I think we universally acknowledge food literally “brings people to the table”
When you see food on TV, you wonder the face behind the gorgeous creation. Jenny Dorsey is one of those faces. Jenny creates amazing food that have outstanding photo qualities. Here is what Jenny told us when we sat down for an interview-
When did you first take an interest in food?
I always loved food and have (somewhat cliché) fond memories of folding wontons and stirring jelly noodles in the kitchen with my mom and grandmother. But until halfway through college I never really thought of food as a “career” – I just liked to eat. My whole life and travel and basically any free time I had centered around eating. I was very proud of my strategic abilities to efficiently allocate the maximum amount of time across various eating opportunities. When I was a sophomore in college I also went to Rome as part of a study abroad program. I was supposed to be learning about art and immigration (I did, a little bit) but mostly I spent all my waking time stuffing my face, browsing markets, and for the first time in my young adult life actually trying to “cook”. I was terrible, but the quality ingredients in Italy are very forgiving – I was able to make a decent chicken and mushrooms dish and some tomato sauce every once in a while. After that I began to notice how much I enjoyed the actual craft of making food, not just eating food, and that slowly transformed my approach to who I wanted to be in relation to food as an art form.
You believe that food has a story telling quality and power. What made you think this way?
I think we universally acknowledge food literally “brings people to the table”. That statement is often overplayed by big CPG’s with feel-good, holiday advertising (gag!) but the fact that food is something we all share does matter. Assuming you fall into the category of someone who eats with some sort of purpose or enjoyment, food becomes a medium for which you are communicating both internally to yourself (i.e. How do you feel while you’re eating? What are you thinking?) and to others (i.e. What does this meal mean? What does this food show about me?). This is a concept about food that has always intrigued me. For a long time I took a very surface-level approach – what do I want people to see about me and my work and my food when they eat it? – but I always felt there was something deeper I kept missing. Recently I’ve been able to better get in tune with myself and who I want to be, what life I really want to live and a big part of that was public service. How was I going to use the talent of culinary art, which I’ve been fortunate to be gifted, to make the world a better place? It’s not about just communicating my story through food, but also using it as a platform for something bigger and better. For everyone. I’m an ardent supporter of people opening their minds and trying to push past the arbitrary or socially imposed structures we have in our life. So how can I try to do that with food – but without also imposing “my” view? It’s a bit of a dance, and I’m not going to say I’m great at it yet, but at least I’m working hard on it!
You did not start out in the food industry, but as a management consultant in the fashion industry. Why did you decide to switch?
I’m asked this a lot and I have narrowed it down to a short reason: only you are in charge of your own happiness. Only you are aware of what happiness means to you. I remember back to when I was just out of college – I was only 21, a management consultant, working with high-end retailers, had been admitted early into Columbia. I felt like a hotshot, and I had the social presence (and ego) to match. But it didn’t matter how “cool” I might’ve looked on paper. I hated my life. I hated going to work every day. I literally had to go to hypnotherapy because I had issues with binge eating my problems. I became a nasty, mean, petty person. At some point, all the outside perception stops mattering. When you’re alone with your thoughts at night, are you proud of who you are? I wasn’t, and when I finally admitted that to myself I knew I had to make a change. I’m so glad I did.
Talk to us a little bit about your food journey in getting where you are today. How was it making your way up to the top from the bottom?
I wouldn’t call myself “at the top” of anything! But I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far. Honestly, it’s been challenging, full of many demoralizing meetings and sleepless nights and crying fits. It’s still full of all of those things, just in slightly lower frequencies. There is just no pretty, easy way to get anywhere that matters – unless you’ve got oodles of money, I guess. But that comes with its own problems, and I’m digressing. The first few years out of business school was like a perpetual internship, constantly applying for unpaid or low-paying jobs to get some experience and learn. I was a barista for a while so I could learn about coffee, as well as a hostess so I could learn FOH and I still remember how hard it was to bite my tongue when people made snide comments about my educational background. There is a big problem with how the public treats workers in foodservice – but that’s also a whole other issue I won’t get into here. Starting to scrap together a client list felt impossible at first – I can’t tell you how many meetings I took (and still take!) that resulted in no’s or gigs I applied to without response. I’ve been forced to address ugly gender and race stereotypes. I really struggled with this because I was insecure and, truthfully, caught off-guard coming from a privileged background. For instance, I’ve had male executives literally say they were “surprised” when I cooked a steak perfectly medium-rare for a taste test; I’ve been asked many times to create traditional “family recipes” (a favorite term of any CPG!) but in a way that’s not too Asian; I’ve also been told I wasn’t a good fit for a role because a petite Chinese girl doesn’t have the “credence in the kitchen” as other chefs do. I had to learn hard truths about society and people and stand up for myself in a way I didn’t know how to before, and I think that’s my biggest takeaway from this journey so far.
You also have a couple of projects you work on like “Wednesdays” and “Studio ATAO”. Talk to us a little bit about how you got those started and what they are about.
I like to call them my “projects” but really they are my two separate businesses. Wednesdays is a chef’s tasting popup series that I’ve been running with my husband (the mixologist) for almost 4 years now. We call them dinners for the bizarre and intellectually curious, because not only is the food and drink unusual, we challenge our guests to actually engage on a deeper level with each other. We have our own ways of opening guests up about challenging topics, such as what privilege means to them or if they are truly in the job they want or what their biggest failure is. There’s a million or more places to eat in NYC or SF, so if you’re coming to us we hope it’s because you are ready to be mentally present and dive into some real talk. It’s been refreshing to see how enthusiastic the response has been. We’ve since hosted 100+ dinners and connected 1,500+ people, with events from 12 to 100 in size! Our dinners now sell out within 10 minutes (!!) and I am freaking jazzed every time we put one on.
Studio ATAO is my new not-for-profit business. It’s a culinary production studio that puts on popup food events with a special focus on fusing culinary arts with emerging technology. The main focus for me right now is augmented and virtual reality – I love it, I think it’s massive, I want to be the food person in that world. I’m currently working on our very first exhibition, which is a VR meets immersive theatre dining experience that explores big societal topics like income disparity, racism, masculinity and climate change. I’m hoping on launching it summer of 2018!
You have such an impressive client list! How has the change been working with these high-end clients as opposed to working at your earlier jobs?
My current client list is still a mix of bigger companies with smaller owner-run businesses. I wouldn’t say one is better or more “higher end” than the other – just different. With bigger companies you run into more bureaucracy and less freedom to do certain things, but also have the luxury of a bigger budget and larger teams to help make a project happen. At smaller companies it’s important to be scrappy and really get your hands in everything, to be driving change in various verticals. Personally, I’ve learned equally from both types of opportunities and enjoy having a balanced client list so I continue learning in different ways.
Where do you see your food career headed in the future?
I’m diving into AR/VR pretty aggressively, so I’m hoping that is a fruitful venture. I hope to become known for my food + AR/VR work through Studio ATAO and growing that into a boutique production studio. The end goal I always dream of is being able to go to work every day and be surrounded with big thinkers who love food and also want to make the world a better place.