Meet the America’s Test Kitchen star who dreams of being the culinary Oprah
Elle Simone Scott’s star is on the rise, and she’s opening doors for other women of color.
Elle Simone Scott goes by many names.
On television, she is Elle Simone, the first African-American woman to join the cast of the popular PBS cooking show America’s Test Kitchen.
When representing SheChef, a for-profit social enterprise she founded to connect and empower women of color working in the culinary sphere, she adds her last name.
Then there is her “government name,” LaShawnda Sherise Simone Scott (“Elle” is her first initial spelled out). This is the one she gave to the doctor who diagnosed her with ovarian cancer in 2016. The news came just after she moved to Boston to start her dream job at America’s Test Kitchen, where as a food stylist she makes dishes look their best for the namesake show and the slew of cookbooks the company puts out each year.
Perhaps one day she’ll be known simply as Elle, which would be very on brand. Elle Simone Scott wants to be the culinary Oprah. She even has the hashtag to match: #CulinaryOprah, right there at the end of her social media posts.
Scott’s momentum is building. In past months, she has filmed a segment for NBC’s The Hub Today, talking about America’s Test Kitchen and SheChef and making her grandmother’s meat loaf. She has been interviewed for an NPR story about the challenges women chefs face and spoken at events at Harvard Business School, Babson College, and elsewhere alongside top chefs such as Barbara Lynch and Karen Akunowicz. And she has traveled the country moderating a panel series called The Art of Hustle for SheChef, which celebrated its fifth anniversary in November, just as she turned 42.
The food world is beginning to have necessary but difficult conversations about racism and sexism in the industry. Major media stories centering on the misdeeds of high-profile chefs such as Mario Batali, John Besh, and Mike Isabella have pulled back the curtain on a culture of harassment and abuse in restaurants. The James Beard Foundation, criticized for the lack of diversity in its high-profile annual awards, has revised its procedures with the goal of making change. America’s Test Kitchen, which produces its namesake show, and the Cook’s Country show and magazine, publishes Cook’s Illustrated, and operates an online cooking school, is doing the same with its hiring; two new on-air test cooks, one African-American, one Latina, will join its Cook’s Country show next fall. “Being on public television, it’s important that the show reflect the audience in all kinds of ways,” says Jack Bishop, the company’s chief creative officer. “We don’t want everybody on camera to have grown up in Boston . . . . We want us to represent the rainbow of the people who are watching public television — probably the most diverse audience in the TV world, because . . . no matter where you live or your income level, everyone can get it.”
But Scott has been talking about these issues for years — ever since she finished cooking school in 2010 and found that few of the women and people of color she’d graduated with were working in the kitchen alongside her. The hours, the low pay, and the lack of benefits made careers in food too hard to sustain. And those, she says, are in addition to other “issues that plague the industry: racism, sexism, gender gaps, pay inequity.” She’d go to conferences and be one of just a few women of color in attendance. “I think creating positive kitchen cultures is the solution. I don’t want to spend a whole bunch of time talking about these problems that aren’t my problems. It’s not my job to undo racism. I didn’t create it. It’s my job to create a positive, affirmed culture of women who can navigate.”
There were no membership organizations for women of color in the culinary world, she says. So she started SheChef to help them find peers and empower one another (this year was the first year she began charging a fee, $25 a month for students and professionals, $50 for small businesses). Building support networks is key, she says, because there still aren’t a lot of women in leadership positions. “No duh, because if we can’t obtain the kind of capital it takes to open a brick and mortar, we’ll never be executive chef,” says Scott. “Are we expecting these same men we feel are the catalyst of this ill kitchen culture to provide us with a raise, or are we going to create it for ourselves?”
Although her roles at America’s Test Kitchen and SheChef are separate in practice, there is one thing they have very much in common: Scott as a mentor and role model for black women.
Women and people of color remain underrepresented in movies and TV shows, says a 2018 UCLA report on diversity in Hollywood, which found that on reality shows, people of color made up less than 27 percent of leads, and women less than 19 percent. And a 2018 Women’s Media Center report found that women of color make up just 12.6 percent of local TV news staff, versus approximately 20 percent of the overall population.
