In this episode, we speak with Chef Elle Simone, Culinary Media Expert, Co-Founder & President of SheChef, Inc. and resident food stylist at Americas Test Kitchen.
Elle Simone is the first African American woman to serve as the resident Food Stylist & Test Cook on America’s Test Kitchen on PBS. She has contributed her unique styling abilities to the Food Network, Food Network Magazine, The Cooking Channel, The Katie Couric Show, CBS Corporation, ABC’s The Chew and Bravo’s Chef Roble and Co. In 2013 she founded SheChef, Inc. with Chimere Ward to mentor women chefs of color.
Listen as we chat with Elle about her passion for food, mentoring, and building a thriving career after surviving ovarian cancer.
Watch the podcast episode:
Get the latest episode of The Ultimate Dish delivered right to your inbox every week.
Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Elle Simone Scott, a culinary maverick and highly sought-after food stylist, culinary producer, and test cook. Elle has collaborated and contributed her unique styling abilities to the Food Network, “Food Network Magazine,” the Cooking Channel, “The Katie Couric Show,” CBS Corporation, ABC’s “The Chew” and Bravo’s “Chef Roble & Co.” She is the founder and CEO of SheChef, a professional networking organization for women chefs and allies of color. She is also the first African-American woman to serve as the resident food stylist and test cook on “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS.
Join us today as we chat with Elle about her passion for food, mentoring, and forging a thriving career after surviving ovarian cancer.
Chef Elle, welcome! Thank you so much for being with us this morning. How are you?
Elle Simone Scott: I’m great. Thank you for having me. I’m very happy to be here.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. It looks sunny there. It looks sunny in Boston.
Elle Simone Scott: It’s really a nice day. We’re kind of getting that layover of warm fall. So I’m not complaining.
Kirk Bachmann: Nice. The weather is beautiful in Boulder. I’m in Boulder, Colorado. We have had no snow in Boulder or Denver. Some people are worried.
Elle Simone Scott: Isn’t that like a record?
Kirk Bachmann: It is a record. It is a record. There has never been a November where there was no measurable snow in Denver. Ski areas are nervous.
Elle Simone Scott: Yeah. I can imagine.
Kirk Bachmann: We’re driving to work in a much easier fashion than typical.
Travel. Talk about travel a little bit. You were just on the other side of the world, weren’t you?
Elle Simone Scott: Yes. I had the distinct pleasure of getting to go to Africa for a little over two weeks.
Kirk Bachmann: Wonderful. Wow.
Elle Simone Scott: It was very beautiful. It’s unlike any experience I’ve ever had. As an African-American, taking a trip to the motherland is a really big deal. It was quite a pilgrimage. Not just physical, physically going, but mentally, emotionally. It was everything.
Kirk Bachmann: For our audience, that’s Remy in the background rooting around a little bit. Your beautiful puppy. Your big, beautiful puppy.
Elle Simone Scott: My big, beautiful puppy. She does not want to keep the bone on the rug right now. We talked about this before I started.
Kirk Bachmann: Why would she?
Elle Simone Scott: I know.
Kirk Bachmann: Was the covid protocol pretty intense? It was probably, what, two or three flights to get all the way over there?
Elle Simone Scott: There were two flights. I took a flight from Boston to Atlanta, and Atlanta has a connecting flight to Nigeria. It was very basic. 72-hour covid test. You had to have proof of vaccination. I’m fully vaxed. It was relatively easy. It started to get a little bit more complicated upon my return because the new strain had been discovered. Things were just starting to tighten up right after I’d gotten back. Probably a day or two after I got back, they changed the restriction from 72 hours to 24 hours. So I was able to fly under the radar.
Covid tested both coming and going. No problems. Had a wonderful time. Felt safe.
Kirk Bachmann: Did you go over with friends?
Elle Simone Scott: I did, actually. It was a spiritual retreat of sorts, a lot of meditation, yoga, clean eating. It was just what the doctor ordered right before the holiday starts.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Are you ready for the holidays, by the way?
Elle Simone Scott: I’m never ready for the holidays. It’s a lot of prep.
