By Mimi Pollack
Executive chef and former Top Chef contestant Giselle Wellman is set to move in a new direction in the cooking world, and some lucky students will benefit. In July 2017, she became the new executive chef at the San Diego Jewish Academy. She has always loved working with children and wanted to do something to give back. Her work at the academy will include not only cooking for the students, but also teaching them about where their food comes from; a new milestone in a successful career.
Wellman has done a lot in the world of cooking in her 33 years. She was born in San Diego and grew up in a Mexican Jewish family where food took center stage. Wellman fondly recalls cooking Shabbat dinners for her family from a young age.
“[My aunt] was the first person I knew who chose cooking as a career,” she says of her familial influences.
Although she grew up in an academic environment, she followed a different path. After graduating from high school, she completed a year of community college and realized her passion was cooking. She then enrolled in the Le Cordon Bleu Academie D”Art Culinaire in Mexico City, where she studied for one year.
Upon returning to San Diego, she entered the professional cooking world. She started with an entry level position at Anthony”s Star of the Sea restaurant at the age of 19 where she was mentored by Jesse Paul [Paul is now owner of the Wooden Spoon in Escondido]. She worked her way up in restaurants in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Diego, including Jack”s in La Jolla [now closed] until she became an executive chef. In 2015, she participated in Bravo”s Top Chef, and though she did not win, she did well in the competition.
While at her last job as executive chef at Pacific Standard Coastal Kitchen in Little Italy, she realized that she wanted to move in a new direction in her life, so she parted ways and took a short break to reflect on life.
“My goal to be an executive chef had been achieved, but I did not feel completely fulfilled,” she says of her time at Pacific Standard.
She decided to work with kids, cook for them, and teach them about sustainability. In her new position at San Diego Jewish Academy, she will get to do just that.
Located on a large piece of land in Carmel Valley, the school has an extensive garden with vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees where students can participate and learn by planting and harvesting crops for their hot lunch program.
By seeing where their food comes from, Wellman hopes they will be inspired to eat more fruits and vegetables, in addition to becoming more environmentally conscious. There are compost gardens and bins, including one with worms. For her, it is about showing the children a cleaner more sustainable lifestyle.
Wellman is excited to use her creativity and come up with recipes that “sneak” more nutrition into the food, like making macaroni and cheese with white bean sauce or chicken nuggets with quinoa. Her goal is to make meals the children will enjoy, but also provide protein, fiber, and nutrients. For her, it would be a mitzvah if the program she envisions becomes an example to other schools.