In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Elle Simone Scott.
Elle Simone Scott has seen nearly every side of the food industry: She cooked in restaurants and for boutique catering companies before becoming a freelance food stylist and producer for food television shows. She credits that well-rounded background with positioning her for opportunities, like her current gig as food stylist and scene-stealing test cook at America’s Test Kitchen.
Scott understands the challenges of breaking into the industry, though — like its famously low wages and its lack of representation of women of color. That’s why she’s working to lift up the women coming up behind her through her organization She Chef Inc., which provides mentoring and networking opportunities to young women aspiring to join the culinary field. Here, she explains how she got where she is and shares her advice for success.
Eater: What does your job involve?
Elle Simone Scott: I have a lot of responsibilities at America’s Test Kitchen. I’m one of two resident food stylists. In this role, I style food for all of our media outlets (books, magazines, social media, and television shows). Additionally, I am a test cook on America’s Test Kitchen and the opening voice for Cook’s Country. Both shows air on PBS & Create TV.
What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
I was already cooking in restaurants before I enrolled in culinary school, so I think I wanted, or planned, to work in a restaurant when I started my career. At that time, I didn’t even know that food media was a career genre. For a brief time I thought I wanted to own a catering company, but after working in several boutique catering companies in NYC, I quickly realized that I don’t have the patience for it.
Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?
I went to college (undergrad and grad) and also culinary school. I don’t think you really need to do either, but both were very beneficial in their own way. My undergraduate degree was in social work, so it gave me a full-time job to lean on once I realized that I wanted to cook professionally and decided to go to culinary school. I got my graduate degree after culinary school. I have an MFA in entertainment business, which was beneficial as I began to grow my career in media.
Student loans are such a part of the conversation around higher education right now. Has your career trajectory been impacted by debt in any way?
Yes, student loan debt is just a burden that if not well managed can be problematic. I would love to travel the world and cook like my peers, but I have to be grounded with a steady job to pay off student loans.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
My first job was at 16 years old at Olga’s Kitchen in Detroit. I was a server. It involved very standard tasks: taking orders, menu knowledge, and opening/closing tasks. The usual. I loved food and restaurants even back then. Come to think of it, I’ve worked more in the food and beverage industry than any other.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
The biggest challenge I faced was being one of very few women and/or woman of color in most of the kitchens I have worked in. The only other big challenge was economic. It’s difficult to find a job in this industry that actually pays well.
When was the first time you felt successful?
I’m still looking for that moment. I’m always looking to outdo myself, daily.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
I think that coming to ATK was a turning point in my career. I had absolutely zero desire to be on TV, so the organic way that I ended up doing this work was so perfect. If I would’ve known fully what I was getting into, I don’t know that I would’ve consciously chosen it. It really took my career to the next level.
What were the most important skills that got you there?
I think the thing that makes me so marketable in my field is that there isn’t any type of food work that I haven’t done. I have a pretty well-rounded career and that’s rare. I credit living and freelancing in NYC for that.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field? How has that made a difference?
I’ve had a few mentors: Dr. Jessica Harris, Toni Tipton-Martin, Carla Hall… I don’t have a mentor now, but I’m deeply interested in venture capitalist efforts. I would love to have Arlan Hamilton be my mentor. If anyone knows her, can you make an e-intro?
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I work with some very cool folks, so coming to work is usually a lot of fun. I also still find food styling quite fun and exciting. It’s never the same thing on any two days.
What would surprise people or something you didn’t know going into your job? Why?
I’m super nervous when I’m shooting our TV show. I’m extremely shy and feel like I’m being critiqued; no one is actually doing that but my nervousness takes over and I’m slightly irrational, LOL.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve gotten to do?
The coolest project I’ve worked on recently is our newest book, How to Cocktail. It was my first effort at styling beverages; I was able to style 90 percent of the book and it came out beautifully. It’s fly and I’m hella proud of it.
How are you making change in your industry?
The organization that I’ve founded, SheChef Inc., supports women of color in the food and beverage industry in a myriad of ways. This is how I implement change. I am also on the board of several organizations that have been making real strides in the industry: Women In Hospitality United, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance, and a few others.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
If you want my job, I’d love to mentor you so that you can do it right! I don’t want to be doing anything forever, but I do want the best of the best to take over when I’m done.
Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
Photo of Elle Simone Scott by America’s Test Kitchen.
Illustrations from the Noun Project: camera by Dhika Hernandita; covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; hand writing by Pongsakorn.