The San Diego food world is abuzz with excitement about the homecoming of native daughter Giselle Wellman, Executive Chef of the soon to open Pacific Standard – Coastal Kitchen, which hints at a fresh take on Southern California cuisine and promises a rejuvenation of an iconic San Diego landmark.
I haven’t tasted, smelled or even seen Giselle’s food. In fact, like most San Diegans, I learned of her as a result of her recent exposure on Bravo’s Top Chef reality cooking show after she accepted their third request for her to participate in last season’s competition. She was one of my favorites of the season, though, so, when Fluffy Unicorn walked back to me at a recent event and said she’d just been talking to Giselle Wellman, I took off like a spider on a flaming thread straight toward her, elbowing all interlopers out of my path, tossing all pretense of any suave or cool attitude to the wind and effusively introduced myself as a fan.
Over the course of the next week, I had a chance to talk, chat, text and pm with Giselle in the hopes of learning more about her as a person, which would hopefully give me some insight about her food and what we might expect from her new kitchen, since the concept is being kept tightly under wraps.
It turns out Giselle’s road to becoming a “top” chef has taken her far and wide, all the while remaining straight and narrow since she started her journey. After graduating high school in 2002 with brief thoughts of pursuing med school, Giselle instead took the path much less traveled and spent a year at Le Cordon Bleu culinary academy in Mexico City. She was inspired to do so as a result of spending weekends preparing Shabbat dinners with her Mom and Aunt during most of her young life. Once she made the decision to be a chef, purely out of an intuitive feel that it is what she was meant to do, she never looked back.
Returning to San Diego after a year in culinary school, she hooked up with Chef Jesse Paul at Star of the Sea (currently owner and chef at The Wooden Spoon in Escondido), who was to become her big brother style mentor and who gave her the single piece of advice that has guided her career path from the moment it was uttered.
Says Giselle, “He told me, ‘If you want to be the best, go work for the best.'” So she did. Thus started 14 years of wandering, yet focused, exploration that had her doubting whether she would ever return to San Diego.
Stints at Jean-George’s Nougatine and Mario Batali’s Del Posto in New York, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Beverly Hills and a stÃ ge at Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago were among some of the stops Giselle made while honing her creative and technical skills in everything from french sauces to pasta, learning and devouring every morsel of knowledge that she could from some of the top names in the culinary world. This experience led to her becoming the youngest female executive chef at Petrossians in Hollywood in 2010 at which point she began to guide the establishment into some of its most prosperous years.
Suffice it to say, this lady has chops.
So, what can we expect of Chef Giselle Wellman now that she’s back in San Diego?
Top of my list, and perhaps the most exciting thing is that she has brought on local favorite and seriously talented Chef Ami Cisneros as her Sous Chef. Ami has been executive chef at the Gaslamp’s Hopping Pig, Chef de Cuisine at Blush Ice Bar and, most recently, Chef de Cuisine at JRDN at Tower 23.
Of the hire, Giselle says, “Interviewing for a sous chef is difficult. You’re looking for more than someone who can just cook. You want someone who is your right hand and that you connect with at a stronger level because (they) are supposed to understand almost every move that you make so that you can run the kitchen united. The second I met Ami and (felt) her energy and passion for cooking, (I knew) it was so close to the way I think. We connected right away and I’m extremely excited to have her working as part of the team.”
Giselle will be focusing on California Cuisine, a genre not yet fully defined, perhaps because it can only be done properly by a talented chef who truly understands San Diego and calls it home as she does. When asked her definition of San Diego style coastal cuisine, Giselle responded, “I think the definition is really being clarified. We are a mixture of different cultures…Asian, Latin influenced, seasonal cuisine, because we have the best products here and very Coastal (influences).”
By her own admission, we’re not going to get a very good idea of what Giselle is capable of cooking and serving by watching Top Chef re-runs. Of cooking on the show, Giselle says, ” One of the hardest things…was that the products given were not necessarily the (ingredients I would choose). I had a hard time getting inspired.”
So what does inspire her? “The seasons…seasonal vegetables, tomatoes (but not in the winter). Summer is my favorite season. I love corn. There’s nothing like cold watermelon on a hot day. I always keep cold watermelon in the kitchen to share with the staff. I love chicken on the grill.”
On hearing the corn comment, I had to ask, only because I’m a corn freak myself and have found myself on the business end of this question…What about the GMO discussion? Giselle sidestepped like Ginger Rogers doing the tango, “I’m not going to serve anything I wouldn’t eat myself. If I’m eating cage free eggs, my customers get cage free eggs.”
But…what about the corn? Oh, never mind. I see what she did there.
The kitchen is where Giselle is the most comfortable. She says she has all the right equipment to cook at home…but, she’s never there. If someone wants to have dinner with her, there’s only one place that’s going to happen – “I don’t really cook at home. I invite everyone to my restaurant, because for me, that’s my home. I treat everyone in my kitchen as an extension of my family.”
That goes for her staff as well. Her management and leadership style is, in her words, a bit more nurturing than some. She believes in recognizing the positive and great things about each of her staff equally as much as it may be necessary to point out their flaws. She can crack the whip, too, though, or, as she describes it, the “Mother’s Whip,” which is the one she brings out when someone has lost sight that everything they send out of the kitchen is a reflection of the entire establishment and Giselle’s menu.
Yet, it’s clear when talking with Giselle that her menu is not about her. She sums it up nicely when talking about how she feels about being a chef, “A lot of my philosophies about being a chef are more hospitality driven than ego driven. There are a lot of ego driven chefs who think it’s about our their creation and what they do, and absolutely, it’s about our art, but at the end of the day…there is still a guest at our home. When the servers come into the kitchen with customer’s special requests, I tell them, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll take care of them.'”
Refreshingly, she continues about pleasing her customers by commenting on the heavily debated Yelp issue (many chefs and restaurateurs are anti-Yelp) – “These are your customers – you should be listening to your customers. Reassess what you’re doing if you’re getting bad reviews.”
Dang, I’m really starting to like her style.
She goes on to talk of her respect for the food and her vendors, “If I order 10lbs of fish, I’m going to use 10 lbs of fish. I have to respect the food and the fisherman and the animal.” I’m not sure where she’s getting her fish from, but I did happen to take this picture at the same event I met her at. Anyone know this guy?
Which came first? The TV Show or the top chef? In Chef Giselle Wellman’s case, I’m pretty sure it was the latter, but I also believe the story is still being written. It’s been awhile since anyone in San Diego has done San Diego food. Wait, has anyone ever done San Diego food?
Well, it seems as though, right here, right now, there’s no one better suited than Giselle, a San Diego native who has traveled widely, honing her craft to return after almost a decade and a half on the road to introduce a new style and a new cuisine in a burgeoning culinary scene that is screaming for an identity.
No, I haven’t eaten Giselle Wellman’s food, yet. Or smelled it. Or seen it. But, you can bank on the fact that you’ll hear from me the second I do. Cheers, my friends!