A Chat with Iron Chef Challenger Sabrina Tinsley

Pietro Borghesi (co-owner) and Sabrina Tinsley (chef and co-owner) of La Spiga, Seattle, WA

Chef Sabrina Tinsley was recently featured on the Food Network's Iron Chef Challenge and I had the opportunity to speak with Sabrina about her experience. We discussed everything from culinary influences to regional Italian cooking, and of course...got some scoop on what it's like to compete against the Iron Chef!

Traca Savadogo: How long have you been cooking? What started your journey into food?

Sabrina Tinsley: I grew up around food. My mom was always cooking and trying new things—very exotic things, not necessarily traditional American. But she would go around the world with her cooking. We had a huge garden growing up, so she would obviously cook from the garden. We were in Alaska, by the way, up in Fairbanks. It was a nice growing season because of the light all night long [i.e. this is the land of the summer midnight sun] and she would cook out of the garden. We had these huge zucchinis and would have to figure out ways to use it. So we got very nice, well-rounded hands on point of view of food. We had small livestock as well, so we were introduced to butchering at a young age.

I didn’t realize I had such a passion for food though until I left home and went off to college. I started experimenting myself with cooking and realized what a wonderful thing it is to manipulate the food to taste the way you wanted it to taste—like EXACTLY the way you wanted it to taste, or EXACTLY the way you remembered it. So I just went from there.

I didn’t go to formal cooking school, but I ended up going to Europe. That was my dream—to travel, and Europe was certainly a destination. So I went to college in France and I experienced French food first hand, and then I landed a job in Austria. I lived there for a year, so I experienced that cuisine and moved down to Italy after a year because I’d met my husband…or my husband-to-be, at that point. We met in Salzburg in a cafĂ© and after a year of back and forth, I moved down to Italy. So then I was in Italy for five years and that’s where I picked up the Italian, obviously.

My husband had a job that took him all over Italy, so I would get to travel along with him. I got to experience quite a bit of the country and I just understood how diverse Italy is from region to region—and even within a 20 mile radius, it changes—the dialect, the food, the culture. Everything changes so drastically.

Traca: The style that you’re cooking now, what region is that from?

Sabrina: Emilia-Romagna.

Traca: What made you focus on that particular region out of all the different styles that are represented in Italy?

Sabrina: Well, that’s where Pietro [her husband] is from. We’re kind of on a mission here because Emilia-Romagna is a huge tourist area, but not necessarily for Americans. We want to put Emilia-Romagna on the map. People know products from that area…they know prosciutto, they know balsamic, they know parmagiano, they know tortellini. They know all these things, but they don’t realize that it’s from Emilia-Romagna. Casual tourists don’t visit that area too often.

Traca: Really? Why do you think that is?

Sabrina: They know Venice, Rome, Naples, Milan—the big cities, which also have their own culture but they don’t have piadina, for example. And piadina is a big thing for us.

Traca: What is piadina? Can you describe it?

Sabrina: It’s a flat bread and it’s grilled instead of baked. It’s considered the food of the Emilia-Romagna people and it was once considered poor man’s food because it was all that they could really put together as far as bread.

They didn’t have formal flours, so they couldn’t make a leavened bread—that was saved for the rich people. They would end up making piadina from whatever they had. That would be fava meal, chickpea meal, cornmeal…anything that was considered a poor man’s food. I’ve even read accounts where they’ve used saw dust, because that’s all they had during that time period.

Originally piadina was something they were kind of ashamed of, but after the War, the ladies started setting up their little shops where they would make it on the street and start selling it. And people got over that feeling that it was a ‘poor man’s food’ and started to be really proud of it.

Now, there are piadina shops on every corner. Every Romagnolian has their favorite shop that they go to. Some people make it in the home, but it’s so easy to get and it’s so inexpensive that they generally just go buy it because it’s a lot easier.

Traca: Is it topped with anything?

Sabrina: Oh yeah! They make sandwiches out of it. It depends on what your purpose is. You can buy piadina plain…in which case you’ll take them home in the whole round disc, or cut in half. They’re generally cut in half. Or they’ll make a sandwich out of it and you’ll eat that as your lunch or midday snack or as your dinner.

They also make crescione [creh-show-neh]. It’s the same dough as the piadina, but they fill it before they cook it, so it’s like a little pocket—like a little hot pocket. They make all different variations of crescione. It’s very filling, so generally if you have one of those, you don’t eat lunch too. During the market, they’re open early in the morning. It’s a very traditional bread.

