To say that chef Jenny Dorsey has her finger in more than one pot is an understatement. As the founder of the non-profit food think tank Studio ATAO with her husband, Matt Dorsey, a robust personal Instagram platform of over 20,000 followers, and a former restaurant cook with bona fides chops at Michelin-starred restaurants like Atera in Tribeca and Atelier Crenn and SPQR in San Francisco, she has all the makings of a superstar foodie. Oh, and then there’s the fact that she’s appeared on not one, not two, but three Food Network shows — Chopped, Beat Bobby Flay (she beat him), and Cutthroat Kitchen.
But the most important topics to Jenny have always had much more to do with deeper, meaningful conversations and the ability to learn about power dynamics within food than the elements of appearance, competition, or fame that television emphasizes. It’s part of why she left her glamorous but unfulfilling career as a management consultant in the fashion and luxury world to apply for business school at Columbia, and also why, while waiting the ten months between her early decision acceptance and the actual beginning of the program, she opted to attend culinary school to kill time.
“I grew up in Seattle but landed a job in New York, so I was very excited to go out there and pursue my passion,” Dorsey remembered. “Very quickly I realized I was really unhappy, but it was very hard for me to leave because everyone else thought the job was very glamorous. So I ended up applying for business school as a way to just get out, but once I got in, I was accepted early decision, which meant I had some extra time. So since I had about ten months, I thought it was a good time to go to culinary school because that had always been a passion of mine.”
During her time at culinary school, attending the Institution Of Culinary Education in New York, Jenny really fell in love with the food world, and though she did go on to attend her business school for one semester, she left shortly after to dive into food instead. From there, she tried almost everything she could from restaurant work to social media and PR, eventually starting up her own consulting practice to work with food companies on research and development, and moving on to writing and styling as well.
But client work can be a little suffocating, and the creative side of Jenny wanted something more, so she and her husband started a dinner series out of their apartment simply called Wednesdays with the goal of getting people to “engage on a deeper level.” From a group of ten friends in their apartment, within three months the dinners grew in scope to a pop up concept of over 100 people, and interest was still growing. But the mission aspect of the events was totally lost in the buzz of a trendy, underground dinner series in New York — Jenny felt disappointed in the shift, and also realized, the initial mission of Wednesdays was too broad.
“We were like ‘what is deeper conversation? How do you prompt it?’” she remembered. “How do you get strangers to even do that, and why do they care? Our mission was vague and honestly, it wasn’t really striking people. So we took some time off and I kind of had a meltdown and an identity crisis while I thought about what I really wanted. What were the messages I really wanted? How did I want to focus that and how do I want to make the events more keyed into that?”
Thus Studio ATAO was born, a rebrand of the original Wednesdays dinner party concept, but officially incorporated as a non-profit, presenting with dinners specific thematic programming for each event. that emphasize drawing people out of their comfort zones and using VR technology to help facilitate that. Some of the themes of ATAO (which stands for All Together At Once) has presented focus on self-acceptance, Asian American identity, and female pain — and they’ve also presented community programs with emphasis on concepts like tokenization and scarcity mindset. “It’s a lot more specific now, which has definitely removed some of our audience,” Dorsey laughed. “There’s people that don’t follow us and don’t care because social justice is not their cup of tea. And then there’s also more people who do care and are interested. So it’s been finding that balance.”
Jenny and her husband founded the studio in 2017, but got their official 501c designation as a non-profit in 2018, and have been going strong ever since, though obviously the impact of COVID-19 and the pandemic this year has significantly halted their ability to do live, in-person events. The studio has three tiers: the public programming, community initiatives, and an agency side. When it comes to bringing awareness to topics of social justice — particularly now that the Black Lives Matter movement has come back to the forefront this past June — Jenny is looking for ways to engage not just those already involved, but the people who have stayed out of the conversation so far.
“The hardest part of advocacy and activism is it’s hard to engage people who are not already engaged,” she said. “There’s so many people on the fringes, and we’re finally starting to have a conversation about that now with the Black Lives Matter movement, how do we get ‘allies’ who are at best performative, but at worst actually upholding white supremacy, into an experience that then can prompt them to not only reconsider and have some introspection, but have an interpersonal connection with someone else? I think that’s a powerful tool to drive change. Being able to establish a space where that can happen and those conversations are prompted is the founding idea for our in-person events.”
Pivoting to virtual learning and community-building during the pandemic, Studio ATAO has been working with activists on various community skillshares, including a recent session with New Orleans-based Ashtin Berry, a hospitality activist, sommelier, bartender and founder of the social justice consultancy, Radical Xchange. Berry shared information about understanding local politics and the importance of civic engagement, areas that have clearly fallen by the wayside for so many Americans in recent years — even when so many people are desperate to change their local government’s policies. “Having the right perspective on history is very challenging,” Dorsey said. “So that’s a big part of what we’re doing. Just trying to get experts in the room, support them and amplify their voices, and also really put resources behind that.”
A brief glance at the Studio ATAO website will quickly reveal that her themed dinner parties and community skillshares don’t even represent the bulk of all the various programming this non-profit offers. There’s a newsletter, a book club, a monthly movie screening, a Facebook group for social impact professionals, custom experiences, ways to support the studio financially — including Patreon tiers that offer access to a lot of the resources just listed — and then a whole separate resources blog packed with information for those who want to learn at their own pace. But one other big area they’ve been able to continue working in while limited to digital-only gatherings is their experimental salons.
“The other thing we’ve shifted our virtual programming toward is experimental salons, which started in-person but have shifted to virtual because we have to,” Dorsey explained. “These are conversations with industry professionals about a specific social impact topic that pertains to them. We started with food media and had food media professionals come together to talk about tokenization in food media, what it means, how it happens, and how to disrupt it. Then we put together a huge toolkit, so they can use it after and also spread it with their friends in the industry.”
With her non-profit, Jenny has built a formidable array of resources and programs that confront all kinds of prejudice and ignorance, not just in the food industry, but in the world itself. And so much of her impetus to challenge these systems traces back to her own experiences, growing up as a first generation Chinese-American woman in Seattle. She remembers being told to change her behavior to fit into a particular stereotype, or even her cooking, people making assumptions that she would only be cooking a specific kind of food.
“I really wanted to fit in, and I couldn’t really understand why I was different,” she said. “You hear so many mixed messages as a woman and a person of color. For Asian women, it’s a lot of ‘stay silent, be quiet, be nice, be modest.’ And you hear that from society, but you also hear that from your own families. And that’s a lot of ingrained assimilation trauma from their lives, so I don’t blame them for that. But as a child, you don’t really know what to do with this information. I didn’t want to be known as that one Asian person. I like Asian food, but I don’t only want to cook Asian food.”
And even as she expands into activism and advocacy work, for Jenny, the basis for the cooking that she does always goes back to storytelling and symbolism more than one style, cuisine, or influence. All the strands of Studio ATAO tie into the idea that this kind of work can happen, all together at once, social justice within the food world, and important, perspective-shifting storytelling within her own cooking. “The food that I make is very symbolic and it does have a lot of Asian influences because I happen to be Chinese-American and I love Chinese food,” she said. “But the ingredients or the techniques that I use are more about the story, than versus trying to pay homage to any particular cuisine.”