America’s Test Kitchen nets more than 10 million viewers a month, making Scott one of the most visible black women on food television, along with people like Carla Hall, who co-hosted ABC’s The Chew and is the author of a new cookbook, Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration.
Scott’s presence on-screen really means something, says Hall, who is one of her mentors: “What is not lost on me is how many young black girls and women come up to me saying, ‘Wow, you’re such an inspiration. It’s so great to see you on television.’ We need to see ourselves in different roles — whether you’re Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Indian, we need to see ourselves. When you diversify food media, you diversify the culture you’re focusing on. . . . When I see Elle, I think maybe what they’re going to be testing is something that relates to me.”
Or, as someone recently commented on Scott’s Instagram, “Gurl I was going to stop watching ATK until I saw you . . . I mean I like your colleagues but I really needed to see a sista.”
Scott toggles from one role to another so smoothly and frequently, it doesn’t feel so much like changing gears as operating in all of them simultaneously. She’s that duck: part glide, part furious paddle. But she’s likely to share with you how tired her legs are. Her realness is part of her appeal.
Here she is on camera, talking up the delights of gâteau Breton with Bridget Lancaster, who co-hosts America’s Test Kitchen with Julia Collin Davison. “We’re giving this butter a head start because we want to create a dense, crumbly crust, not one that has a lot of air incorporated into it,” Scott explains in the trademark calm, authoritative America’s Test Kitchen cadence. The next moment she cracks a goofy joke.
“I like that you included me as in we, when you did all the work,” says Davison.
“Well, it’s a French butter cake, it’s always oui,” says Scott, as Davison chortles.
Here she is in the car, traveling from Point A to Point B, working the phone for SheChef. “I can connect you with someone, absolutely,” she says. “What city are you in?” The organization now has about 200 paid members in five cities: Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and New York. “There are so few women of color in food styling, so that’s a particular area to touch for me,” Scott says: Women she has mentored now work for the food and culture sites So Yummy in Los Angeles and Food52 in New York.
“She gives us access and experience,” says Chimere Ward, a SheChef member and owner of New York catering company Clean Plate Co. Scott took her to The Chew with a group of 10 women: “We met Carla. We went backstage. We were all excited like little girls. I did a Chopped commercial through [Scott]. She sent me an e-mail and said, ‘You should do this.’ Because I respect her, I’m like OK, as scared as I was, because she referred the information and I didn’t want to disappoint her,” says Ward. “I trust what she sees in me because a lot of us don’t see ourselves. You’re struggling trying to maintain the business; you don’t always feel your best. . . . When you come across people who give you genuine support, that’s all you need to survive.”
And here is Scott in a live online Q and A, offering lighthearted counterpoint to Bishop, with whom she has a clear rapport: “This is my favorite person,” she introduces him, and he chuckles, charmed, a little bit abashed. They’re talking duchess potatoes: “Jack has lots of friends who come over for holidays just for these potatoes,” she says. “They’re legit.”
It may be the first time the word “legit” has been used in America’s Test Kitchen content. When Bishop says his desert island cookbook would be one of Marcella Hazan’s, Scott says she’d choose volumes by Edna Lewis and Jessica B. Harris. With that, she places black Southern cooking and the food of the African diaspora on the shelf as necessary and fundamental for viewers, right beside classic Italian technique. This may be a first for the media outlet, too.
“I think she brings a different perspective to everything that we do on television,” Bishop says. “She gets lots of positive feedback from our fans, who love her playfulness. She’s so comfortable and funny and herself. We don’t want everyone to be the same. Elle is Elle.”