We had a shop in Italy where we were selling piadina, but it was outside the piadina region…a little bit further south. We also had a frozen yogurt shop. We opened up a piadina shop and it did very well. People loved the bread.

We came over to Seattle because we were ready for a move. We had the businesses for almost five years and we were ready for a change. Either we were going to continue with piadina and move down to Rome and set up a chain of piadina shops, or come to Seattle and open up a restaurant.

Traca: What brought you to Seattle?

Sabrina: My sister had been living here for about 12 years at the time and we had come to visit a couple times and we loved the area. We thought the Seattle public was open-minded enough to be able to accept something a little bit different--not the Italian-American cuisine that’s so commonly found but a real, authentic thing…and piadina. Our original concept was based primarily on piadina.

Traca: Are you still doing piadina?

Sabrina: Oh yeah, we still do piadina! We used to have about 30 [piadina] sandwiches on the menu, and now we have one [it’s topped with roasted wild boar, caramelized shallots, taleggio].

Traca: So the menu has changed…what’s the focus now?

Sabrina: Now we do homemade pasta. People were requesting pasta, pasta, pasta and we were planning on making pasta, but we thought it was going to happen later on in the process. Originally we were going to wait a couple years and start making homemade pastas, but with the demand, we ended up bringing it in 4 or 5 months after we opened. We’ve been opened for 10 years now.

Traca: When you import a cuisine, critics cry out...”It’s not authentic.” Are you having any issues sourcing ingredients to replicate foods from the home country?

Sabrina: I had to make some adjustments. We use whole foods and raw ingredients for most of our cooking, so that’s not an issue because I know what the food it supposed to taste like. If I need to alter [a recipe] somehow, I pretty much know what I need to do to change it.

I’ve noticed, for example, that celery here in the States is a lot stronger than celery in Italy. Garlic…I noticed it was a little bit stronger there…and the variety they have is more flavorful.

We had minor adjustments to make—a little bit less of one product or a bit more of the other. For example, in my sauce, I use a combination of fresh and canned tomatoes to achieve the same flavor that I got in Italy. It’s just a matter of tweaking things.

As far as cured meat, for example, we can always get prosciutto so that’s not an issue. The most difficult thing for us to find is salami. They can’t import it. Only recently have we found a really nice salami that’s very traditional…and it’s in fact, made by an Italian. It’s Creminelli Brothers. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. But it’s really nice. The one that we’re getting -- Felino is really soft like it’s supposed to be, not super aged. Sometimes they want to speed up the air dry process—or it always seems like they do—by either putting heat on it or airing it so that the salami often has a very inconsistent aging process. It will be really hard and tough around the outside and a lot softer in the middle. But this new vendor we found, theirs is very soft—the way it’s supposed to be.

Traca: As far as finding your ingredients, are you working with the local farmers? Are they growing anything specific for you?

Sabrina: I’m going in that direction. It’s been a challenge for me especially with the move [to their new restaurant location, which is in a much bigger space].

I’m definitely going in that direction and I have a few sources. We have the opportunity to have Willy Greens grow whatever we want on a plot of land on their property. And we have some very specific ideas of products we can’t get here, but I may have to provide the seed. I have some of the seeds, but we’re working on that.

We buy organic whenever we can and even our meats…through our purveyors, I don’t work directly with the farmers themselves, but though our purveyors, I try to buy hormone-free, antibiotic-free meat, and humanely raised.

Traca: Are there any changes you had to make to cook for the American public? Are there any dishes that wouldn’t fly here in the US?

Sabrina: No, not really. They’re real minor things. For example, the piadina. When you got to Italy and you buy a filled piadina, you get a whole round disc that’s cut in half and then filled. Here we do half a disc, that we slice in half horizontally because our piadina is on the thicker end. Even that ranges in thickness, depending on where you are in Italy. It’s a lot thinner the further south in Romania that you go. We slice it in half horizontally so it’s not so much bread, and it’s not so filling because we wanted people to try a couple different thing—not just the piadina. This way, it’s served more as an appetizer than an actual meal. Other than that, we haven’t made any changes.

Customers [acclimated to the more familiar American-Italian restaurants] will comment, “Why don’t you get real bread?” And in the beginning, customers would comment that the portions were small. We were serving an Italian-sized portion, not an American-sized portion. People would ask for chicken alfredo or shrimp alfredo…or spaghetti and meatballs, that’s not traditional.

But we’ve held strong and I think people that really understand the Italian culture appreciate that.

Traca: Can you tell me about your influences? You mentioned your mother….It sounds like she was cooking during the Julia Child era.