Kirk Bachmann: I would have been disappointed if you were. I love that say “clean eating.” That is a theme today, isn’t it?
Elle Simone Scott: Yeah. Honestly, depending on where you are in the world, it’s really not a whole lifestyle. It is, but it isn’t. I feel like here in the U.S., we have to make the conscious decision and effort to eat more clean, where in other countries their food every day comes straight from the ground. You go to the market. The food has come from the farm, you take the food to your house, and then you cook it. It’s like an organic – no pun intended – farm-to-table experience.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. It’s getting better here in the States. It’s getting better. Especially here, at Escoffier, at the culinary school, we spend a lot of time trying to emphasize encouraging students to know where their food comes from.
So first and foremost, many, many, many thanks for serving as our keynote speaker as recently as yesterday when Escoffier graduated over 2000 students. Everyone hung on your every word. They were very inspiring. During your speech, you talk about a recipe for success. My first question is (and I think I know the answer) but do you think that having a plan – a recipe for success – is important, particularly for young culinarians, versus just waiting to see what happens, which so many young people like to do today?
Elle Simone Scott: I think that having some idea of what you want to do with your future is helpful. Do I feel like you need to have it completely mapped out, step by step, day by day? No. I think there’s room for having a guide for your goals and having experiences that happen organically. Some of the best parts of my career were those times where I stumbled upon an opportunity and I just said yes even if it wasn’t directly related to what I thought my immediate plan-
Kirk Bachmann: To your plan. Okay. So that ability to pivot is important.
Elle Simone Scott: Extremely important. Extremely important. And also just being willing to learn skills that you didn’t expect to learn along the way. We learn a lot in school and a lot of it is applicable, but there are certain opportunities that just come around that you don’t get in school, these life opportunities. Saying yes to those has been my key to success and I definitely encourage young people, new graduates, older people, say yes to those new experiences.
Kirk Bachmann: Serendipity is a beautiful thing, whether it’s in a relationship or a career, right?
Elle Simone Scott: Isn’t it? I love serendipitous moments. I live for them. I literally live for them.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. So you mention career, let’s talk a little bit about yours. I was exhausted introducing you. There’s a lot. You’re from Michigan, right?
Elle Simone Scott: Yes. From Detroit.
Kirk Bachmann: Michigan State or University of Michigan fan?
Elle Simone Scott: I’m Eastern Michigan University, so I’m neither.
Kirk Bachmann: So there you go.
Elle Simone Scott: Yes. Neither. Go Eagles.
Kirk Bachmann: There you go. How did you get started in cooking, then?
Elle Simone Scott: It was really born out of necessity. First, let me say I’ve always enjoyed cooking, and I come from a family of excellent cooks. I’m not the best cook in the family. I say this all the time. I’m not the best cook in the family, I’m just the only one who pursued it professional. I’ve always enjoyed cooking with my family members. It’s just something that we’ve always enjoyed doing together. We’re a little competitive with it.
When the recession hit in the early 2000s, I was a social worker. The agency I was working for lost their funding, and I was put in a place…
Kirk Bachmann: At a crossroads.
Elle Simone Scott: Yeah. I was at a crossroads. I was put in a place where I had to decide what my next move would be. My very first job when I was 15 years old, I was a server at a restaurant. The brand is a Michigan-based brand called Olga’s Kitchen. A lot of people aren’t familiar with it. I started my very first job was in hospitality being a server. I enjoyed it. Of course, I enjoyed bringing home cash tips every day, but I enjoyed seeing people’s satisfaction with their food when it’s done right, being satisfied with good service. I cared a lot about those things. I think there’s a crossover between that sort of caring and the kind of caring that’s required in social work. I think it was pretty much a no-brainer that the two kind of ended up going hand-in-hand later in life.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. A good fit. Feels like a good fit.
Elle Simone Scott: It is a good fit. It makes sense. It was pretty much just losing my job and figuring out what to do next. I was still working in hospitality. I was a hostess for Darden Corporation, which is Olive Garden and a host of other restaurants. I went to that job, which was kind of my part-time job, and was like, “Hey, I need some more work. Do you have more hours?” I just kind of flung into the hospitality full-time naturally and happily, actually. I loved that job, so doing more was great.
