‘Top Chef’ contestant returns to San Diego roots

Giselle Wellman, executive chef of Pacific Standard Coastal Kitchen in Little Italy. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/ Union-Tribune)
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Following her graduation from Scripps Ranch High School, Giselle Wellman considered two career options - both of which involved knives. On one hand, she contemplated picking up a scalpel and pursuing the study of medicine; her other choice was grabbing a kitchen knife and cutting her chops in the culinary arts. Wellman took a stab at the latter and has been honing her skills as a professional chef ever since.

Chef of Pacific Standard Coastal Kitchen in Little Italy, which opened in mid-2016, Wellman shares traits common among her peers: she loves the kitchen, can’t work hard enough and wouldn’t consider doing anything else. The sweat, long hours and occasional battles that keep kitchens lively have paid off in the form of her being recruited by internationally known restaurateurs and appearing on cable television’s “Top Chef.”

She’s happy she didn’t become a physician.

“I was trying to go to night school to become a doctor and found zero-to-none motivation, which is a red flag,” she says. “When I want to do something, I have all the drive to do it.”

Wellman is a San Diego native. Her family hails from Mexico City, which she has visited often enough to say, “I feel Latin myself.” Her family is Jewish, and, in high school, she joined her mother and Aunt Jenny in the kitchen every Friday to prepare special Shabbat (sabbath) dinners. Aunt Jenny, she says, inspired her passion for making food.

“I had an instinct for cooking, and not everybody is born with the palate to balance flavors,” she says, adding that her mother’s dishes were typically under-seasoned.

After a year at Mexico City’s Cordon Bleu culinary academy, Wellman returned home to cook at San Diego fine-dining legend Star of the Sea, where chef Jesse Paul, now owner of Escondido’s The Wooden Spoon, offered “the best advice in my career.”

He recommended she skip cooking school.

“He said to me, ‘You’re in the door. Work for the most respected chefs in the industry and go after what you want.’”

And so she did, bouncing between the coasts, working for superstars like Thomas Keller at Bar Bouchon in Los Angeles; and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Mario Batali, and Lidia and Joe Bastianich in New York.

Asked how to score a job with Batali, Wellman responds, “You walk in the door and say, ‘I’m looking for a job.’ I had a great resume.” She then was “24 or 25 and really hungry to work,” which explains how, in 2010, she became L.A.'s youngest female fine-dining chef when hired by West Hollywood’s famed Petrossian Paris restaurant. This distinction caused “Top Chef” to pursue her for five years.

“I kept saying ‘no,’” she says. Then, in 2015 her aunt died suddenly.

“One month later, I was on my way to ‘Top Chef,’ a show that makes you extremely vulnerable, and I arrived extremely vulnerable,” she says. She didn’t get far, but says it was a positive experience.

Now back in her hometown, Wellman says her goal at Pacific Standard is to present a neighborhood restaurant where everything is warm and welcoming. A menu rich in well-considered flavors fulfills her hope that “Pacific Standard feels like home.”

Pacific Standard Coastal Kitchen: 2137 Pacific Coast Hwy., Little Italy, 619.819.0090,