Sitting across from one of America’s Test Kitchen chefs, you can’t not ask the question. It’s impossible. So I do. “What’s one tip everyone should know?” Chef Elle Simone kindly obliges. “If you have dry spices, you should not keep them for more than a year,” she is quick to tell me. Now I’m certain she gets asked this question often. She adds, “We keep it until it’s gone, honey; but after one year, let it go and get you some new ones — and get small ones,” she instructs with a chuckle that is both endearing and an affirmation — she gets us.
Simone is well-known as one of the hosts of the PBS show, America’s Test Kitchen, where she guides home cooks through expertly crafted recipes and techniques. But chef Elle, nicknamed “Culinary Oprah,” is more than a TV personality. Multi-talented both on- and off-screen, when she’s not cheffing, she’s producing, styling food or advocating for women of color in the food and beverage industry through her organization SheChef.
Advocating for the underrepresented has been a priority throughout Simone’s professional career. So when the former social worker noticed black classmates in her culinary program weren’t working in the industry post-graduation, she uncovered critical insight behind the disparity. “I started doing some statistical research through my school and interviewing students to find out where they were and what was happening to them,” she says. “And a lot of them were not staying in the industry because the income was too low.” Simone found this to be especially true for some of the women in her class. “If you’re a single mother you have to care for your children, so they would leave their passion for cooking and work at like FedEx or whatever, to do some other job.” And a number of black men in her class experienced different barriers. “They found it difficult to function in the abusive kitchen environment because some of the guys were in second-chance programs and they can’t take the risk of having someone trigger them at work and go back to the pen,” explains Simone.
Motivated to close the diversity and inclusion gap, Simone created SheChef. “I wanted to help people stay in the industry, doing the work that they love, while keeping the turnover low,” she says. “There are so many things we can do in the culinary industry that people don’t know about.”
SheChef is a professional networking and mentoring organization that gives access to industry insight, jobs, and opportunities. “I wanted to create these sort of Master Class environments where people could bring notepads, exchange ideas, and be supportive in a non-threatening environment,” Simone says. Community is at the core of SheChef’s purpose, giving black and brown women a space to connect. It’s something Simone wishes existed when she was a budding chef finding her place in the industry. “I feel like as a black woman chef I want to be supported, I want to have a voice and I want it to be heard. I want mentor. I want a mentee.”
SheChef comes on the heels of movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, but Simone has been doing this work for years. She acknowledges the impact of movements like these on amplifying voices of marginalized folks in the food and beverage industry. “People of color are only recently becoming part of the conversation in the culinary industry, I would say that I equate that to the #MeToo movement happening because it talks about safe spaces and inclusiveness and you can’t have those conversations without including people of color. I mean you could, but you’d look kind of crazy pretending that that’s not a part of it,” she says. The other part, she points out, is lack of capital. “People of color are not getting funding, not getting bank loans, so we first have to talk about the economic racism that exists and that’s really the root of it.”
Simone is a busy lady. When she’s not taping ATK in Boston she’s speaking on panels in cities across the country, all making me wonder how she has time for Elle. Lately, self-care has been a hot issue for many people, F&B professionals especially, and it’s something Simone doesn’t believe in making complicated. “I think self-care comes in many forms. It can mean a vacation or just drinking a healthy smoothie every morning. If I work a 14-day stretch, as long as I get my feet rubbed after, that’s self-care. For some it’s reading a book with their kids,” says Simone. “This idea of self-care comes with a lot of pressure because it makes people think that, ‘I have to take a week off,’ or ‘I have to do this,’ when self-care is really what you need for yourself. If it’s just not cooking and having a grilled cheese, that’s self-care — as long as you define what it is for yourself.”
If you read a few comments on Chef Elle’s Instagram you’ll see she’s an inspiration for many, making that “O” nickname a fitting one. With growing influence, Simone is slowly learning to embrace her new role. “I never thought of myself as a leader. I don’t know that anyone who is a true leader basks in the leadership because it’s hard, and it takes a lot of sacrifice, and once you start there’s no turning back. I guess it was just my destiny, I don’t know.” Simone gives a quick shrug and smile.