Though she’s only 31, executive chef Giselle Wellman has followed a winding path to now, bouncing between coasts working under some of the biggest names in modern cuisine, and being beamed into homes everywhere in between thanks to the current season of Top Chef. Still, running the kitchen at Hollywood’s Mama Shelter hotel—a très chic boutique stay-over with welcoming vibes and rates to match—takes her full circle, all the way back to a frequent scene from her childhood in nearby San Diego.
“My mom’s not the best chef, but she loved having company,” Wellman says. “We did Shabbat dinners every week with, like, 25 people. When I was 12, my terrible teens were starting and I’d be like, ‘Mom! Can’t you tell the soup tastes horrible?’ I’d throw in a ton of ingredients and be like, ‘There, this is much better,’ and walk away. Soon, by Monday I was asking what we’re going to make Friday, and while other kids were out at parties, I was home with the food. Turns out I loved cooking for everybody.”
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Those communal meals make her fit for Mama, often billed as an “urban kibbutz” and featuring a menu that includes a section devoted to shareables: bacon deviled eggs, a shaved Brussels sprout Caesar salad, unctuous braised short rib piled over a sweet-hot parsnip/pear/horseradish mash, or skillet brownies topped with salted caramel ice cream. Long tables with benches run through the center of the dining area, though there’s space for loners (laptop users are welcome) and couples too. Café sets and booths extend from the main dining area out around the lengthy bar, where actual playable games—Scrabble, chess, Monopoly’s L.A. edition—are carved into the tabletops.
Though Mama Shelter is a hotel, there’s no lobby. Reception happens in the middle of that same big room which, in addition to food and drink, features recreation (a bespoke eight-person foosball table and a wall of ready-to-play guitars) and a gallery’s worth of art… on the ceiling. Look up and you’ll see neon chalk drawings by more than 100 local artists paying tribute to their respective “mamas.” Cocktails are as colorful and creatively designed as the room—the Game of Thrones-inspired Mother of Dragons features chile vodka, blood orange juice, Campari, and cocoa—and Wellman’s grub keeps up, too. To wit, brunch ranges from salmon and avocado-topped latkes to rich chilaquiles smothered in tangy salsa verde, fluffy scrambled eggs, and gooey cheese.
Though she now says she’d probably get a business degree instead of attending Le Cordon Bleu Mexico — “I learned how to boil water,” Wellman quips — school gave her the confidence to walk into her first job, and the next, and the next. She was sous chef to Tony DiSalvo at Jack’s La Jolla, jumped to Jean Georges in New York, returned to Jack’s, then went east again to work with Mario Batali at Del Posto. It was Thomas Keller’s Bouchon that landed her in L.A. for good. And in 2010, at 26, she became the youngest female executive chef in the city, at the caviar-slinging Petrossian.
Wellman can’t talk Top Chef while it’s still on the air. She was eliminated in the fifth episode, but her presence was felt. She wore a leather jacket in interviews, expertly scrambled a massive ostrich egg, and, with unintentional punk rock flair, blew up a solar cooker. It’s all good—she scored the Mama’s gig before Bravo came knocking, and she seems at home here, at a place where humble class meets brash brightness.
Each of the 70 modestly sized, sub-$200 rooms at Mama Shelter comes with a script on the desk—iconic L.A. fare like The Big Lebowski or L.A. Confidential—and two “bibles” by the bed: the King James Version, and Keith Richards’ autobiography. They even serve a Le Royale With Cheese for the Pulp Fiction fans. The burger was before Wellman’s time (she joined in November), but she’s creating the menu for a rooftop restaurant coming soon inspired by Mama’s Istanbul—so, Mediterranean, with a 360-degree view of Los Angeles. Though she cut her teeth in NYC, Wellman takes comfort in knowing she’s two hours from the chilaquiles she grew up with.
“When you’re choosing food for your family, you’re selective. When you dine here, that’s my responsibility. I guess I’m the mom now making good choices for her kids,” says Wellman, before making the place’s slogan her own: “Mama loves you.”
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