Jenny is a professional chef and artist based in NYC. She specializes in fusing culinary arts with social concepts and emerging technology, especially AR/VR. She runs an experimental popup series named Wednesdays, is the Co-Host of Why Food? podcast on Heritage Radio Network and is starting a culinary production studio named Studio ATAO. Her work can be found in publications such as Harper's Bazaar, Business Insider, Thrillist and Bustle as well as on Food Network and Oxygen TV - you can find out more about her at http://jennydorsey.co.
How did you get to where you are today?
I started out in management consulting. I specialized in luxury and fashion goods, so some of my big clients were high-end, designer-apparel, fancy suits—that sort of thing. For a long time I thought I wanted to go into fashion, but my years of management consulting made me realize that that was not the life for me. When I woke up, I wasn't happy to go to work- I was just going through the motions. But for a while I was too afraid to do anything about it, because my life seemed so cool and glamorous on the outside. I was in this weird trap where I couldn’t admit I was unhappy.
As a way of getting out of that situation, I decided to apply for business school. I was accepted to Columbia Business School, and I was like, “Hey, now that I have this way out let me go and pursue what I want to do--which is food.”
I enrolled in culinary school and graduated from the program three days before I started Columbia. It was a total world-turn, topsy-turvy situation. I ended up going to Columbia and realizing, “Oh my god! This is not the world I want to be in.” I knew the world I wanted to be in - I was just there. So I went on a permanent sabbatical to find myself in the food world.
I started out by working in restaurants (fine dining) for a while, for example, at Atera in San Francisco. That was very lovely, but I wanted to mentally use my background more, so I started doing more consulting work with restaurants and brands. Then I decided I wanted to begin fusing more event-driven things- like what I've been doing with Wednesdays- with augmented and virtual reality.
There is an ongoing debate in the entrepreneurial world about the value of an MBA. Knowing what you know now, what is your take on that?
An MBA is really valuable if you know what you're going to do with it. I think the problem with an MBA is that it's marketed as this all-utilitarian, Swiss Army knife—you get an MBA and suddenly a million doors open for you. And I don't think that's necessarily the case, or maybe a million doors do open, but are they the right doors for you?
I think my main takeaway from observing my classmates, and my husband who I met at business school, is that you really need to focus and know what you're doing with that education. Otherwise, there are many other career training things that you could do. There are many other ways to enrich both your professional and personal self, during a two-year period, that's going to be less expensive and more curated to what you want.
Did you ever experience any contention from your close support network since you took such a nontraditional path? If so, how did you handle it?
My family and I don't really talk anymore, because they have been confused by the whole thing and they just don't understand what I do. They're a very traditional, immigrant, Chinese, family. All they wanted to do was sacrifice so I could have this comfortable, stable life. And ironically, because they were able to provide me a comfortable upbringing, they gave me the luxury of choice that they didn't have- but at the same timed didn’t want me to take. It's a weird thing I think a lot of immigrant kids have to deal with.
As far as my friends: I think I really had a big overhaul in terms of finding my tribe after leaving business school. Most of the people I knew had been one type of person, or from a very select set of industries- and they had been pursuing a very narrow definition of success up until that point. There was definitely a hard time finding new people that really got me, and supported me in the way that I wanted to be supported.
How did you and your husband come up with the idea for Wednesdays?
My husband and I started Wednesdays while we were still at business school together. I left school shortly thereafter, and he continued on. We were having a hard time getting to know people, and thought, “Let's get them into an environment that's more comfortable.”
I wanted to create an outlet to make food, and my husband wanted to mess around with cocktails. He doesn’t have any formal training and he wasn't great when he started, but now he's really good!
What advice do you have for someone thinking about starting something with a partner?
Be able to handle each other’s professional personalities. I am pretty cheerful and outgoing when I'm doing normal things, but when I’m in the zone, I'm really brief, really short—not angry, just brief. My husband also talks in a certain way. We couldn't get along for a while.
Part of it is learning to get to know each other on that level, but also respecting that people work in diverse ways. And you can either try and force them to work your way, or understand that there is beauty and usefulness in the way they work.