Sabrina: My whole family on my mother’s side is really into food. Her grandmother did cooking in Canada so my mother would go stay with her every summer on her farm. They would cook meals for couples that were stopping along the road. They would come in and my mom would help prepare the food. My great aunt--my great grandmother’s daughter, she had a catering business and cooked for a family. That was a big influence as well.

Traca: What cookbooks were you influenced by?

Sabrina: I started cooking out of the Moosewood Cookbook and Silver Palate, and there was a book that was given to me when I graduated from high school and it was from a dear friend of my mother’s…it was a catering book called Glorious Food. It’s a catering company out of New York.

You know when I look back on it now, I’m so impressed how well-researched [Glorious Food] was. It was always very authentic no matter what culture they were cooking from. They always presented a very authentic version of it. That was huge for me. I read that book cover to cover, probably a million times.

And then there was a bread book that I cooked a lot out of. I cooked a lot of breads. My mom cooked a lot of breads.

I also did a bed and breakfast during my college years. We had a vacant house in Alaska, so I would go up and provided a bed and breakfast there during the summer. I did a lot of cooking during that time. The bread book was very handy because I made breads for breakfast. And the Cake Bible, that’s another great book.

Traca: What books are you reading right now?

Sabrina: Not a whole lot, it’s been pretty busy. I’m trying to think about what I want to get my hands on though…I don’t even know. It’s been a long time. I just finally finished Fast Food Nation, which took me a while to get through.

I’m into learning about the health aspects of food, for sure. I’m thinking about what kinds of poisons we’re putting into our bodies on a daily basis. There’s only one pure way of cooking and it’s actually very dangerous for a restaurant, which is [cooking with] glass. Because everything else…all the metals impart some kind of poison or other into the food. So I’m really researching that, and I’m researching ways to keep our food as chemical-free as possible. I’m pretty successful at home with the kids—I have two kids, but it’s really difficult. So that’s the direction that I’m going right now and the things that I’m researching.

Traca: What inspires you? Do you draw inspiration from other chefs...other cuisines?

Sabrina: All the above. I think the biggest inspiration comes from when I’m actually eating food. When I’m eating, it recalls memories or it brings about ideas. Whenever I’m out to eat, I’m always observing and if I’m not able to try something on a menu, it still sparks an idea or a memory about something I may have had in Italy.

Traca: Do you keep a food journal? Or how do you capture all those ideas?

Sabrina: I don’t. It’s all in my head! And it’s funny because even recipes and so on…often times cooks in my kitchen will ask where a recipe is and I’m like, “It’s in my head. I can show you how to make it.” I think that it’s interesting that you ask that as well because I do have a journal and recently I’ve had this urge to keep it up and start getting everything down. It’s not just food related, but everything that goes on in my life.

Traca: I journal too. For me, it seems to help balance things out. So, do you have any guilty food pleasures?

Sabrina: People always laugh at me when I say this, but I know that it’s completely wrong…even though it’s not 100% unhealthy, but I love strawberries in the winter time.

I’m not into junk food…at all. I grew up with a dad that was very conscious about health—he’s a physician and has seen what the results of smoking, drinking…even sugar was a big thing for him. Don’t eat too much sugar. Even though I was rebelling at a certain point and eating all the sweets I could, at this point in my life, I tend to eat what makes me feel good, so I have a good association with healthy food. I don’t indulge too often. I just feel bad afterwards. I feel horrible. My body feels horrible. So that’s my guilty pleasure.

Traca: Are you finding flavorful strawberries in the winter?

Sabrina: No, that’s the problem! That’s the crazy thing. I use them as a fruit in my cereal or whatever. It’s more of a food enhancer. That’s the point, to get that little fruity tartness that I feel goes really well with those things. (We’re cracking up here…)

If this helps at all, I love fatty meat like oxtail, but I really only indulge in that once in a while. We have that on the menu now. And we’re doing a pork belly confit that’s absolutely out of this world, but I can’t eat that much of it because it just doesn’t make me feel good. Yeah, I do like the fatty meats. Absolutely.

Traca: Let’s talk about Iron Chef. How did that come about?

Sabrina: Wow. It was just a call out of the blue. After I got the call and started watching the program. I heard about some chefs that were competing in an Iron Chef competition to be able to get to the show, or maybe they worked with one of the former Iron Chefs at another restaurant. That’s why, to me, it was so out of the blue because I thought that could never happen…or happen to me. I never applied or tried to get onto that show. Though Iron Chef…the Japanese version was one of my favorite shows of all time, I’d never really watched the American version. It was definitely a call out of the blue.

Traca: So how did they find out about you? Any ideas?