Kirk Bachmann: A perfect example of being able to pivot when things change.
A lot of guests that we talk to point to, rather than food icons, they point to a nana or a mother or a father who influenced them in the kitchen. You mentioned family already. Is there a particular icon that was really a mentor or an inspiration to you, or was it all family? Like, “My family really cooks well, so I’ve got to cook pretty well as well.”
Elle Simone Scott: I would say my grandmother was probably the original icon for me, but she had two sisters and a brother. Their respective children and grandchildren enjoyed cooking with them as well. It was just kind of our thing. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother as a young person. I grew up in a single-parent home, so my grandmother was a huge support for my mother while she put me through private school and all these great things. So we got to spend a lot of time together. I would be there with her cooking, helping in the kitchen, and just talking. We really just enjoyed each other’s company.
Kirk Bachmann: And learning.
Elle Simone Scott: And learning, yeah. During the holidays, I don’t know how familiar you are with being able to be in the realm of adult conversation. You couldn’t just be a child sitting around listening to adults talk. You had to have a job. You had to be being busy. Prep work is what we call it in the culinary industry is the job of the child who wanted to be in the midst of the adults. So my job became picking the greens, shelling the peas, washing the vegetables. So if I wanted to be around, I had to be busy. That was pretty much how it started.
Once I got the green light to move on from washing and prepping vegetables, I’d ask, “Can I make that? Can I start this?” Over the years my responsibilities would graduate.
Kirk Bachmann: Not to interrupt, but that’s such a beautiful story, and my mind immediately goes to respect for the craft. Respect for the kitchen, respect for the food that you’re working with, respect for your role in the greater picture. It’s almost like it happens subliminally. In your home and many homes like yours. I like that. Similar for me. There’s was just kind of an expectation. It’s like, “You’re going to scrape the floor in the bakery before you actually can put something together on the table in the bakery.”
Did I read this correctly? I want to talk about your culinary education and how that evolved at CIA and all of that. But did I read this correctly that you have a Master’s Degree in the entertainment business?
Elle Simone Scott: I do. I do.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I want one of those. Is that after culinary school?
Elle Simone Scott: It was. I actually graduated from the Culinary Academy of New York. A lot of people get it mixed up with CIA, but it’s the Culinary Academy of New York. They later became Star Career Academy. I graduated from there in 2010. I got my degree in entertainment business in 2013 because I interned at the Food Network and realized that I wanted to get into food media more than I wanted to be in a commercial kitchen, if you will. Although I did maintain those jobs at the time, but culinary media, it grabbed my heart, Kirk. It’s next to my heart.
Kirk Bachmann: How does someone get an internship at the Food Network particularly around that time when the Food Network was just taking off. It almost seemed like an exclusive club.
Elle Simone Scott: It was, very much. As fate would have it, a former student had a relationship with an organization called the Black Culinary Alliance, the BCA, and the founder of the BCA is Alex Askew.
Kirk Bachmann: Good friend of mine. Love Alex.
Elle Simone Scott: Alex is great. And he formed a relationship with some executives at the Food Network and created this relationship between this very small trade school and the Food Network. It was serendipitous. I never…it wasn’t even an option when I enrolled, and I didn’t care. But he formed that relationship and I think I was the third person to intern at the Food Network from the Culinary Academy of New York.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s amazing. I’m going to ping Alex today. It’s been too long. I love it.
I’m going to embarrass you a little. You’re very sought after in this space. Food styling, I want to talk about that. Culinary TV producing, which I’m sure is a whole different sort of world. You’ve spent a lot of time behind the camera as well as in front of the camera as a host and on-air personality. Escoffier’s got this beautiful relationship with America’s Test Kitchen. I love “The Walk-in,” your podcast. Over the years, I can’t recall how many times you went to the walk-in to have a conversation with an employee. That’s just where you went. First of all, you were hot and sweating. You needed a private place. “Meet me in the walk-in.” Right?
Elle Simone Scott: Meet me in the walk-in. Yeah.