Now, it’s four years in and we’ve definitely hit a balance. He does a lot of front-of-house and, while it's still hard for me not to micromanage sometimes, I don't anymore. And when he comes to the back-of-house, he knows how to work around me so I don't yell at him.
You’ve said, "Sometimes my food or the environments I create make people uncomfortable and that's the point.” Could you elaborate on that?
I’ve been championing this effort for a while now. Everyone sees food as a hedonistic, make-you-feel-good, sort of thing. And of course it does, and it should- nobody wants to eat bad food. But at the same time, I think what's so amazing about food is that it's this innate connection we all share as people. And people do not go around feeling good all the time. I mean maybe other people do, but I know I don’t.
We all have a full range of emotions, and I think food should be able to reflect all of those things. It shouldn’t only be there as a satisfying, good, delicious thing. Food can also be sad sometimes, or emotional in a different way, or make you feel uncomfortable or weird, or provoke a visceral action—hopefully, not disgust, but a visceral reaction.
We don't always expect art to make us feel good, and food is an art. It should have the leeway to express other things.
One of the ways that we've been doing that with Wednesdays is hosting radical honesty dinners where we ask guests hard questions before they even arrive. Questions like: what is privilege, or what is your biggest failure? We’re not only asking them to open up and share that with us, but to share with other people, to set the stage for an experience where you're genuinely honest and yourself around a group of strangers.
You’re starting to incorporate augmented and virtual reality into your dinners. What does that experience look like?
It's definitely a work in progress. For example, we do a lot of 360-degree video where you can tap to see the harvesting process and the cooking process behind the scenes. Once you take off your headset, you have the food presented to you. So that’s a straightforward way to experience food in a slightly different, more immersive, way.
I want to take that to the next level by telling a story in virtual reality and immersing the diners in the story. Kind of like if you were in an immersive theater experience, but with virtual reality. For example, you’re in a story and all the characters around you are talking about going to a dinner party, and then you take off your headset, and you’re at the dinner party all the characters are talking about. And you slowly find what happens to these characters during the course of a dinner.
On the augmented reality side—I make ceramics, as well, so I work with developers to make ceramic plates, bowls and cups where you have either your headset or your phone and you scan the cup, or bowl or plate, to see augmented visuals on top. Right now, I have an AR experience called "3 Artists Paint Your Food." The idea is the first plate is paint-splattered (which is the AR trigger), then I also plate this very splattery-esque food onto the plate- the AR component is that whoever is eating can "lift" the paint off the plate and also paint / impact the final dish.
I’s a fun way to add more interest around the food,and it’s a fun way for artists and chefs to collaborate.
How do you stay focused and motivated?
Honestly, I wish I were more focused. There are days when I'm so frazzled and scatterbrained because there are a bunch of people I'm talking to about different things. I’ve been trying to dedicate a week to one project, then a week to another project so that I can focus.
What have been the most challenging and rewarding parts of your journey this past year?
What’s been challenging has been the same thing that's always been challenging for me—there's always this internal insecurity or worry that I’m not good enough, or that people aren't taking me seriously, or you know, even stupid things like “I don't have enough Instagram followers.” I have the worst critical voice in my head, so I keep reminding myself that it will never be enough if I don’t allow it to be enough.
The most satisfying part of this year has been taking this big leap and realizing I'm going to do something different with augmented and virtual reality. I've come to a place where I feel proud of my accomplishments.
What would you tell someone who is considering taking the leap into entrepreneurship?
It’s never going to be a better time than right now. There's not going to be one day, on a Saturday, where it's like, "You know what, today is a great day for me to take a huge risk."
I think the big thing is—you just have to do it.
How do we get more women leaders?
Women really need to support each other, believe in each other, and make room and space for each other. We're taught and shown in the media that women must fight with each other for X, Y and Z. And we see it in the workplace too. It’s like we can only promote so many women so we’re fighting with each other.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said this hilarious thing: someone asked her, "At what point would you be happy with the male-female representation on the Supreme Court?" And she said, "When all of them are women.” And everyone was so shocked, but most of the members of the Supreme Court have been men and we haven’t been surprised by that. So, I think changing our internal representation of the world is the first step in saying, "Yeah, all women can succeed together.”