Sabrina: Yeah, I asked them that. They said they read an article in either the Seattle Times or the Seattle Weekly and I guess they just did their research from there. Mario Bartoli knows of us because when he came to Seattle, he did one of his episodes at La Spiga [her restaurant]. You never know how they actually hear about you. Maybe I just fit the profile…a woman in Seattle.

Traca: The show is airing this weekend, but when was it filmed? Sometimes it can take a while to get on the air.

Sabrina: It was in June. Last year, mid June.

Traca: That’s exactly what happened when we filmed the "No Reservations" episode with Tony Bourdain. We shot it in June and it aired in mid January. It takes a while. I’m curious about the rules for Iron Chef. What were the parameters and how many people did you bring?

Sabrina: We brought two people.

Traca: That’s a tough choice. Who did you bring…and who did you leave behind? I’m sure you had to leave somebody talented behind to run the restaurant.

Sabrina: It was a tough choice. I took Jon Langley, and Jeff Konkle. Jon is my sous chef, so that was an obvious choice. And then Tony Mueller was left behind in the kitchen. He was our senior line cook at the time. He was a little nervous about us being gone at that time, but he did well. It was only 3 or 4 days.

Traca: So you flew out to New York and the next day you shoot? Or how did that work out? What was the timeline?

Sabrina: We intentionally got out there pretty early—2 or 3 days ahead of time, so we could adjust to the time change (3 hours behind us in Seattle) and to get into the mode. We went to a viewing of Iron Chef the day before our battle, which is a requirement. That was actually the first day of filming. We shot the second day of filming, so it was helpful that I had a chance to see how the battles take place.

Traca: Watching a taping of Iorn Chef was a requirement?

Sabrina: Yes. They want you to see a battle beforehand.

Traca: Once the cameras are on, you really only have an hour, is that right?

Sabrina: It’s only an hour.

Traca: I talked with Tom Douglas [another Iron Chef competitor from Seattle] and he mentioned that it took a long time for the battle to get started, but once it began, you really only have an hour to get it all together. Was that your experience?

Sabrina: They kept mentioning that we were moving along pretty quickly. It took a while, but I was very into the moment, it didn’t bother me at all. We didn’t have that many takes and moved along pretty quickly.

Traca: What do you mean by “first takes”? What did they cut into takes?

Sabrina: It was for the beginning part…where there’s a lot of smoke and the Iron Chef comes from behind. The smoke has to be just right. They assured me it was okay to be inhaling all that smoke, but I breathed in a lot of that. We had to get it just right and there were a number of takes for that. But as far as me interacting with Mark (The Chairman), that went pretty smoothly and pretty quickly.

Traca: Did you have any idea about the secret ingredient…or what the range of ingredients could be? How do you prepare for Iron Chef?

Sabrina: Well, there are strategies…but I’ll decline to say what they are because it could ruin watching some aspects of the show. But there are strategies, for sure.

Traca: Are you able to request certain ingredients be available or can you bring your own?

Sabrina: You are allowed to request ingredients…a few things. If you’re used to working with a certain type of olive oil or you definitely want to try to include a certain ingredient, than you can request that.

Generally, you’re not supposed to bring anything in unless they absolutely cannot find it. They will source your ingredients, so there’s a lot of work behind it. You know the ingredients and what equipment is available.

Traca: Working in an unfamiliar space is tough and it’s nice to have things that you’re familiar with. Were you able to bring anything besides knives?

Sabrina: If we needed a special piece of equipment, we could bring it. We just had to have it approved ahead of time.

Traca: Alton Brown seems to get really excited about the ice cream machine. Did you use the ice cream maker?

Sabrina: No. No, we didn’t.

Traca: There are some heavy hitters associated with the Iron Chef. Is there anybody in particular that you were looking forward to meeting? What was that like?

Sabrina: Yeah, I’m a really big fan of Alton Brown. I watch Good Eats all the time, so I was really looking forward to meeting him. I was curious about meeting Mark, the Chairman. And I was really happy to have met Bobby Flay.

It’s no secret at this point who I battled. Bobby is awesome…and a very nice person. He gave me his contact information and said, "If you ever need anything, call me…" -- that kind of thing. We had a nice conversation off camera. I was really happy to have met him.

Traca: I’m glad to hear you say that because a lot of chefs hate Bobby Flay for some reason.

Sabrina: I know!

Traca: On camera, Bobby Flay comes across as smug.

