[This story appears in the March/April 2020 issue of Boston Spirit magazine. Subscribe for free today.]
When Elle Simone arrived to “America’s Test Kitchen” in 2016, she became the first black woman to join the cast of the long-running, Boston-based cooking show—providing important representation and reaching millions of viewers around the country.
Now, Simone is also openly sharing her experiences as a queer woman. It’s the next step in her larger journey to cook up vital change in the culinary industry.
“There are queer people of color out there who still don’t feel represented, who still don’t see themselves,” says Simone. “I feel like I have to continue to make bold moves. And I have no fear of being bold.”
That kind of courage has served the chef, food stylist and TV personality well over the years. Simone grew up in Detroit in a Seventh-Day Adventist family. Though she had some side-gigs as a prep cook, her first full-time career path was actually as a social worker. When she lost her job, she wound up spending two years in the kitchen for Norwegian Cruise Line, then moved to New York City and worked at a woman’s shelter to put herself through culinary school. After securing an internship with the Food Network, she began styling food for a wide array of major clients, from Cabot cheese to the NBC show “The Chew.”
Then “America’s Test Kitchen” came calling, and Simone’s star really started to rise. Warm, confident, and charming, she’s become a popular food-TV personality and also works as a stylist for all ATK products—from books and magazines to social media. And she uses her larger platform to pay things forward: Simone is the founder of SheChef, a professional networking and mentorship organization for woman in the food and beverage world.
Simone certainly welcomes her visibility now—but when it comes specifically to queer identity, the road to recognition hasn’t always been easy.
“I got outed when I was in college,” says Simone. Raised in the “very sheltered environment” of a religious household, Simone always knew that there was “something different” about her—but she had trouble pinpointing exactly what those thoughts and feelings meant. It wasn’t until her years at a Christian college that she first dated a woman—something that wound up in a gossipy, unofficial student newspaper that was distributed all over campus. “I was devastated,” says Simone.
Afterwards, she became depressed and temporarily estranged from her family, and endured an “identity crisis” as she struggled to understand attractions that weren’t neatly categorized. “I pretty much failed out of school,” adds Simone, who didn’t come out on her own terms until about a decade later.
Today, she’s proud to be part of a vibrant LGBTQ community in Boston—after all, some of the city’s most successful and powerful chefs and restaurateurs, like “Top Chef” alums Tiffani Faison and Karen Akunowicz, happen to be queer women. And Simone’s own entrepreneurial streak means she’s bound to earn an even bigger profile: She’s in the process of launching a new podcast, “The Walk-In,” as well as a YouTube series, “New Food,” among other projects. She also finds myriad ways to lend her support to community organizations. For instance, Simone is cochairing April’s Dinnerfest Auction, an annual foodie-focused fundraiser for Victory Programs, a multiservice Boston nonprofit.
Today, if you ask Simone about the keys to her success—well, she’ll tell you that her queer identity has actually helped her unlock a lot of doors.
“I think the strength and resilience required to take up space as a queer person in a homogenous world creates a boldness that catapults your career,” says Simone. “There’s a fight that LGBTQ+ people have. And while it can be such a struggle for us in the beginning, or in different phases of life, we garner strength from those challenges that makes us greater and more exceptional. The very things that people tell us make us weird or bad or gross or taboo, is really what makes us special.”
“We are so different,” says Simone. “And I wouldn’t want to be any other way.”
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