By Richelle Szypulski
Point Park News Service
Growing up in a single-parent household, Elise Wims needed to learn to cook at a young age, but it wasn’t enough for her to just put a meal on the table. She’s always liked a challenge.
“It started as a have-to kind of thing, but I felt a passion for it,” Wims said. “I never liked foods that kids ate, like pb&j … I’ve always had a palate. I was cooking Cornish hens and full course meals at 9 [years old.]”
Now, at 28, she’s working on adding a new set of ingredients to her repertoire: cameras, fabric and just a dash of attitude.
Wims, of Forest Hills, was a contestant on season nine of Fox’s reality show “Hell’s Kitchen,” but she refuses to let her 15 minutes of fame stop there. Although she placed third, Celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsay told her to keep the show’s staple black chef’s jacket that other contestants turned in when they were eliminated. She had earned it.
About a year after her return, she has created the Diva Chef brand to revolutionize the way women are perceived in the kitchen.
“The impression is that when you’re a woman in the kitchen, you can’t be glamorous, but I completely disagree,” Wims said. “I feel like you can be glamorous and still hold your own in the kitchen and that’s what the Diva Chef brand brings to the table.”
From the very beginning, Wims’ “diva” role on “Hell’s Kitchen” was clear to her. After the show called to say she was selected as a contestant, they called back minutes later to clarify that they had made a mistake and she was just an alternate, and promised to call with further instructions.
At 9 p.m. that evening, Wims waited as 20 minutes passed and the phone didn’t ring. Then the doorbell did.
“I yanked open the door with the biggest attitude and there was a camera crew on my porch,” Wims said. “They did all of that to get [the reaction they wanted] out of me.”
On the show, she was famous for her attitude, but countered with the fact that there is a lot more in a day of shooting than is cut into the half-hour episode.
“They showcase the personality that they want to…” Wims said. “You’re a character on the show. I realized that I was the villain, so I played my part.
Wims said she cringed at points while watching herself “go in on people” during the episodes, but does not regret it.
“At the end of the day, I’m a Christian and I learned a lot from seeing myself on TV and how I should try to treat others, but I’m a natural born leader and it was a competition,” Wims said. “We weren’t there to be friends.”
Donato Coluccio, owner and executive chef at Donato’s in Fox Chapel, was both the first and last chef Wims worked for before leaving for the reality show, and he vouched for the authenticity of both Wims’ attitude and work ethic. He first met Wims around 2000 when he was executive chef at the Plaza Suites Hotel and she was on her apprenticeship.
“[My] first impression was of a young, confident lady who needed some polishing,” Coluccio said. “A diamond in the rough.”
Through her experience on the show, Wims matured, he said, “from cocky to humble, but still confident.” She still possesses the same drive and enthusiasm for her craft, he said.
“She is a lot of fun [in the kitchen.] She gets in there and works,” Coluccio said. “She is very detailed in her work [and] is very driven and focused on her line and plans.”
The Diva Chef brand has a few portions in the works, one of which is a chef wear line for women, complete with flattering cuts, eye-catching colors and embellished buttons.
“I’ve fused fashion and beauty with culinary arts, which has never been done,” Wims said.
Due to Wims’ petite build, she always had a problem with the fit of typical “boxy” chef ware. So, taking charge of the situation like she is known to, she started designing her own.
“Chefs are in chef ware for the majority of their lives,” Wims said. “You really don’t get to wear street clothes if you’re working 40-50 hours a week. Why not feel good in what you have to wear?”
She hopes to one day sell her designs, so other female chefs can “throw on leggings and a pair of heels” and be dressed for drinks with friends after work.
Wims said she is inspired by her “loyal and supportive fan base” with 5,000-plus Facebook friends and 13,000 followers on Twitter. She said she feels like she owes something back to them.
Among volunteer work with local charities, she also has made it her mission to “save lives, one dish at a time” with her Diva Chef Boot Camp service, where she “invades” the kitchens of locals, men and women alike, to give them cooking lessons.
“Some people might have diabetes and need to know how to cook healthy. Some people just can’t cook at all,” Wims said, with a laugh and slight shake of her head. “I get personal enjoyment out of seeing people grow from nothing to, ‘Wow, you cooked that yourself?'”
Vanessa Doss, 33 of Wilkinsburg and owner of steelcitylive.com, has been a fan of Wims since her debut on the show.
“With [Wims] being from Pittsburgh, I just loved the way she held it down on the show,” Doss said. “I think she represented us well. [But] I never thought she’d be in my kitchen.”
Doss signed up for Wim’s Boot Camp on her website, elisethedivachef.com, and had a dish in mind that she wanted to make. Wims not only taught her how to prepare it, but gave tips throughout on common practices that can be used for all types of dishes.
“She’s funny. It’s just like on ‘Hell’s Kitchen,'” Doss said. “There was one time when she was like, ‘I’m not going to peel these potatoes for you. I showed you how to do it. Now, do it.’ She’s definitely a boss.”
But it works.
“I had my family over and I made a tilapia dish she showed me how to make and they loved it,” Doss said. “I may even have her come through again. It was a really nice experience.”
Over the next few years, Wims hopes to whip up a successful culinary television career, open a restaurant or two, and begin selling her own books and products. She has definitely got a lot on her plate, but then again, that’s always been her forte.