Scott grew up on the west side of Detroit, raised by a single mother, although her father remained involved. Her Seventh-day Adventist family was middle class. Education was important; church was important. (She says she’s a spiritual person, but doesn’t practice any religion now.) The whole extended clan cared for her: She jokes that she had five fathers and three mothers. Her grandmother, an obstetrics and gynecology nurse, was her best friend. She was also the best cook ever, Scott says. “And that’s not my biased opinion. The church would order her corn bread dressing by the pan.” Scott often helped her out in the kitchen. “Then I could sit with her and watch Jeopardy and talk with her.”
Scott’s first cooking job was at a kosher bakery in Oak Park, Michigan, and she grew up eating bialys and smoked fish because her great-grandmother was a cook in a Jewish nursing home. (When Scott moved to New York, some of her first gigs were as a private chef for kosher families on the Upper West Side.)
But she worked at restaurants mostly on the side. In college at Eastern Michigan University, she studied human services. “I didn’t even really think about culinary school,” she says. “I knew I loved cooking, but I didn’t even know that was a thing.” Instead, she spent seven years as a social worker, until her agency lost its funding.
She wound up cooking for Norwegian Cruise Line for two years and in 2009 relocated to New York, to finally attend culinary school. She went to the Culinary Academy of New York and to pay the bills helped run a Lower East Side homeless shelter for women. Sometimes she’d work a double shift and go to class, skipping sleep for days in a row. She eventually collapsed from exhaustion. It was time to stop moonlighting.
She catered for restaurateur Danny Meyer’s company, interned at Food Network, and eventually worked her way into a freelance food-styling career. One of her gigs was as a chef and innkeeper at Akwaaba Mansion in Brooklyn, a bed and breakfast run by former Essence editor-in-chief Monique Greenwood. “She’s amazing to work with,” Greenwood says. “She is very cool and collected, she’s very positive, she keeps her head when there’s a challenge and says, ‘How are we going to make this work?’ ”
When the America’s Test Kitchen opportunity came along, the timing was right. Scott had just ended a long-term relationship. She loves New York, but she felt she was aging out of the city. It seemed like it was meant to be.
This particular day, Scott is working behind the scenes at the Seaport headquarters of America’s Test Kitchen, together with Courtney Lentz, deputy art director for books, and freelance photographer Carl Tremblay. Scott frowns over a small plate of swordfish kebabs she is styling for an air fryer cookbook.
“Want me to flip these and see if they have more charred sides?” she asks Lentz and Tremblay. She moves things around, reconsiders. “I can put the relish on top.” She sings to herself as she makes minute adjustments to a dollop of eggplant caponata. “This is challenging,” she whispers. She is wearing fringed black sneakers, cropped gray pants, and a denim apron over a black shirt. Her short hair, currently dyed blue (it changes frequently), looks electric in the clear afternoon light that floods the studio. Her arms are tattooed. A whisk on one, a message on the other: “All faith, all the time.”
It’s hard to see the difference from tiny change to tiny change, but when she’s done, it’s clear: She has transformed the swordfish and relish into a coherent dish. She looks at the plate and smiles. “I am much happier with this than I ever thought I could be.”
She reconsiders, fusses over a few cubes of fish. “Yes!” She pumps her arm. “I love it.”
After work, over snacks and wine at the Chickadee restaurant downstairs, she talks about what makes a good food stylist. “You have to be able to surrender.”
Does that come naturally?
She laughs. “I always want the food to look beautiful and perfect. But food does what it does. You really don’t have any control over it. You can’t control how long it lives. It’s going to do what it’s going to do. You can keep up with it or slow down and catch it, one of the two. Surrender.” It has been a theme in her life. Even her move to Boston was about surrendering.
She came to America’s Test Kitchen to try out for something, she just wasn’t sure what. The casting director was vague, as is common with auditions. Something small, Scott figured: a one-off. She never imagined it would be a recurring role on the show. “I would’ve backed away from it if I’d known,” she says. “I was afraid of success. I’m very shy — people don’t believe that — and the thought of performing . . . Even now I get headaches from the stress. I would’ve punked out.”
They called her within the week to offer her the job. She had 30 days to move. She didn’t have time to think about it. She surrendered.
