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Jenny Dorsey: chef, food writer, activist
Issue 15: Her path to food, Studio ATAO, and what she hopes comes out of her work.
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Jenny Dorsey is an LA-based chef, food writer, speaker, and social entrepreneur. She is also the founder of Studio ATAO, a small think tank slash non profit that creates tools and resources to empower individuals, organizations, and policy makers to integrate social impact into their everyday life and work. I came across Jenny when a friend shared one of her slide-based toolkits on Instagram and I’ve been following her ever since. She’s a great follow for pure food content, but also if you want to push your personal boundaries of what you know about food and how you think about it. We talked about her path to food, Studio ATAO, and what she hopes comes out of her work.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me about yourself and how you got started in food?
Jenny Dorsey: I'm a career changer into food. After college I moved to New York and was working in management consulting in the fashion and luxury goods industry. I quickly became disillusioned with my job because I didn't really like the actual work I was doing and didn't really feel like we were contributing any value. I was really unhappy and didn't know what to do with all my excess energy, so I started taking recreational cooking classes and fell in love with them.
I applied to business school as a way to get some relief, I think, from what I was dealing with. I had about 10 months before I actually started business school, so during that time, I ended up going to culinary school as creative sabbatical, and then graduated culinary school three days before I started business school.
I didn't plan that super well, but in retrospect, their close timing really highlighted just how different those two worlds are and how much I didn't really fit in business school. I ended up leaving business school after a semester to try and find my way in the food world. I had already taken on a big loan for school, so I had a way to pay for things like rent.
I spent a lot of time doing unpaid stuff, trying to figure out what I didn't like. I feel I was really fortunate and privileged to be able to try out a lot of different jobs in the industry because I had that loan cushion. But being able to say, "Oh, I'll try out food PR.,” even though I hated it was a great learning opportunity.
Brianna Plaza: You’ve done a bunch of odd food jobs and then found yourself in fine dining. How did you then shift into consulting?
Jenny Dorsey: When you first graduate culinary school, you have to do an externship, so I did mine at an upscale new American restaurant in New York called Market Table. I wanted to go into fine dining, so I felt I learned a lot at Market Table and that I had some skills that I could use in a fine dining restaurant.
I moved out to San Francisco and started essentially volunteering at a fine dining restaurant a few hours a week so that I could see what things were like at a higher-caliber institution. It was a good stepping stone for me to understand fine dining and I happened to be in a really awesome restaurant, so I was lucky to learn from the team. Eventually I ended up having to leave that volunteer role because I accepted a full-time job not related to food at a startup that doesn’t even exist anymore.
Because of my weird hodgepodge of experience, I was able to get a grant that paid me to work in a fine dining restaurant. I moved back to New York and worked at a two-star restaurant called Atera and I ended up being there for a few months after my grant expired doing private events.
It taught me a lot of things but mostly that I just didn't want to be in restaurants. I think in fine dining there's an emotional toll on having to deal with the customers, especially the customers that come frequently. Atera is an open kitchen, so the cooks are also doing some serving. And sometimes people just suck — they were just so rude and awful. There were a lot of things that happened during my time there and I just felt really disillusioned with that world.
Other than restaurants, I was thinking about where I fit and I found a role in corporate R&D which drew on my business skills and I learned a lot, but I really hated the company. I did menu development, but also worked with designers, trained staff, learned what items worked in different countries, and answered customer service questions — I was able to parlay all that into consulting, for which I am grateful.
Brianna Plaza: What kind of consulting jobs have you had?
Jenny Dorsey: Now, it's primarily writing and recipe development. It's been a lot of recipe development, but for a short time, I was doing menu development for small chains or chains that don't have a formal chef. I also do a fair amount of food styling and a little bit of photography.
When I was starting out, it was whatever job I could get, and now I've been able to be more picky, so that's great. There's times where I'm like, "I would love this money, but I think I would be so miserable doing this. I don't think it's worth it." That's not a conversation I was having four years ago.
