What led you down your path into the culinary arts?
I started my career in management consulting right out of college, and I had no inkling that I was going to go into food. I was definitely one of those people: I went to business school undergrad; I went right into consulting; I was like, "I'm going to climb the corporate ladder." I was very career focused — maybe to a detriment … definitely to a detriment. I wanted to be in the fashion industry, so I found a way to do consulting in fashion, which seemed very glamorous to my friends — but it was a disaster. I was really thin and constantly had problems with food. It was strange, because I grew up having a good relationship with food. I always liked to eat; I liked to travel to go eat with my family. Food had always been a celebratory thing at home, but the minute I was in this new mindset, food became a really painful, frustrating, stressful experience. At some point, I realized I just couldn't follow this career anymore, so I applied early decision to Columbia Business School. I got in, but because I was admitted so early I had a year before I actually started — so I decided to go to culinary school. That was a complete one-eighty from basically starving and binging on food, which is where I was at, to cooking all the time and having to butcher cows.
That was a turning point in my life. Not only did I realize a lot of things about myself, but I also realized the people I was surrounding myself with were not maybe the healthiest people for me to be around, especially those from work. I realized that I looked for the wrong traits in other people, for my friends, for the people I filled my life with. I was looking for resumes, for people who were like me and had the flashy profile. And then at culinary school I was surrounded by a lot of other career-changers who were warm and thoughtful and took care of me and loved me.
It was a very big emotional realization for me, that I had built my life on all these things that didn't really matter.
After that, going back and starting at Columbia, I realized it was just not the right scene for me. I felt like I had regressed back into the same corporate drama I had been trying to run away from. People were always trying to one-up each other or trying to talk about what they had. Really, I felt like I was listening to a sales pitch on repeat every single day. So I decided to leave, took a quote-unquote "sabbatical," just to go find myself in the world.
I spent the next year just trying to figure out what I wanted to do in food. I did every job under the sun for a while. I didn't really know who I was, and I felt really lost and kind of depressed for a long time, especially while comparing myself to my business school peers who were leading "glamorous" lives making tons of money. As I was figuring all this out, one full-time job I had was in Global R & D at Le Pain Quotidien, the French boulangerie chain. They're in about 200 countries, but they own the cafes in the U.S., the U.K., and France, and I was in charge of developing menus and rolling out their seasonal menus, which was really cool. I hated the company, but with that knowledge I was able to use that as a launching off point for my consulting business and also start Wednesdays.
Can you tell us more about your project Wednesdays NYC?
Wednesdays has been totally a passion project from day one. It fits really well into my overall mission of wanting to find something more in my life and hoping that others want to as well. The idea started back in business school, where I would see so many people express real feeling in private, but in public scenarios, especially when dining in a group, people would just talk about the same old things: They talk about the weather, the subway; they complain. I admit, there's a great joy in complaining about things together. But there are real things that we're all thinking about that we are not able to frequently express. At the time I would think, all I want is to have real conversations about stuff that actually matters. We don't lead perfect lives free from pain, loss, disappointment — isn't the point of being human to be vulnerable? Isn't the point of eating together to share in our actual lives?
When Matt — then boyfriend, now husband — and I started Wednesdays, we just invited some of our friends over and asked everyone to be really radically honest and open. What a shock we were in for! Over the last four years we've been running Wednesdays, it's grown into its own thing. It's morphed and changed a lot along the way. We host a dinner every few months or so — the events usually sell out in 20 minutes — and we're serious about making sure when people come they know what to expect. We require guests to answer questions up front during the ticketing process, like, "What is your biggest failure and how has it motivated you?" or, "Are you in the job you want, and if not, how are you getting there?" There are no punches pulled, and when people come in they're ready to talk.
And Studio ATAO?
I started Studio ATAO last year as a way to house my more food- and technology-forward content and events under one roof. It's a not-for-profit business that merges food with augmented and virtual reality in ways that further social good. We recently completed a project in Nicaragua where we created a three-course, VR/360-plus-food tasting experience. The project was sponsored by an eco-luxury hotel group that wanted to highlight the sustainability initiatives that Nicaragua is doing to really make a name for itself. One of the major components of our menu and 360 content was Nicaraguan coffee; the country produces most of the high-quality Arabica coffee that we drink here in the U.S., but we don’t know about it since most roasting houses will buy the beans and brand them under their own name. So we took immersive video of the whole coffeemaking process, from being in the shaded field to the pickers bagging the cherries and throwing them on the truck, to workers spreading it out and drying it and fermenting it. After the guest views this video in their headset, they take it off and are presented with the coffee dish. So the narration brings you from the fields into the dessert.
