Meet the Cast
Elle Simone Discusses Her Unexpected Transition from Food Stylist to TV Personality
She went from making food look beautiful behind the scenes to embracing her inner nerd in front of the camera.
01-25-2017
Terrence Doyle

The 2017 season of America’s Test Kitchen has arrived! To help you share in the excitement, we’ll be giving you a peek behind the television curtain with interviews with our hosts and on-screen test cooks—familiar faces and newcomers alike.

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Today we’re introducing one of our newest cast members, Elle Simone, who joins the cast of America’s Test Kitchen after years of working as a food stylist in New York City. When she’s not cracking wise with Bridget and Julia on TV, Elle is putting her food stylist background to good use to make our recipes look beautiful and teaching students in our Online Cooking School. I caught up with Elle recently to discuss the moment she knew she loved cooking, her time studying and working in New York City, and her unexpected transition from food stylist to TV personality.

What were you up to before coming to work at America’s Test Kitchen?

I was a freelance food stylist, and also a freelance culinary producer. I had lots of experience in print, editorial, and web work for various major food companies and brands, and I was producing shows for Bravo and the Cooking Channel. So I didn’t have a lot of experience being in front of the camera myself, but I had lots of experience training talent—prepping talent—for shows, be it reality TV or cooking.

Was being on TV ever on your radar?

I really had no intention of being on television at all. I never even really pursued being on television. I enjoyed working behind the scenes—I always felt that maybe that was more consistent work. You know, you see people winning shows and then you don’t really see them again—and that’s just the nature of it.

In addition to my full-time work at America's Test Kitchen, I own a company called She Chef Inc., which is a networking organization for women chefs of color. We do lots of videos for the events that we do, mostly just to promote the organization and to gain membership. It’s a national organization—we have chapters in quite a few cities, and we’re hoping to be in all major cities within the next five years. So I’ve done videos and interviews for that.

Elle and America's Test Kitchen TV host Bridget Lancaster joke between filming segments for the 2017 season.

What’s your food background?

I always like to say that my career is curated—this is a second career for me. I was a social worker for seven years in Michigan. When the recession hit, my agency lost their funding and I found myself without work and I felt like that was a great time to pursue my passion. I was always good at cooking. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and her sisters, learning the traditional Southern ways of cooking. I was a social worker moonlighting at a restaurant. To a chef that’s insane, because a restaurant is not a relaxing environment. But for me it was totally that. And thank god I could fall back on the restaurant job full-time and that really catapulted me.

I also cooked on cruise ships for two years. The professional chefs there encouraged me to go to culinary school. And so, I became a member of WCR—Women Chefs and Restaurateurs—and I got a small scholarship to the French Culinary Institute [Ed's Note: The French Culinary Institute is now known as the International Culinary Center] in New York City. I packed up my stuff and $200 and moved to New York.

How was attending culinary school in NYC?

When I got there, I found out how much tuition was, and I was like, “I don’t want to spend that much money when I already have four years of cooking experience at this point.” So I took a job as a social worker. And in my neighborhood I would always pass this building that had people outside in chef whites. And after passing it so many times I finally got off the bus and asked them, “What do you do?” And they said, “We go to the school—there’s a culinary school upstairs.” I walked into the admissions office, met with an academic advisor, and within a few months I was in school. I was working full-time—running a women’s shelter on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My shift was from 5pm to 1am, and it was a relief-only position, which means that if the next person to relieve me didn’t show up, I had to work a double. So oftentimes I’d go to school from 8am to 1pm, I’d work from 5pm to 1am, and then I’d have to work a double from 1am to 8am, and then I’d have to go to school. So there were many occasions I’d be up for 72 straight hours. That didn’t last too, too long, and I made it work. And then I got an internship at the Food Network through the school.

I always like to say that my career is curated—this is a second career for me. I was a social worker for seven years in Michigan. When the recession hit, my agency lost their funding and I found myself without work and I felt like that was a great time to pursue my passion. And I was always good at cooking.

Elle chats with America's Test Kitchen TV host Julia Collin Davison during filming for the 2017 season.