Brianna Plaza: At what point did you realize that you wanted to go in the direction of nonprofit advocacy work?
Jenny Dorsey: Honestly, I didn't really think of it as a conscious choice. Something that I had always been frustrated by in the food world is that there's a lot of inequities and a lot of misrepresentation. There's a very clear bias of what kind of cuisines we take seriously and what we’re willing to pay for. Those are very overt messages that you receive as a person of color, especially as a woman of color, and especially if you work in fine dining restaurants. In fine dining all the chefs are all very high-caliber, but the kitchens are very white because most of these people are able to go to the Culinary Institute of America and also have the look that people want — people who are paying thousands of dollars for their meal want to be waited on in a certain way.
All of those things I could see but I didn't know how to really vocalize a lot of things that were frustrating to me. That is one of the things about oppression that I try to talk about publicly as often as possible: being able to voice what's happening to you is really powerful. A lot of people don't feel comfortable doing that because they have job security, but also, sometimes people can't process what's happening to them. That is part of how colonialism, exploitation, and imperialism work — they tell you all of this is normal so that whatever you're feeling, you shouldn't be feeling that, whatever it is, it's not grounded in reality, you're kind of gas-lighting yourself.
I don't dislike any of my clients, but I was working on their ideas and their missions. It’s a very similar situation at restaurants where you're not being creative on the menu. I felt I couldn't really express what I wanted to do and what I wanted to care about.
I saw a lot of arbitrary limitations and nobody ever wanted to talk about them and how they can be a dumb way of doign things. I think that’s a big part of why things don't change in the restaurant industry, because so much of this abuse gets normalized into how things are. I wanted a space to be able to think about that.
Brianna Plaza: The studio does a lot. How would you describe what its core mission is?
Jenny Dorsey: I think at its core, the studio is meant to be a small community think tank where people can access on-the-ground resources for change.
We think a lot about how we reach the people who are affected and work with them to brainstorm solutions that we can implement in different companies and different organizations. Last year we gathered people to talk about tokenization and food media, and now we're doing bi-monthly accountability groups with editorial leadership from almost all the big food media organizations. We're doing three white papers where we're following three food media organizations as they work towards equity and diversity and inclusion this year.
We've been able to crowdsource what the people of food media want in terms of change, not just lofty goals that some leader puts together, and now we're trying to implement them in organizations and actually holding them publicly accountable.
I think the reality of change is that it always happens really slowly, but if we can be the people that have the framework of holding our organizations accountable, that's what I want to work for.
Brianna Plaza: How do you narrow in on what is going to be the most valuable right now, whether in the food industry or otherwise?
Jenny Dorsey: I think the big thing is always, if you pick a topic that the people on your team naturally identify with and care about, they're always going to work harder and be more motivated. I think it's a combination of what we're interested in and feasibly, the places where we can actually have an impact. We look for topics that we care about, but also that we can actually contribute to.
We're not here to become the new race theory scholars because there's a lot of people who could do that better than us, so, what can we do well? Well, we can talk about hospitality and we understand that industry a lot better than most.
Brianna Plaza: Once you’ve worked on a particular topic, what do you consider a success?
Jenny Dorsey: I think success for me would be everyone reads the toolkit and everyone starts implementing those things. We're seeing real change in the form of different hiring practices and with the people that have power. For real change to happen though, are we going to all rally around and ask Sam Sifton of The New York Times to step down? At some point, change stops because you can only do so much without having big change at the top.
All of the editors that are in our groups, they're busy making new style guides, which is great. We're trying to hire more BIPOC and get them in important positions. We're making sure that edit tests are paid. I'm so glad that we've been able to affect these small changes because they add up to big changes, but at the same time, we're not able to go in there and fire that guy at the top. That is the kind of change that I want to see, but I don't think we can use that as a demarcation of success because we just don't have any control over it.