“I took it. I leaped,” she says. “I don’t believe in luck, in chance. I believe everything in my life is predetermined and fated. I live and work on faith alone, all the time.”
In New York, she hadn’t been feeling well. She’d been having abdominal pains. Doctors told her it was fibroids. She took Advil. She took more Advil. It started to feel like she was living on Advil. She was a black woman who worked as a freelance food stylist and didn’t have a lot of money. She felt the doctors weren’t taking her seriously.
When she moved to Boston, she found an OBGYN who was a woman of color. The doctor sent her for an ultrasound, to a facility right near the old America’s Test Kitchen headquarters in Brookline. Before she was even back in her office, her phone rang. “Are you driving right now?” her doctor asked. Scott had a cyst that turned out to be stage 1C, grade 3 ovarian cancer. She was new to town. She didn’t really know anyone. Her America’s Test Kitchen co-workers rallied around her. They cooked; they created a carpool list.
“Family doesn’t necessarily look like you,” Scott says. “They may lack in cultural diversity, but they don’t lack in human diversity. All kinds of people, of all sizes, shapes, and interests, work here. I never felt odd because everyone here is odd. This is comforting. I felt at home immediately.”
She has been in remission for two years.
“When I was getting chemo, I promised God two things: ‘God, if you let me survive cancer I will use my platform to bring attention to this cancer and any other women’s cancer, and I will give my all to SheChef and give my all to women who look like me.’ ”
And so she does, sharing her story on social media and in a marketing campaign for biotech company ImmunoGen to spread awareness, emceeing events and doing cooking demonstrations of chemotherapy-friendly food for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition.
After a year filled with travel, Scott is making a conscious effort to spend more time in Boston. “I love it. It’s beautiful; it leaves nothing to be desired on aesthetics. The food scene is growing. I love that. I feel at home here,” she says. (She did have the first direct racist experience of her life, however: a woman yelled degrading things at her on Boston Common.) She’s planning some local SheChef events. She’ll see friends, visit her favorite restaurants. She likes Pammy’s in Cambridge, Teranga in the South End, Fool’s Errand in the Fenway, all run by female restaurateurs. She wants to check out Pagu near Central Square, because she met chef-owner Tracy Chang at a panel they both spoke on for the James Beard Foundation’s Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program.
And she’s looking to the future. She hired an assistant for SheChef. She is working on a SheChef internship program, partnering with America’s Test Kitchen, Food52, and others. She plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign in the new year, raising money to create study-abroad opportunities for women chefs of color who often “don’t get that experience because they can’t afford it,” Scott says.
Maybe one day she’ll write a cookbook, one full of stories. It would feature, she says, the kind of recipes you’d find tucked in your grandmother’s Bible, the ones she clipped from newspapers over the course of her life. Although Scott doesn’t personally want to open a restaurant, she might do that too. There are so many good cooks in her family, after all. It would provide them with a platform. That #CulinaryOprah hashtag? It’s not really about her, either. “I want to become culinary Oprah so I can take care of my family,” she says. “I want to say, ‘Come on, guys, we’re going to go on vacation and not have to worry about work.’ ”
Someone else might just play the lottery, but this is the woman behind the SheChef panel The Art of Hustle. She already knows what SheChef’s 2019 panel series will be called: Level Up. As Ciara sings in the song of the same name, “My lessons made blessings, I turned that into money. Thank God I never settled, this view is so much better. I’m chilling, I’m winning, like on another level.”
So what would becoming culinary Oprah actually entail? “I always wanted a platform for the real black woman,” Scott says. “The one who does the same thing every woman does across the world: work, cook, take care of kids, have dreams and goals. I don’t feel like black women get that real-woman depiction in media hardly ever.” A television show would be a natural first step — “like if Rachael Ray and Oprah had a love child,” Scott describes it.
But she is, as always, open to what comes her way. “I’m almost afraid to say what’s next,” she says. “I’d never have guessed this was next. I will say this: Whatever happens here on out is to magnify the hashtag.”
All faith, all the time, as the ink says.