female chefs and chefs of color. For the past four years, Chef Tinsley has volunteered for Quillasascut Farm School by offering workshops for chefs of color.
"We're doing a lot of neat work with the community, with farmers and with mentorship," she said. "We want to have a long-term impact in our community. It's not a formal group yet, but we really do want to formalize it because we all have the same goals."
According to the school's website, the Chefs of Color workshop is designed to enrich the voices of diversity for Native American, Latinx, Asian and Black/African American cooks and students, as well as learning about and value ecologically sound practices for careers in the farm and food industry. Being a woman of color in a professional kitchen can present unique challenges, but Tinsley finds the experience mostly a positive one.
"We've always been the owners of our own businesses, so I've always been a leader in the kitchen," she said. "If I sense there's any resentment toward female leadership, then I pretty much squash that out right away. If it doesn't go away by itself, then I make sure that I push it out. So, I don't tolerate too much of that, but I feel I've been lucky."
La Spiga is Italian food as it should be. It is Italian comfort food that can be found in any osteria in Emilia-Romagna. With a beautiful atmosphere, perfect cocktails and extensive wine list and simply delicious food, it is becoming Seattle's go-to for Italian food-lovers.
As co-founder and host, Pietro Borghesi said, "An evening at La Spiga is like dining in Italy — without the plane fare."