So I guess to answer your question, success for us is seeing those small changes being implemented and our exact and very concrete recommendations being actually implemented at organizations, and then see big overhauls happen too.
Brianna Plaza: Do you think that big overhauls, like the clearing of those at the top, are the answer in all cases?
Jenny Dorsey: I don't think it needs to be so dramatic, but I think the reality is we need to evaluate if that is the right person in charge. We’ve got to either take that power and distribute it so that senior editors are now vetoing the editor chief or we're going to change the top and just remove that person because that perspective is so played out across the industry.
I haven't really seen a lot of power diffusion because I think a lot of editors are under the delusion that they have a super collaborative process. I think it is collaborative, but it doesn't mean that there isn't a power that it is not shared. I think both of those things can be true.
Obviously places like Condé Nast really should definitely use an overhaul because it's a mess there, but what about the places that are doing a good job that do have white leadership? Should they be required to upend all of their white leaders too? I don't know.
It's hard because people also create this total dissonance in their head because they don't want to be seen as the problem. Maybe they are doing a decently good job, but that doesn't mean you can't do a better job. We talk a lot about that in our own work because we’re a small team and we’re all some variety of Asian-American, but at some point it's like "How do we be more diverse because we don't only cover Asian-American things. We don't always want to cover things from an Asian-American perspective or some of us are half white."
Brianna Plaza: I’ve really learned a lot following the conversations about appropriation and appreciation in food. How do you think about (mostly white) people who want to learn about food, but then maybe go too far and claim it as theirs?
Jenny Dorsey: I feel like this is just an ongoing conversation in food on what appropriation does or does not look like. It really comes down to the power dynamics of food. I think the conversations around appropriation fall into this "Well, this one person shouldn't be cooking XYZ thing." Or, "Rick Bayless shouldn’t be the face of Mexican food." Yes, we can talk about that specific thing, but the wider problem is: who are all those network executives who said Rick Bayless should be the point person on Mexican food or Andy Ricker the face of Thai food?
The problem is way bigger than just Andy Ricker. I don't have any sympathy for Bayless or Ricker, but I also think we expend too much of our time making them the villain versus actually realizing how big the issue is. I think in a perfect world, it wouldn't matter who cooks what and you wouldn't hear a white guy say he’s “elevating Chinese food” because there would be so much elevated Chinese food that it won't matter.
But right now that's just not the case. What they are doing that is actively harming the community that they are cooking food from versus thinking about all the ways they could be supporting that community instead. Are there ways that they can share in what they've learned? If you want to cook Japanese food, that’s great. But how can you also uplift the Japanese community? How can you make sure that people are really enthusiastic about what you're preparing instead of trying to “make it better”, which assumes that that cuisine comes from a place of inferiority?
Brianna Plaza: For someone like Andy Ricker, does that look like acknowledging more of who he learned from and how he became an "expert" in Thai cuisine?
Jenny Dorsey: I think Andy Ricker is an expert in Thai cuisine and Rick Bayless is an expert in Mexican food. No one's saying you can't be an expert in something — I'm not an expert in Chinese even though I happen to be Chinese. Expertise comes from a lot of practice, a lot of years of study and all those things, and they can 100% have done those things. I think the bigger question is, yes, how did Andy Ricker learn? He learned when he was able to take those trips to Thailand, so who did he learn from? How does he give credit? Who can he give some of his influence to and how can he give back? It can look like sourcing ingredients from Thai-owned stores, or making sure that he educates people about the menu and the different aspects of Thai cuisine. What are ways that you can give back in non-monetary ways with the social capital that you have now amassed because of this cuisine?
Other things ~
I notoriously don’t follow pop culture and am usually 6-12 months behind on watching any relevant TV (if I get to it at all). But wow was I crushed when Anthony Bourdain passed away in 2018. I have never felt attached to any celebrity, but I still get so sad when I think about how he’s not around to add this commentary to the state of the world. With a new book out, the New York Times looks at how you write a Bourdain book without Bourdain.
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