“We’re looking for a chef.” Giselle Wellman’s mother works at the San Diego Jewish Academy and called her chef daughter with an opportunity, but didn’t get an immediate bite. “Come on, Mom. I don’t want to work in a school.”
Wellman is a San Diego native who started working locally in restaurants like Jack’s La Jolla before moving to Los Angeles. She became an executive chef for the first time at 26 years old for Petrossian. She parlayed that job into a similar position at Mama Shelter hotel in Hollywood and a respectable run on Top Chef‘s California focused season in 2015. “When I came out of Top Chef, I still felt like I was missing something huge,” Wellman says. “What I was doing wasn’t fulfilling. I thought it was my job.”
She moved back to San Diego to be closer to family and opened Pacific Standard Coastal Kitchen in the Hilton Garden Inn by the bay, but that job didn’t provide more fulfillment. “I realized I was just really burnt out,” Wellman says. “I couldn’t find creativity anymore. It was daunting and stressful. I started to find out more about sustainability and wanted to make better choices and support more farms. I worked at a restaurant that supported that, but at the end of the day, you have to make your numbers, so you can’t do it as much as you would want.”
Wellman had been consulting for San Diego Jewish Academy, recommending possible improvements and advising on qualities to look for in an executive chef. She eventually reached an epiphany, saying, “The more that I made of the project or saw the vision for the school, the more that I realized this was the job that I wanted.” She finally embraced the role as a “modern lunch lady,” gardener, and educator and made the unlikely, but rewarding transition to the Carmel Valley school.
The academy’s underutilized quarter-acre garden, and connecting the kitchen and kids to that garden, was a big draw. To get up to speed on sustainable gardening practices, Wellman turned to two longtime family friends. Yael Zaidman has been a hands-on mentor on subjects like raising chickens, composting, and pH balance. Brother Jonathan Zaidman works with The Ecology Center in Oceanside and Encinitas and provided valuable connections.
“What’s so beautiful about this community is that everyone is willing to teach you what they know,” Wellman says. She volunteered at local farms, took a course on farming with kids, and is currently taking a 12-week permaculture course at San Diego Sustainable Living Institute in Valley Center.
Wellman’s now responsible for making lunch every day for kids aged pre-school through high school. “You can imagine the old school lunch lady,” she says. “I have completely changed the take on what a lunch lady can be.” That means working sustainably, with almost zero waste, a robust composting program, and serving “very clean and healthy food.”
She needs to make balanced meals that kids actually want to eat, and of course has a much more limited budget than when she worked for hotel restaurants or Petrossian. In response, Wellman created the “rainbow bar,” a rebranded salad bar with different fruits and vegetables, plus hearty grains like quinoa. She also serves creative riffs on recognizable comfort foods like chocolate hummus and beet brownies. Response has been good. She says, “Every day I get more and more emails from parents saying, ‘I can’t believe my son eats this.’”
At this point, more than 30% of produce comes from the garden and local farms like The Green Cowboy. Wellman hopes to get that number up to 60% by the end of this school year. When she first started at San Diego Jewish Academy, a company called Save Good Food bridged the gap between farmers and consumers and allowed SDJA to source 100% of produce from the garden and local farmers by saving “imperfect,” grade B food, but they went out of business. That setback made it necessary to supplement produce from multinational food company Sysco. Meat comes from a Kosher distributor.
Pleasant farm surprises are also frequent occurrences. “Sometimes farmers say, ‘I have 50 pounds of sunchokes,’” Wellman says. “I incorporate them into the meal and then kids learn about what sunchokes are. It’s a really positive experience.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Wellman also helps two garden educators teach kids about gardening. Middle school students take a farm-to-table elective course that covers seeding, planting, and maintaining produce, and culminates with a garden dinner. Preschoolers visit the garden twice a month, elementary school students visit once per month, and they coordinate with high school teachers on labs that tie into biology lessons.
Since the garden is 17 years old, the school updated irrigation systems this summer. Now they have nine beds devoted to fruits and vegetables and a dedicated herb garden. They just planted vegetables like radishes and potatoes for fall, with tomatoes and corn to follow in spring. The grounds also host 30 trees for fruits like persimmons, pomegranates, and strawberry guavas, plus assorted apples and figs. They grow grapes and passion fruits on vines and even raise chickens.
The school’s fifth grade class is currently participating in an economics lesson that focuses on chicken eggs. They learn how to open a business, ask for loans, care for the chickens, and even market and sell the eggs.
Each season, the SDJA Garden Club hosts a farmers market. Kids invite their parents and they sell fruits and vegetables harvested from the school garden, plus seed balls and plant starter kits. They even have a pop-up coffee shop. Proceeds help to support the garden program. Wellman is also planning a big fair to end the year. She says, “We want to show that the garden is not only for those who like to get their hands dirty.”
“I got into cooking because I loved cooking for my family,” Wellman says. “Once I got in the restaurant business, I never really felt like I was cooking for my community or got that immediate response.” That dynamic changed considerably after joining San Diego Jewish Academy. “The connection with the kids when you see them is indescribable,” she says. “I love that they’re so happy there was this positive change to their culinary world.”