Kirk Bachmann: We’re going to talk through it. I was listening to a few of the podcasts that you’ve done, and one of my favorites is Kristen Kish, who is a graduate of a school in Chicago that I ran for a while. Great person, great chef, great speaker. She addressed our students as well. I love that she mentioned in the podcast – and I didn’t prep you for this, so I’m going to catch you off guard – but here’s what she said. She said that she could, quote, “convince anyone that she could run their kitchen.” End quote.
And what I loved about that is that it reminds me a little bit of me when I give advice sometimes to students who feel like, “Boy, I’m not going to apply for that job. I don’t think I’m worthy. I don’t think I’m ready.” I like to tell students that I’ve never applied for a job that I was qualified for. I just figured I’d just work it out. I would try my hardest. Do you have a little bit of that in you as well?
Elle Simone Scott: I have a lot of that. Are you kidding me? That’s been the whole crux of my career.
Kirk Bachmann: I could do that!
Elle Simone Scott: Seeing something and just having a desire to want to do it and excel at it. Also, being a part of a really good network of people who have done that work and not being afraid to tap into the network. I don’t ever have to actually have done it if I can find someone who’s willing to teach me, support me, mentor me, guide me. I can figure it out. If there’s food involved, I know food! I got that.
Kirk Bachmann: You’re comfortable.
So was building a great reputation for yourself serendipitous, or was there a recipe for that? Was that the goal when you went to the Food Network?
Elle Simone Scott: It was a hybrid of both. I definitely wanted to go in and do my best, because at the time I was a young Black woman and I knew I would be representing future young Black women who would come behind me. And I wanted to not only pave a proper path, but also leave the best impression. A part of it was intentional, but the other part was merely just being absorbed into the environment.
The Food Network, to this day, I call it the military of internships, because it’s very regimented. The day goes a certain kind of way. Really, falling full into that experience and wanting to build this relationship with the Food Network that would go beyond my internship, it was both. It was definitely a hybrid of serendipity and intention.
Kirk Bachmann: As that all translates into you producing shows down the road, so obviously just like when you were cooking in your family’s kitchen, you develop this respect for the craft. Is there a secret sauce to producing shows? Is there a “holy trinity” to abide by, or is it all situational?
Elle Simone Scott: That’s a good question. It’s really all situational. No two experiences in culinary media are alike, really. Even if you’re working on the same show. Let’s say you work on two seasons of “Chopped.” The contestants are different, the food is different. The format itself is the same, and I think to be a good culinary producer, you kind of have to find your formula, but essentially it requires a lot of organizational skills, very strong leadership skills, because you are running the shows and anything that goes well or wrong…
Kirk Bachmann: It’s on you.
Elle Simone Scott: It’s on you. So you have to be firm in your convictions. Be willing to make a decision no matter how it turns out.
Kirk Bachmann: And do your best, as you mentioned.
Elle Simone Scott: And do your best. Yeah.
Kirk Bachmann: You know, those three little words are very, very powerful. To be honest, I have to do a better job of conveying that to our students who get frustrated when their brioche doesn’t come through or their soufflé falls. All we’re really ever asking is just that you do your best. That you do your best. Everything else will fall into line.
Speaking of doing your best: I think this whole concept of food styling is kind of a secret. Everyone thinks that they’re a food stylist. Until I actually met a food stylist who showed up in the kitchen with all this equipment, all these tools, and these little ladders that potatoes were going to be piped on so they would stand up high on the back of the plate. I’m like, “Wow!” Is it that complicated? Or is it that fascinating, I should say, to style food?
Elle Simone Scott: It is both complicated and fascinating. I think one of the things that I like to make very clear about food styling is that it can be inclusive of plating food, but it is not the same. I’m an excellent food stylist. Plating? Not my strong suit.
Kirk Bachmann: Really? Okay.
Elle Simone Scott: It’s a very different art. Both of them are art. They definitely are art forms. I think I would say food styling is more for selling food, and plating is more for presentation. Does that make sense?
