Elle Simone - Conversations with Artists
What is the art of what you do?
For me, the art of being a food stylist is pushing people beyond a linear way of thinking. I help folks look at food outside of their normal scope of consumption to view it from a more thoughtful perspective. I try to create something that grabs the eye and guides people to think more deeply. Food has style and color and shape. It has feeling and has a mind of its own.
How does food have a mind of its own?
With regard to food styling, at a certain point it's worn out and is simply done being photographed. Much the way when you push yourself beyond 8 -12 hours a day — your eyes get tired and you don't feel as bright. It’s the same with food — it no longer looks appetizing. When it's done, it's done and there's nothing you can do to bring it back.
What are your principles behind food manipulation?
I won’t force food to do something unnatural. At one point in my career I used all kinds of things; glycerin, torches, glue. I’ve learned that the beauty of food is in the way it's intended to be. Too much manipulation is inauthentic. If you try to manipulate your lover to be something you want them to be they’ll rebel. Food is the same way.
How did you come to this viewpoint?
I think the thing I value most about being a food stylist at America's Test Kitchen is that we style holistically. Rather than over-manipulate one dish in order to photograph it, we’ll cook six of the same thing and have them standing by in case we need to switch one out. I enjoy styling in a holistic way because as long as the food hasn’t been sitting out for too long it can still be eaten when we’re done. That speaks to my principles about food waste. I really hate wasting food.
What gives you motivation to do this every day?
The fact that my job is so diverse, I never have to do the same thing twice. I never considered myself an artistic person but food is the place where my art comes to the surface. As a food stylist I’m able to push myself artistically, and the goal is to style food purely for looks - not for flavor —to make something that looks so good you want to buy it and eat it.
We just did a little experiment with a Miracle Berry and it affected your tastebuds. As a cancer survivor who went through chemotherapy, how did chemo change your tastebuds?
When you lose something you realize how you once took it for granted. Not being able to taste food as a result of chemotherapy made me think about food differently. If someone can’t taste and they can only rely on visual aesthetics, what approach will appeal to them? This challenged me because sometimes I style according to taste. I learned to style with one less sense, and it was a complete mind change. I never thought I'd be approaching food in a way where I couldn't taste it but still have to sell it. Even though I knew my taste buds would go with chemo, I had no idea to what degree. Things I loved tasted horrible, things I hated tasted great.
Have you had a mentor?
I didn’t have one for many years. The mentor I have now - Chef Carla Hall, has been my mentor for the past four or five years.
You went through culinary school for food styling?
I didn’t start styling til after culinary school. I thought I was going to be a restaurant chef. I ended up interning at the Food Network and that’s where I learned about food styling, which I loved. I consider myself a late bloomer. I didn’t aggressively pursue culinary arts until I was 30. Food was always my passion -- I just didn’t pursue it. Emeril was ‘The Guy’ on Food Network when I was young watching TV. There were never any women, and certainly no women of color, so I just didn’t see it as a realistic goal. Representation is super important — that whole cliche, ‘see it to believe it,’ is real. You’ve got to see it to believe it and I didn’t. I was a social worker for 6 years in Detroit and when the economy tanked the agency I worked for lost it’s funding. It was an opportunity to look at my life and ask myself “what now?” I decided that I was going to cook. After moonlighting in restaurants and working as a cook on a cruise liner, I came to NY with $200 to my name -- and the rest is black history.
It was as if something was pulling you.
My intention was set to be a chef. While I was trying to figure out how to make it happen, I was also working at a women’s shelter on the lower east side. I found a school called the Culinary Academy of New York and I went there completely green. I’d work all night at the shelter and go to class in the morning. Many days I’d survive on two hours of sleep. I remember going to class one morning and my culinary instructor, who was usually just about class and business, spoke to us and said ‘if this is what you want to do, you’re going to have to sacrifice everything to do it. There are no shortcuts.’ It’s almost as if I knew she was talking to me directly, and I remember crying. I knew then that I had to quit the social work — I had to let it go. I talked with my partner at the time and she was ok with me letting go of my job. If it wasn’t for that moment I wouldn’t be here. If I didn’t get that ‘yes, go ahead and follow your dreams,’ that support -- I wouldn’t be here.
