Elle Simone Scott, TV talent for cooking show “America’s Test Kitchen,” is also the founder of SheChef Inc., a networking organization for food entrepreneurs, aspiring and seasoned chefs and other professionals working in the food and beverage industry with a special focus on women of color.
She is a spotlight speaker during the symposium “United in Food: Women Leaders of Today and Tomorrow” at the ACF’s National Convention 2019 in August in Orlando, Florida. (Register to attend by Monday, May 6 and use code FIESTA19 at checkout to receive $90 off the standard registration rate!)
In this month’s issue of NCR, Scott offered her views and experiences regarding inclusion and equality in the foodservice industry.
Q. What was your path into the industry?
A. Years ago, to supplement my income as a social worker, I worked in garde manger alongside immigrant ladies, learning their cultures’ preparation methods. When my social work job ended, I found an opportunity to cook on a cruise ship where I fell in love with the foodservice industry, long hours and all.
I became a member of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (WCR) and received a scholarship to attend the French Culinary Institute in New York. It was still unaffordable for me, so I opted to attend a trade school, The Culinary Academy of New York. When I interned at The Food Network’s test kitchen, I noticed a lack of cultural representation. After completing my internship, I sought out women of color from my school to continue the test kitchen internship program — always with an eye for those who would pay it forward by providing similar opportunities when they were in the position to do so.
Q. Was there a specific time or event in which you personally experienced inequality in foodservice?
A. Social inequality wasn’t my reality until some time into my career when I worked on the production team of a famous New York restaurant group for two years and was asked to train a new man for a sous chef job that I wasn’t even being considered for, and no one stood up for me.
Q. Why is it so difficult to find women restaurant chef/owners?
A. With fewer women chef/owners, there is far less mentorship. The low representation of women in those successful positions means there is lower visibility. A blueprint for what that can look like is missing. You can’t visualize yourself successful in a role you can’t see. You can only hope you can do it. I think the problem is doubled for women of color.
Q. Is there proof that kitchens are generally male dominated?
A. I’ve never encountered a chef, male or female, who has said that kitchen leadership is off limits for women, at least not verbally, so when and how and why it became that way, no one knows. But the restaurant culture is a patriarchal system.
Q. With your sociology background, how did the disparity strike you?
A. I wanted to investigate, and I discovered that culture and ethnicity combined with uniqueness of the restaurant industry has contributed to low representation of women and women of color, who sometimes are responsible for their whole family. The home dynamics are different. Add to that, the culinary industry has non- traditional hours. And those in service industries aren’t the highest paid individuals, especially the starting pay. And finally, an article in The Boston Globe pointed out that the average annual income of blacks is only a fraction of that of whites.
Q. Describe what you’ve done to help build a bridge for women.
A. I started SheChef six years ago, initially as a meet-up group for industry women of color who pulled together to help watch kids for those who worked at night. It was support to help pick up kids from the sitter or borrow culinary school books or chefs coats, etc. It was a support network so women could take gigs or hold a job who didn’t have a support system. It is now a national, multi-tiered organization with more than 200 members. We provide scholarships, internships, annual panel and speaker series and networking opportunities.
Q. Do you have an example you can share of a woman who has developed a successful career in foodservice as a result of your efforts?
A. I launched SheChef in 2013 with a huge event. Chimere Ward, who owns Clean Plate Co., a New York catering and prepared food company, walked in the door of the event with her husband and thanked me for what I was doing. I’d only been doing it for a minute. I’ve been her mentor and friend since then, and she has taken every opportunity I set in front of her and gone for every certification I have suggested. She came through Hot Bread Kitchen, a New York incubator kitchen, and provides products in Whole Foods in Harlem and Columbia University’s dining hall in New York. She has catered for the mayor’s and governor’s office. She’s my most successful member to this day.