Kirk Bachmann: it does, and the whole idea of plating food, too, is while you’re plating one, you’re thinking of the 65 additional that you’re going to be plating right after and they all have to look the same, and the vegetables have to be cooked through, and so on and so forth. Would you say that food styling is often through the lens of the observer? You’re almost having to think of, “What does this look like for my client and for my client’s clients?”
Elle Simone Scott: Yes. Always. Always.
Kirk Bachmann: Pressure. It seems stressful.
Elle Simone Scott: It’s really not. We all have a little pressure to perform our jobs well. That just exists. But if you go into every project being very clear about what your goals are, what you’re selling and to whom you’re selling, it actually makes your job so much easier. If I know that this food that I’m styling is to appeal to ten-year-olds?
Kirk Bachmann: Completely different approach.
Elle Simone Scott: Yeah, it’s a completely different approach. Just knowing your client, knowing who your client’s client is, and being prepared. Doing some research before you ever go on a shoot to make sure you actually can deliver.
Kirk Bachmann: I was speaking with someone a few months ago, and he’s been in the food business and tech business and all of that. We asked, “What’s your greatest advice for any entrepreneur?” And his simple advice was, “Like your customer. Like your client. Try your hardest – just like with us – like your students.” They’re the client. That’s half the battle. Don’t get upset when someone sends some food back. Just move on.
So let’s get a little personal. I will, too. You’re a cancer survivor, ovarian cancer survivor. You’re passionate about advocating for those who are enduring a similar path. While a little bit different, I’ve mentioned to you that I’m a kidney transplant recipient. This coming February it will be 41 years that I received a kidney from my father who’s 85 and still going strong.
Elle Simone Scott: Wow! That’s amazing. I love that.
Kirk Bachmann: it keeps me excited. I just know that I changed my approach to living somewhat surreptitiously, to use that word again. I was young. My mother made it real clear that there was going to be no special anything for me. I was going to work hard. Kidney transplant was successful and off you go. Nobody’s feeling sorry for anybody. It’s been a good message to share with students and children about doing their best and trying hard and overcoming obstacles. Are you open to talking a little bit about that time in your life and how you like to give back and share your story with others around that?
Elle Simone Scott: Absolutely. Yeah. I’m actually what one would consider a chronic ovarian cancer survivor. Odds are I’ll be dealing with it to some degree for who knows how long. I like to refer to myself as a thriver. I’m an ovarian cancer thriver.
I was diagnosed in my late 30s almost immediately after getting hired at America’s Test Kitchen, ironically enough. It was a very difficult intro to the experience because I was new to Boston. I didn’t have any friends or family here, so my coworkers immediately stepped in. They’re my friends and family, to be honest.
I went through treatments. I’m currently going through treatments. It is challenging. Some days are great, and I feel like I can power through. And some days are extremely challenging. This morning was very challenging. I had a very emotional morning. Feeling frustrated because I couldn’t move as fast as I wanted to or do as much as I wanted to. But then there are days when I can do all the things. A few days after treatment, I can do all the things. I’m moving at a great pace. I’m feeling 100 percent. Life is good.
Life is good overall, but I think the one thing that ovarian cancer has taught me is that there is no day without challenges. They’re not always physical.
Kirk Bachmann: And you find a way to overcome.
Elle Simone Scott: Yeah. You find a way. And if you don’t, it’s okay, if today is not the day of overcoming. If today is the day of going to bed at 7 o’clock with some chocolate and watching a movie, that’s okay, too. Yeah. It’s okay.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s part of thriving, right?
Elle Simone Scott: It is. Being very honest with yourself, mirroring with yourself about what you need at the time you need it. Sometimes I have to say no to projects that I really want to do because the timing might not be right, or I don’t feel so great. But there are so many other things that come my way that I never feel like I’m losing. So whenever you’re being honest or true to yourself about what you need, even when you have to sacrifice something, something better always comes along. Always.
Kirk Bachmann: So beautifully said. Did and does food play a role in thriving?