That must have been exciting. What was it like interning for such a recognizable name in the food industry?

The internship was the traditional internship at Food Network, where you come in and for six weeks you work in the test kitchen and for six weeks you work on production. So you got some time to learn the magazine, how to work in the test kitchen, how to test recipes. And then on the production side you got to learn how to prepare food according to scripts and test recipes for the talent. And that turned into freelancing, and I ended up freelancing at Food Network.

Did you have any other freelance gigs?

Food Network hired me to freelance, and I was happy there for a long time. And then I started getting introduced to other food stylists who didn’t work for Food Network, and they needed assistants. So friends would call and say, “Hey do you want to assist this person?” And so I started apprenticing with some of the top food stylists in New York. They would give me their smaller clients, and I started going out on my own. I was working for SeeFood Media, which is a James Beard Award-winning production company owned by an awesome couple. I was pretty much their full-time freelance food stylist. So that was kind of what my life was like before coming here. Television was never really on my radar at all. I was enjoying food styling, which I still love and I’m happy to do it here.

When she's not smiling big on the set of America's Test Kitchen TV, Elle works in the test kitchen as a food stylist.

So when you’re not on TV or shooting video for the Cooking School, you’re working in the test kitchen as a food stylist?

Yeah, that’s my day to day. I have some culinary producer duties. Prepping food for TV and video shoots that happen in our department. Essentially I was able to find a full-time job doing all the things that I love doing.

What was it like working with Bridget and Julia?

It was pretty awesome. I like working with them for different reasons. Julia is technical. She knows her stuff; she’s about the science. And although Bridget is very knowledgeable and technical in that way too, Bridget is Ms. Personality—she brings out the lighter and funnier side of me. Because I am a goofball. Jokes for days. And so I could be that with Bridget. Julia brings out my nerd, Bridget brings out my kid. Working with them gives me room to be all sides of myself.

Elle styles some Patatas Bravas for a segment of America's Test Kitchen TV.

Were you nervous at all?

Oh my god, I was so nervous. I still get nervous quite a bit. I think I’m getting kind of used to it now because I’m also one of the faces of the Online Cooking School. But you know, I was nervous because when you’re on television people want to know that you know what you’re talking about. And so it’s important to remember the recipe, feel comfortable enough to talk about it, and have that organic conversation with the host—and be able to cook at the same time. All that moving, talking, building thoughts—it was definitely very unnerving. But I think it has done a lot for my confidence. When you think you’re very confident, and then you get challenged with something that helps you realize that you don’t know how to do everything. You do have to be taught things still. I’m 40, and I’m still learning new things. It’s scary, but it’s very refreshing because you never want to feel like you’re getting older and you no longer have room to pick up or develop more over time. So it’s a humbling experience.

What was your favorite recipe segment to shoot for season 17?

Shrimp scampi was probably my favorite segment to shoot. It was just fun. And funny. And it’s a great recipe. It’s one of those dishes I’ve just never made right. I also loved the snickerdoodles segment. Snickerdoodles were the first thing I ever cooked in home-ec class. That was the first thing I ever made independently. So doing snickerdoodles really brought back a lot of memories about when I knew cooking was something I enjoyed. I took a lot of pride in those cookies. It was just a nostalgic moment for me, and it brought it all back home. You need something to bring it back to the source. From there I’m here, you know? Very serendipitous.

Elle flashes Julia a little wink between segments. We can only imagine what they were talking about.

Do you have a favorite, go-to food?  

I like pesto. And I know that’s not really a thing you cook. But you can have pea shoot pesto, you can have basil pesto, you can really get super adventurous with pesto. I’ve made pesto with ramps before. So good. And it goes with everything. You can put it on meat, you can put it on pasta, you can rub it on chicken, a pork loin. Pesto is a go-to thing you should have in your refrigerator because you can put it on anything. Pesto is so the bomb.


Want to learn more about the 2017 season of America's Test Kitchen TV? Watch the season trailer and check out our cast interviews:


What's your go-to food? Let us know in the comments! 

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