Panorama of a Safari Park field exhibit with giraffes, water buffalo, and rhinos

Meet the Chefs


Carissa Giacalone

San Diego Zoo Executive Chef

Without even realizing it at the time, Carissa’s love affair with food was sparked as a child growing up on a small dairy farm in South-Central Washington State. After graduating from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and working for a law firm, she got involved in design/engineering and plastic prototyping.    

In 2003, after almost a decade working in a professional high-tech sales job, Carissa decided to pursue her real passion: food. In the span of five weeks, she almost literally changed everything in her life—sold everything, packed her bags, and moved to Paris (without knowing a word of French). There, in the culinary epicenter of the world, she attended the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute. After graduating with a degree in both French cuisine and French pâtisserie (pastry), she honed her culinary skills under the tutelage of some of Paris’ premier chefs and patissieres, including Jean-Louis Nomicos at Lasserre, Laurent Duchene, and Pierre Hermé.

In 2005, she returned to San Diego to pursue her dreams and submitted a videotape and application to The Food Network to become “The Next Food Network Star.” She was selected as 1 of 8 finalists, out of 10,000+ applicants for the talent search/reality show. 

She believes French cooking—and cooking in general—can be simpler than some perceive it to be, and wants to teach people how to create "simply scrumptious" cuisine and bring a dash of fun into every kitchen throughout the world. By understanding, mastering and utilizing traditional French culinary techniques, Carissa is able to apply this in the making of any world cuisine. Quite simply put, Carissa adores cooking, experimenting and, of course, eating all types of food, and most importantly, sharing it with friends and family…the ultimate experience!  

Carissa started her career at the San Diego Zoo in 2017 as banquet chef, before becoming executive chef. In addition, she teaches local culinary classes, is in the process of writing her own cookbook, and continues to pursue her ultimate dream of hosting her own television cooking show.