I also just debuted this series called "Asian in America," a symbolic three-course meal that explores the complexities of the Asian-American identity and how food is inextricably part of that. We'll have a VR artist recreating the food in Tilt Brush's virtual reality program so guests can watch these virtual ingredients morph into the final dishes in VR, then see them live in person and eat them. The last event I have in the works is a VR-meets-immersive-theatre type dinner with a choreographer: She's going to be dancing in virtual reality, but once the headsets are off, guests will see she'll also be dancing live. The Studio been a really interesting exploration in and of itself, and it has yet to make any money — but that's OK.
The other main thing I do is "Why Food?" which is a podcast on a nonprofit radio station here in New York named Heritage Radio Network that specifically focuses on food. I'm a career-changer, my co-host is also a career-changer, and the podcast is about career-changers into the food industry, but we're trying to expand it into more of a platform for our guests to also talk about bigger social issues.
You talked about how you were looking for a certain kind of social acceptance in your previous roles. Do you feel like that's something that has changed now that you are doing something that feels more meaningful to you?
I think yes and no. I do feel like I'm not searching for the same validations I was before. I'm not looking to be the next James Beard chef. I used to be obsessed with getting on the Forbes "30 under 30" list, for example. I was literally obsessed, and now I'm just like, why is this important again?
But at the same time, even now I will look at my work and get frustrated because I wish I would get more press coverage of my art — because selfishly I want media attention even if I'm not a huge fan of food media and how it works. At the end of the day, the amount of press you can get does matter — it's a signaling thing to others that your thing, your art, is "worthy" of their time and attention. But there's this weird contention there too. I think with artists in general, you want to be small enough to feel artisanal but big enough to feel important, but then if you're too big then you're not cool anymore because you're too mainstream. So there are a lot of weird emotions in there. I'm still trying to find that balance.
You've also been on some Food Network shows, such as "Chopped." How has that affected you?
I've been on a three Food Network shows, and had very different experiences on all them, and all of them have been important in their own way. Rummaging through those experiences now, I've realized there's a lot of cognitive dissonance between why I was actually doing thing these shows versus why I said I was doing these shows. For me, I said it's because I wanted to challenge myself, which isn't totally false, but after the first one, the real reason was publicity and validation. After a particularly bad experience on Chopped, I took a hard look at myself and said, "Hey, I really need to re-evaluate how I'm making decisions, like big decisions in my life, because I'm letting my ego drive me and it's not driving me any closer to where I want to be." A few months later, I ended up turning down the opportunity to be on Top Chef because I didn't want to fall victim to the same endless TV cycle, that addiction.
What is something that really motivates you to continue this work?
Everybody says the same shit about food, like, "Food tells stories," and, "Food brings people together," and I am not contesting that but … I think the whole point of being human is that you are in pain sometimes, your heart hurts sometimes, you're scared sometimes, you feel sad or you feel lonely — and the whole point of having food is to be able to communicate those feelings. If you can really have people understand those emotions when they are eating your food, then that is the most beautiful part of having a craft at all. So I think on a holistic level I just want people to be able to see food in a different way. It's not really supposed to make you feel good all the time.
What advice would you give to others?
I think Mindy Kaling said this recently, so I promise I'm not just copying her. I just think it's silly to listen to others too much. We overemphasize seeking advice, and self-help is a huge industry. We ask other people's opinions on what to do because there's so much information and it causes option paralysis in this information-overload world that we live in. But at the end of the day, it's your life; only you suffer the consequences of not dictating your future. If five people tell you that something's not a good idea, and you secretly really want to do it but don't, then you're just going to be bitter and angry years later and you won't even know who to blame. I think we ask so much for other people's opinions instead of actually placing enough emphasis on our own. At the end of the day we make our own decisions and we need to own up to them.
This is the Community issue, so what does community mean to you in relation to what you do and your work?
I think the interesting thing about community is that you can build it in literally any space. I used to be a competitive fencer, and I remember driving by my fencing salle — which is a pretty big space, all things considered — along the highway and it would be just a blip. If you had no relationship with that building, you'd have no idea of what is there, and yet I had seven years of my life built there. It's wonderful that you can build community in no matter how small or how big of a space, or in no matter how long or short of a time period — so how do we build as many important communities as possible? The Wednesdays community was built originally in a tiny Manhattan apartment with barely a kitchen. Now, these people gather in all sorts of locations and share some pretty intense stuff with one another. I want to be making that a regular occurrence across all the spaces we have access to!
Jenny is a professional chef and creative person based in New York City. She makes food to express the full range of human emotions — even those not well-suited for Instagram. She believes food has a special way of exposing the banal routine and social norms in which we find ourselves. It can be a powerful medium for storytelling and creating a place for genuine interaction — if we choose to use it as such. Her mission is to use culinary arts as a platform to evoke introspection, empathy and real emotion. Jenny’s recent "Asian in America" series is a finalist for this year's FoST Bridging the Divide Award
Words: Jenny Dorsey
This interview has been edited for clarity.