photography by Ashley Champagne; styling by Cassy Meier; hair and makeup by Nickol Walkemeyer; hair by Lauren Hughes of Mousy Browns; shot on location at Fabloomosity
When she came up with the name Caf Tiramisu (now Tiramisu Bistro), Seble Amelga wasn’t referring to the fluffy coffee and cocoa dessert. In Italian, tiramisu means “lift me up,” and it’s a sentiment that’s proven fundamental for the one-and-a-half-year-old Italian bistro.
When a water main broke in February, making a mess of 124th Street businesses from 107th to 110th Avenue, the bright and cheery business closed for three weeks to renovate and then reopened. It was a huge undertaking but Amelga, 42, who’s a mother of three (ages 12, 11, and 10, respectively), speaks nonchalantly of the overhaul.
Similarly, she’s modest about her modelling days in Italy – she moved there at age 19 after growing up in Ethiopia. She also speaks five languages, a skill she harnessed while working for the Canadian federal government after she arrived in Edmonton from Italy in 1996. The caf is a reflection of what she’s truly passionate about: Family and food. The modern and casual space includes a playroom for the kids, a multipurpose room for yoga, pilates and pop-up shops, and a 100-seat restaurant serving classic Italian wine and foods – from thin-crust pizzas, pastas and panini to gelati and, yes, tiramisu.
Prior to making her entrepreneurial dream a reality, Amelga worked in the restaurant industry for more than 12 years, exploring the culinary excites of Italy, and later in management positions at Edmonton’s Sicilian Pasta Kitchen and La Spiga (now Violino Gastronomia Italiana). Quite seamlessly, the vivacious owner greets her clientele with a kind of sophisticated personal style akin to her worldly background.
What brought you to Edmonton?
Everything was going well in Italy, I was making good money and all that, but after three years there I thought, “I have to leave.” I wanted to go somewhere where I could find myself, so I applied to come to Canada. I have family in Toronto and Montreal, but I didn’t want to go where family was. I wanted to go by myself and see what I could do, to really find myself.
What was the response like when you opened Caf Tiramisu in early 2012?
It was my dream, and when it’s your dream, you don’t know what’s going to happen when you put it out there. But I waited for three and a half years to be on 124th Street. I knew I wanted to be here. I had looked at all these places elsewhere, but when this spot finally became available, they said I could take all three stalls, and I thought, “Great, let’s do it.” Things worked out amazingly, everything was falling into place. Everybody said it was going to take a while to build business, especially with more than 100 seats, but no. The first day we opened we had line-ups. That was the shock of my life. Every seat was taken, and not only that, but people would actually be sharing tables. Who thought a dream could catch on like that? My staff joked, “Lock the doors! Lock the doors! No more people!” The location is just amazing.
How did you tackle the February flooding at Caf Tiramisu?
You’re never prepared for this kind of thing. You think it’ll happen somewhere else, but when it happens to you, it’s like, “What do I do? ” And I said, “I’ll just keep on doing what I always do.” So we opened for lunch. It was crazy, but on the second day I realized that [the flooding] was more severe than I thought. I had people work on the repairs at night, and found other people when they couldn’t do it, and it took three weeks total. We replaced all the flooring from front to back – that’s 4,000 square feet – and some of the walls. They had to tear out everything and dry it out underground. (The caf is now known as Tiramisu Bistro.)
Do you have a business mentor?
Yes, my husband. His name is Dawit Isaac, and he is a professor at Grant MacEwan. He teaches management sciences and leadership, and we also have a community church that he leads. There, he teaches Christian spirituality and worldview with an emphasis on community, justice and leadership. He’s about living life well and helping you live it well, and he is always encouraging me to be the best version of myself. He’s like my life coach, always encouraging me to do something better, or dream of something bigger, be anyone you want. Take risks.
What’s your relationship with food?
