(Originally published January 24, 2013 on Examiner.com).
Note since this article was originally published, Chef Wellman left Petrossian’s kitchen.
In the kitchen at Petrossian Restaurant, twenty something Executive Chef Giselle Wellman, like so many other young chefs, is mature beyond her years. Her maturity, as with these other chefs, is the result of a passionate dedication to a craft plus a willingness to take on more responsibility. Chef Wellman “owns it”. Such maturity also reflects starting young, working hard and staying focused plus often sacrificing time with friends due to the long hours required, at low wages, to become a successful chef.
Unlike what’s frequently portrayed on television, chefs just don’t just win a show and get a restaurant. They also don’t just get a six month degree and then start as executive chefs. Rather many of the most successful chefs start young in their teens doing whatever is asked of them in a kitchen be that washing dishes, scrubbing grout, dicing onions or many other menial tasks. They then work their respective ways through different stations as prep and line cooks. Such practical hands on experience may or may not be supplemented or preceded with culinary school. Some chefs feel such an education is necessary, though others don’t. Often the financial burden of student loans is hard to justify when weighed against a nine dollar per hour or less starting rate.
Before, during and or after culinary school, in both small kitchens and large ones, prep and line cooks pay their dues to become chefs de partie, sous chefs, chefs de cuisine, and finally executive chefs or chef/owners. This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years. Moreover any sense of entitlement is quickly corrected. It isn’t uncommon for aspiring future chefs to stage for free and work at a number of restaurants to learn different techniques. Working with famous chefs and in smaller restaurant kitchens is important and necessary to acquire the necessary skills to succeed.
In large kitchen with the names of famous chefs on the storefront, young chefs learn not only about technique, but also about operations, motivating a crew, and all that it takes to consistently do well hundreds of covers every night. In smaller kitchens, with head chefs who have more time to teach, young aspiring cooks get to work at different stations and get more personalized attention.
Chef Giselle Wellman has worked in both large more corporate kitchens ran by famous chefs as well as smaller ones where she had head chefs who could spend time with her to teach her a wide array of skills first hand. Now in charge of her own kitchen as Executive Chef at Petrossian, she advises her own staff to get experiences in both of these types of environments to improve their resumes as well as provide them with the set of skills that each needs to be a chef.
Thus chefs are always students, but they’re also always teachers too.
As executive chef of Petrossian Restaurant in West Hollywood, chef Giselle Wellman practices what she preaches and teaches what she has learned. After graduating from the Cordon Bleu in Mexico City a year out of high school, the chef, Jesse Paul, at her first job in San Diego advised her that if she wanted to learn how to do something in a kitchen to always work for the best chef at that skill. So, for example, to make bread or pasta she should go work for the best bread baker or pasta maker. Getting this advice inspired Giselle to want to work for Jean-Georges. At this time too, Tony DiSalvo a former Executive Chef for Jean-Georges opened up a restaurant Jack’s in La Jolla, CA. So she went to work at Jack’s until, as was discussed with Chef DiSalvo, he felt she was ready to move to NYC and work directly for Jean-Georges at his flagship restaurant. This took six months in Jack’s kitchen. During that time one of many things she learned there was kitchen etiquette.
So Giselle moved to NYC to work at Jean-Georges namesake restaurant. She thought she’d enjoy this city’s night life, but having to get up early to work at six in the morning and working until six in the evening quickly put that notion to rest. This experience was quite a bit different than Jack’s. Here she was part of a machine. She learned a lot, but NYC’s high cost of living was very difficult for a young line chef getting paid almost nothing. She burned through all of her savings. Plus she enjoyed the more personalized training she had received before back west. So when a sous chef position became available at Jack’s, she moved back to her parent’s house in San Diego and went back to work for Chef DiSalvo for another few years.
At Jack’s she was one of four people back of house. Thus working so closely one on one every day with Chef DiSalvo and the Chef de Cuisine Marco, she learned “so much” getting so much personalized attention.
Though Jack’s went through a transition; initially it was very “Jean-Georges”, but then it became a steak house, and finally turned into an Italian food concept (returning to DiSalvo’s roots) where given her choice, Giselle chose to work in the pasta station which she hadn’t done before. So at Jack’s she was doing fifteen fresh pastas a day. She fell in love with this activity. She described it as “very Zen” working with the pasta dough.
When business at Jack’s started to slow down, Giselle- with this new love for pasta making- took advantage of another opportunity to go work in NYC at Mario Batalli’s Del Posto as a line cook at the meat station, the best yet most difficult cook position in this kitchen. This was a much sought after job, so the other cooks already working here weren’t enthralled that this job was given to an outsider. Since this is a meat driven concept with three hundred covers, the volume was something new for Giselle plus she had to prove herself to the other cooks, many of whom wanted to see her fail. It took her a good thirty days to find her groove. Additionally including her commute to Yonkers, her work day was a long one from 10 AM in the morning until nearly 1:00 AM at night.