Sabrina: To him, Iron Chef is a job and he does more shows than any of the other guys. And it’s taxing to him. I mean, he gets just as nervous about the battles as everyone else. He wants to do a good job….and it’s not just a given that he wins. He could very easily loose and it’s not necessarily a good thing for his reputation to loose either. It was interesting to hear that perspective and see how real of a person he really is. He was going to Italy after he was done taping the season and we talked about that a little bit..It was really nice.

Traca: So how was Alton? Is there anything that struck you about Alton Brown?

Sabrina: No, I wish I had more opportunity to talk with him. He was concentrating and focusing on what he had to do. Off camera, he was preparing for the shoot, focusing on what he was going to say.

It would have been nice to talk with him as well. I have always a million science questions to be answered and it would be exciting for me to have time with someone who cooks from a scientific point of view to be able to bounce ideas off of.

Traca: I won’t ask you want the secret ingredient was, but sometimes when you watch the show, it’s a really obvious ingredient…like parmesan. And then I talked with another Iron Chef competitor and she got crawfish. Until the Iron Chef battle, she’d never cooked crawfish before!

Sabrina: That’s funny because I always figured they chose an ingredient that they knew the challenger was familiar with. Because Tom Douglas got salmon.

Traca: I know, it’s crazy. So you got an ingredient you were familiar with?

Sabrina: Yes.

Traca: So how was the judging? Did you get any sense of home team bias?

Sabrina: No. It was interesting to hear Jeffrey Steingarten’s reaction to my dishes because a lot of the criticisms that he usually gives, they didn’t even get mentioned. It was interesting to hear his thoughts. And then one of the judges was a vegetarian, so that was interesting.

Joe Bastianich was also a judge, who is Lydia’s son. He was by far the most objective for the type of cooking that I was doing. And it was refreshing to hear some of his comments. He understood where I was going with everything, so that was really nice. He also invited us out to lunch afterwards and there were 10 of us that went over to his restaurant.

Traca: What’s Joe Bastianich's restaurant?

Sabrina: Del Posto, he owns it with Mario Bartoli. It was so good! We just let them choose everything. There were lots of small plates and appetizers. Amazing food.

Traca: So what’s the next step? What’s on the horizon for you?

Sabrina: As far as immediate things for La Spiga, we’re looking into doing a kids menu. My daughter, who is 7 years old, has been pushing for the kids menu for 2 or 3 years now. She’s on the computer and she’ll type out what she’ll put on the menu…and then she’ll draw pictures. We have a whole portfolio of pictures that we can make a coloring book out of. We’re inventing kids drinks now. We’ve got the Mickey, which is fun. The Mickey is orange juice, sprite and a splash of cherry juice with a cherry. And we’re in the process of inventing the Mini for Martina. So we’ll have a drink list for kids to kind of give parents a reason to come enjoy the food and make it fun for kids. Hopefully it will be educational. Mini has a character called the Piadina Man. People know piadina through La Spiga here, but it’s nice to kind of reinforce that.

We’re also going to put together an internship program this year, where we’ll have four interns per year for a 3 month program. At the end of the year, we’ll choose one of those interns to go over to Italy to further their internship. Included in that trip to Italy will be a staff member from here as well—someone who is going to be with us for a while, obviously, and who we feel deserves to the trip and who we want to learn more about Italy. So that’s in the works.

Pietro [ Sabrina’s husband and partner in La Spiga] is looking at doing tours over in Italy. They’re looking at May for a tour. He and one of our friends, GianPietro Ottolini, who is a wine importer who used to work for Elliot Bay [restaurant]. They are putting a tour together for a trip to Emilia-Romagna.

These are all things to reinforce our concept and to educate as much as possible about that area—about Italy in general, but also about Emilia Romania and to always improve. We’re always looking to improve. We never relax as far as that’s concerned.

One more project that we’re working on is our loft space that we have next door (corner of Pike and 12th). We do private dinners there and cooking classes.

Traca: You do cooking classes at La Spiga?

Sabrina: We’ve always done them—even at our old location. Here it has been a lot more challenging because there’s always someone in the kitchen. With the loft space, we’ll be able to do the cooking classes. We already have 1 cooking class scheduled per month for the whole year. And that particular series is the pasta and wine series. We’ll teach a type of pasta, make a sauce, and taste wine.

Traca: That’s awesome! How do I find out more about that?

Sabrina: It will be on our website.

Traca: You’ve got some great things going.

Sabrina: It’s going to be a full year!

Traca: I’m thinking you have a cookbook on the horizon too. (She said, hopefully!)

Sabrina: That’s been in the back of our minds, absolutely.


La Spiga
1429 12th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98122-3905
(206) 323-8881