Elle Simone Scott: Oh yeah. It definitely does. I’m definitely more particular about the foods that I eat when I’m in an emotional space, because it’s very easy to just kind of consume whatever is there. When I’m feeling my most vulnerable is when I try to eat the healthiest. I’m sure that it won’t be a decision that I regret afterwards. I try to save all my junk food eating for when I feel spectacular.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I love that. That’s a good way to approach food and life.
Speaking of life, you founded SheChef primarily to mentor women chefs, women chefs of color. Was this something that you saw almost immediately – I think you alluded to this earlier as you entered the industry – was this support for women chefs and women of color missing?
Elle Simone Scott: Yeah. It definitely was missing, or scant at best. It really came about because after I finished my interim of interning at the Food Network, it was each of our responsibility to groom the next person who would come behind us.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, that was a formal process?
Elle Simone Scott: It was kind of like, “Who do you think from your peers, who is exemplary? Good attendance.” And this and that. So not only did I groom the next person, but I kept grooming people. I kept helping the next person groom people. It kind of just became a thing.
I did notice, once I got out into the workforce, that although I went to school with a lot of Black and Brown people, I wasn’t seeing that represented in certain kitchens. I worked in a lot of high-end kitchens in New York City. I don’t think that really dawned on me until later in the game. But I worked in some really high-end kitchens, and I didn’t see a lot of Black and Brown people, especially in leadership positions. It just got me interested as to why I wasn’t seeing that.
So I went back to my school and started working with the career services department to find out what students were doing after graduation, basically tracking. Seeing why they weren’t still in the field if they were not. If they were, what were some of the challenges they were facing. A lot of them were things like childcare, or non-traditional work hours. Some of the things that any of us could face in the culinary industry. I wanted to be a support so they could continue to do the work that they loved to do and figure out how I could make that doable. Could I be a babysitter sometimes? Could I take the train with you when you have to be at work at 5 a.m. in the middle of the scary Manhattan nights? What could we do to be a support? That’s really how SheChef came about. There was no intention to actually become an organization. It was really just my desire to see people doing the work that they love.
Kirk Bachmann: Walking the walk.
Elle Simone Scott: And not having to worry.
Kirk Bachmann: What advice, Chef, would you give to other women of color or women in our industry who are trying to…maybe they’re you twenty years ago. They’re trying to break into this industry in one way or another. What’s some of the most simple advice that you could offer?
Elle Simone Scott: Don’t take no for an answer.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s good advice for me, too.
Elle Simone Scott: Anyone will tell you, I never take no for an answer. No, from me means maybe. Later. It means, “Come back in six months.” It means anything but no. I never take no for an answer, and I think it’s been that resilience, that persistence, that has really gotten me far. I keep trying. You really can’t knock me down. I think that’s why I’m a cancer survivor. You can’t knock me down easy. It takes a lot.
Kirk Bachmann: You don’t take no for an answer.
Elle Simone Scott: No.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that.
Well, we’ve come to the end of our time. You’re an absolutely beautiful person. I just love, love chatting with you. Such great advice. The name of our podcast is The Ultimate Dish. This is my favorite part of the chat, because we get to ask the chef, “What is the ultimate dish?”
Elle Simone Scott: Wow. The ultimate dish is family-style. It’s one that you can share with the people that you love. The ultimate dish is a dish that you can learn something about someone from by tasting and talking.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, I like that perspective! Yeah.
Elle Simone Scott: The ultimate dish is a dish that leads to the next dish. When you get up from the table, you’re already making plans to get together for that same experience another time in the future.
Kirk Bachmann: And it’s not because you’re still hungry, it’s because you’re motivated for the next. I love that. I love that. No one has said that. I love that.
Chef, thank you so much for joining us today. I really, really appreciate it.
Elle Simone Scott: It’s been an honor.
Kirk Bachmann: And hi to Remy. Remy was beautifully behaved.
Elle Simone Scott: She’s asleep right now.
Kirk Bachmann: I do that to people. I put people to sleep. Thank you again. We appreciate your time. So much.
Elle Simone Scott: Thank you for having me.
Kirk Bachmann: All the best of luck.
Elle Simone Scott: Thank you.
Kirk Bachmann: Thank you for listening to The Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School for Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast where you’ll find any of the materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links, and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.