After seven months of this schedule, when her boy friend moved back to Los Angeles, Wellman did too where she joined Thomas Keller’s Bouchon for a year. Since this was during that restaurant’s first year, Keller was there frequently. Bouchon is a restaurant where basic French recipes are done to perfection. So for Giselle it was a great opportunity for her to remember many of these basics she hadn’t used since culinary school.
After then taking her first break from the business in eight years and returning to San Diego her home for the summer, she then staged at Alinea in Chicago for a week. Here the modernist technique was the antithesis of what she was just doing a few months prior at Bouchon. So despite being offered a full time position at Alinea, what she really learned was that molecular gastronomy wasn’t the type of cooking she wanted to do.
She thought Alinea’s food was amazing. It made her think outside of the box, so she was strongly considering taking that position offered when out of the blue she got a call from Petrossian Restaurant regarding her current employment. She took this job instead because she just doesn’t think about food the same way that Alinea’s Chef Grant Achatz does. Rather Wellman’s approach is more rustic. She likes simple flavors that take one back to one’s mother’s cooking.
Wellman’s rustic approach thus was a good fit for the Petrossian Restaurant since the Petrossian family’s goal is to make caviar extremely approachable where you can indulge but still feel like you’re at home.
The owners of the Petrossian Restaurant, the Petrossian family is very passionate about its caviar. They just don’t sell caviar; they love caviar and want to sell the best caviar. They’re not trying to be exclusive rather they’re trying to make their product more approachable. Within their West Hollywood location, their manager conducts caviar classes so that customers better understand the product and aren’t intimidated by it. Executive Chef GiselleWellman takes the same approach with her food on the menu.
So if a customer is looking for a caviar experience, a Petrossian’s one, he or she should select items from “signature” side whereas if the customer wants items more inspired by a wider array of fresh produce he or she should select from the right side. On this right half, to reduce waste Wellman doesn’t have fancy cuts, so for example with a carrot, rather than get the perfect julienne, she’ll find a way to use the whole product on a salad and in a puree.
She runs her staff with the same emphasis on approachability. She’s kind but stern if her team members don’t take ownership of work. So she insists that each member demonstrate pride in what each one is doing, and acknowledge mistakes so mistakes don’t become bigger problems later in a service when more difficult to correct; for example, like over cooking risotto or, if the bass fell on the floor and must be thrown out.
So in her kitchen, she gives every one a voice and treats her small back of house staff of seven like family for she wants to see every member succeed. She does this by sharing the vast wisdom she’s already amassed in her limited years with her staff especially her more motivated members. By being a bit more nurturing than a hell’s kitchen stereotype, she creates an environment where her team members are less defensive and more forthcoming. For staff that need more structure and to be yelled at more frequently, her kitchen isn’t the best fit, since she trusts her team members until one of them does something to lose her confidence, which then may piss her off.
In general gaining confidence is a bigger issue with her in the front of house at Petrossian where wait staff have to gain her respect. Though she’s happy with everyone currently part of this location’s team since the company is very particular about whom they hire. The Petrossian family instills within all their employees their passion as a family run business and treats them accordingly. This passionate attitude from ownership reverberates from the top down, so Chef Wellman is inspired to do and serve her best food as well and, in turn, so does both the front and back of house staffs.
Thus the Petrossian family’s passion and desire to provide the best products (like their caviars) is also reflected in Chef Wellman’s approach to her sourcing of products. Wellman knows exactly where every protein comes and works exclusively with small suppliers who can give her personal attention. She gets chicken and other meats from Rocker Brothers working directly with Debbie Rocker. Rocker Brothers works closely with Boulder Valley and Jidori for the steaks and chicken on Petrossian’s menu. Fish comes from Ocean Jewels again working directly with the owner Julie with whom Wellman has a working relationship to determine the freshest fish available to offer Petrossian’s customers. Menu changes are frequently offered as specials. All of these family owned suppliers share a similar passion what they do.
Passion is the common denominator for the success in the restaurant business for young cooks aspiring to be chefs, great chefs, owners and suppliers. Without such passion, it’s difficult to commit the long hours and hard work to be successful. Though un-tempered passion without respect and earned trust may create environments where no amount of training or operational efficiency can make up for uninspired of indifferent service. For as the saying goes, “what you are is how you manage”, which unfortunately too frequently in the restaurant business results in bad and indifferent service being a reflection of bad management creating a poor and often hostile work environment where no really enjoys to work or dine.