I’ve always loved cooking, but my experience has come from travelling to different places and learning, and I was in the restaurant business for 12 years. The main reason I picked Italian cuisine for Caf Tiramisu is because it’s about simple foods – simple, healthy, quick, Italian foods. We make everything fresh here – nothing is store-bought. We make all of our breads and spreads, and salad dressings, everything. I have a chef from Paris, Susanne Koenders, and she’s been in the restaurant business for a very long time, so I give her my ideas, and she comes up with something. She makes me taste it and, if I don’t like it, she has another three choices in the afternoon. It’s a great team that we have.
Where did you come up with the concept?
After my three girls were born and I stayed home [to care for them], I realized that I didn’t have close family here to watch my kids – and we like company, we have friends over for dinners all the time – and I thought, you know, I like good conversation, meeting good people, hearing people’s stories. Wouldn’t it be nice if I had a place where I could put my kids, and have a breathing room for myself? People think it’s the other way around, that I have this playroom for kids, but it’s more for the parents, so they can have breathing room, while the kids can be with other kids. I do have a room for my kids in the back, where they can read and do their homework, so I designed the caf around my family. My family is the most important thing to me.
Would you ever think of expanding and opening another caf?
Yes – it’s a five-year goal, maybe.
You did some modelling in Italy – what’s the story there?
Yes, and I did some modelling in Ethiopia as well, and I did some movies – Missione d’amore with Carol Alt and Ethan Wayne, they were all in there. But you know, I don’t even talk about it very much, because when it’s 20 years ago, it just becomes a part of your life and you totally move on from it. And sometimes you get to mention it, but oh – it was in my 20s. I am very much about fashion today, and I know about fashion, and I still like to dress nicely, but it’s not something that I focus on.
How would you describe your personal style?
I’m very much into ’60s style. I like flared pants and dresses. I never wear skinnies or anything like that. I wear flared bottoms. And I like to have a few basic black dresses that you can wear with a belt, or with a cardigan or a scarf, so you can play it in different ways. I like comfortable clothes. I don’t like to feel like I’m wearing something. I like something that fits me nicely, that allows me to move nicely, that’s not making me feel self-conscious.
What are you favourite brands?
Comrags is my favourite right now. They are Canadian, these two ladies from Toronto, Joyce Gunhouse and Judy Cornish. The material is lovely, it doesn’t wrinkle and it fits perfectly. And I like Miz Mooz shoes.
Do you have a style trademark?
My dresses, everybody notices my dresses, they’re a little bit different than what everybody wears. And my coloured sweaters – people often comment on my cardigans. They’re colourful or different, the way I wear them.
What’s one style rule you think every woman should break?
You don’t need to match when you dress.
Do you have any fashion pet peeves – or anything you consider a fashion faux pas?
My fashion pet peeve is when people go overboard in their style of choice. I consider it a faux pas when you overdress or under-dress, or when you have to constantly tug, pull or adjust your clothing. Simple, clean and nicely fitting clothing is the way I like it.
What kind of style/fashion advice will you share with your daughters?
My three girls have their own distinct styles, but I tell them that clothes are not what make the person, and you don’t have to follow the trends. Make your own, as trends come and go. And you can look great on a small budget.
Do you have a style icon?
One actress’ style I do like is Audrey Hepburn. And I like Michelle Obama’s style, too.
You’ve travelled a lot – which city do you think has the best sense of style and why?
This is hard to answer, because I look at the personal style of the people I meet. But maybe I’ll say Rome … a pretty, clean, polished and classy look.
Hangout spot At home with my children and husband
Restaurant Sushi at Kyoto
Dish Simple – spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, topped with fresh Parmesan and basil. Sometimes I add sundried tomatoes.
Drink A glass of red wine here and there
Chef Tiramisu Bistro’s Susanne Koenders
Favourite book The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck
Film Thorn Birds
Song “Caruso” by Andrea Bocelli
Local shoe shop Sole Revival, Edmonton’s mobile shoe boutique
Designer Comrags by Joyce Gunhouse and Judy Cornish
Fashion item Cardigans
Beauty product Vera Wang Lovestruck Eau de Parfum or lightly tinted lip gloss