It’s amazing when somebody backs you on your dream. It’s one of the most powerful experiences in this existence.
It is — it means they believe in you. When someone sees something in you -- and they’re willing to make that sacrifice, that’s absolutely everything.
How is being from Detroit is reflected in your food?
I cook like a midwesterner. I am certainly a comfort food cook for the family-type of person. My favorite foods are any type of regional comfort foods, casseroles, souvlaki; the food that your grandma makes. I feel that’s a real midwestern mentality, especially for black Americans because our grandparents migrated from the south to the north. As a family we definitely have a northern vibe, but we have a deeply-rooted southern influence that’s reflected in my food.
If you could go back to 12-year-old Elle and give her some advice -- what would you say?
‘Don’t let people rob you of your confidence. Stay the course. You are exactly what you think you are, and probably more.’
What did you think you were at 12?
Unapologetically different. I dressed differently, wore my hair differently. No one in my neighborhood was dressing that way, they looked at me as if I were crazy. I didn’t know enough to care what they thought. I just always knew I was different and probably destined for a very different path in life. You have so many life experiences that either can throw you completely off your path and you have to find your way back to it, or they put you on path and then you stray away from it. It’s either by accident or on purpose and sometimes a little bit of both. Life can make you lose your way.
People who are intimidated by personal power, can make you feel that being different is wrong or crazy. It’s not wrong, it’s not crazy. In fact, in my personal life I don’t even use the words wrong or crazy. If it’s right for me, it’s good for me. So I would’ve definitely reminded myself that ‘yep, you are different. You’re going to do different things. People notice you when you walk in a room.’ As a child I dealt with sexual assault, and as I was growing into a teenager I was the kind of person who got a lot of attention, with no effort. It really made me withdraw and hide myself. I didn’t want to be seen which is probably why it took me so long to reach the level of success I have because I was living inside for so long. When you are a victim of sexual assault you feel as if someone has taken all of your control and you never know how to get it back. I think for me I finally got tired of being in that closed space.
Life isn’t a straight path.
Absolutely not. Some of those paths I had to go through, some of them were circumstantial. Either way I accept it, and that also has been a part of me getting to where I am in life now. Accepting the path.
You gave the 12-year-old you advice. What do you say to somebody who is about to fight for their life as you had to?
I tell people that healing starts in the mind, and that’s not just with terminal diseases. Whatever that fight for your life is, you have to first conquer it in your head. You have to convince yourself with a continual pep talk - you have to believe. Faith is a huge part of my life. If you don’t have faith in yourself, you’ve got nothing. Fight with faith. It’s the only way to go.
Another piece of advice I give people fighting for their life is to mourn the losses. You’re not going to win every part. When I got diagnosed with ovarian cancer I had surgery. They took my right ovary and fallopian tube. Seems like a small thing, but it’s a loss — part of my body was taken and maybe I’ve lost the ability to have children. You have to mourn the losses. Give it time, 5 days, 2 days. Go to therapy. Find a way to mourn in a guided way. Don’t try to ignore it - mourn it, and then go on.
Loss is part of life and you really just have to accept it. You have to accept the parts of life that come and figure out what the experience is for, and what the takeaway might be. I’m always looking for the lesson.
What have you learned?
I’ve learned that as long as I am persistent and not afraid to say what I need from life, even just to the universe, I can get what I need and want. To even make a request of the universe is a bold move. So I make sure that when I do, I’m vey specific and I don’t take no for an answer any more. No means later. It means maybe. But mostly later.
Elle Simone Scott is a culinary maverick. Always drawn to creative food culture, Elle has been dazzling the culinary world since 2003, quickly becoming a highly sought after freelance Food Stylist and Culinary Producer. Elle has collaborated and contributed her unique styling abilities to 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.
Her specialties don’t stop with styling and production. As the creator of SheChef Inc., a professional networking organization for women chefs of color and allies; Elle shares her passion by mentoring, teaching resource building, business consultation/ development and most importantly, Food Social Justice.
Elle continues to inspire others and break glass ceilings, as she is currently the resident Food Stylist & On-Air Talent on America's Test Kitchen on PBS and the first African-American woman to do so.