A #hyphenatedAsians POV: Chef Jenny Dorsey
Upon first seeing an article on the now defunct April Magazine about Chef Jenny Dorsey, we were curious to know more about the woman who has taken on the mission of using food to get people to challenge their beliefs and understandings through discussion with others as they experience each intentionally thought-provoking dish. Continue on as we learn how Chef Dorsey struggles with identity and how she works toward helping others to understand our universal Asian identities.
So, where did life begin for you and what was your experience like growing up?
I was born in Shanghai, and then I immigrated here to New York, originally, when I was three and a half with my grandparents. My parents are both scientists and they had already come to the States so they could pursue their doctorates. So, I didn’t see them for the first couple years of my life. After that, I have vague memories of being really bad at English in kindergarten or maybe it was first grade. I would get really good grades on things like participation or being friendly, but my actual English was terrible. Obviously, slowly over time I became like a native English speaker. Now, I’m actually trying to learn Chinese again.
Still, it’s kind of a struggle trying to balance the two sides. Because I was very close to my grandparents growing up, I felt more attached to my Chinese side. However, I grew up in the Bronx where there were really very few other Asian kids. When I was about eight, we moved to Bellevue, which is a suburb of Seattle, where again it was not super Asian. So, it was a weird dichotomy of always wanting to be white and always feeling like I was different, but I couldn’t change it.
How did you cope with that or learn to cope with it?
It took a really long time. Actually, I just started talking to my parents again about six months ago. I hadn’t talked to them for like two years. I had cut off ties, as I had a lot of resentment and anger.
I was an only child. So, I understand that they didn’t have a trial run before me. Everybody’s trying to learn how to parent. But, I learned there were a lot of issues in my childhood that I felt went unresolved. Even to this day, we haven’t really talked about them. So, what I really have had to do, through therapy, was to decide that I can either ignore my parents forever, or I can just let it go and move forward with them.
So, I think in terms of coping, it really has been just clarifying what are my boundaries and what am I going to allow in my life now.
With all that as your background then, how do you identify yourself now, either ethnically or in general?
I think if I’m talking to an Asian person, I will specify that I’m Chinese. But, I feel like with other races, I don’t really have to say anything. Often, they’re too nervous to probe too deeply.
It’s funny though, after I married a white man, I changed my last name for various purposes. The main reason is because there are so many Jenny Wangs. I actually had a Chinese first name, but then I changed it as my middle name to make it more “accessible.” That’s a complicated decision and I know many Asian-Americans have mixed feelings about it. All I can say is, for me, it works.
However, the thing is that unless you see a picture of me, you don’t inherently know that I’m Asian. So, it has been kind of interesting to see the reactions of people when they do realize.
So, how do you feel when someone shows surprise that you’re Asian?
There’s always a little bit of amusement in it for me. I kind of enjoy it. I tend to wonder how would their reaction or how would our interaction have gone differently if they had known beforehand? Or, what about my personality traits make them expect that I am white and not Asian? So, I want to know what they are toggling in their mind that changes their expectations of me? I’m always curious, because usually I’ve already interacted with them via email or phone, so why is there a disconnect?
A favorite discussion point of mine is on the question of “Where are you from?” What is your reaction to that?
Oh yeah, I get that all the time. I get it all the time online, too. I’ve been on a couple of reality cooking competitions. And, someone literally messaged me like multiple times trying to figure out where I am from. I think it is really fascinating that whenever I’m somewhere that isn’t a big city or cosmopolitan area, if I get into an Uber without my husband, that is the first question. They just can’t help it.
Most of the time, I try not to encourage the behavior by not responding. But, some are really persistent and they want to know the answers. Sometimes, I will deflect or I just refuse to tell them. I’ll say I’m from New York. But, you can tell it’s not satisfying and it’s not what they wanted to hear. So, they try to figure it out in a different way by asking about my family. At times, I will be exhausted and just say I’m from China. They always look so excited that they finally figured it out.
What I think is so interesting is not them asking, but the fact that they feel it’s their right to have ownership over your face and your identity. Both minorities and non do this, it’s like an ingrained feeling people learn towards minorities, in general.
What is your sense as to why Asians are stereotyped in the way that they are?
As with stereotypes in general, I think it comes from taking one small nugget of truth and it just gets blown up because of an unwillingness to be uncomfortable. The reality is that we are only going to be acutely aware and attuned to our own experiences. I don’t know what it’s like to be a black woman, or undocumented person, or someone who presents as racially ambiguous.
But, the only way we are going to learn more about others’ experiences is to ask. Many times people asking about others’ real life experiences is very uncomfortable. This is especially true if you are in a place of privilege; it’s very discomforting and jarring. People don’t want to do that.
Moving now to your career: how did you decide to become a chef?
In college, I started as a finance major. I wanted to go into management consulting. So, I ended up in fashion, which was the glamorous thing that I wanted to do. I moved to New York and worked really hard at it. I thought I had it all.
But, the funny thing is, when you reach a goal that you construct in your mind based on other people’s expectations, you hit that goal and you’re like, wow, I’m here. That’s it? I was really unhappy.
What really made me want to change my direction was seeing a higher up manager on my team who just desperately was trying to fill a hole in her heart with clothes, which were never gonna fill it. So, I quit my job and went to culinary school on a whim.
How would you say, if at all, that your sense of identity has influenced your cooking?
A lot of my cooking now is about making sure that I can talk about symbolism in the right way. There are always stories with every person’s food, and I really want my food to make sense on multiple levels.
So, for example, there’s a dish in one of our series called "Asian in America" that discusses the model minority myth. The main protein is veal sweetbreads. Since this is an organ meat, it’s usually perceived as distasteful. But, in the particular case of veal sweetbreads, we usually see them as gourmet; I draw a parallel to how Asians are always told that if we present ourselves properly, we can also be distinguished as “better” than other minorities. And that’s a lie, as we obviously can see now. I feel like my talent has been in bringing about a sort of translation through my food.
So, how do you compile your food projects or choose what you want to present?
It really starts with a concept I care about. So, for example, the latest series that we’ve been working on is something called "Glass through Skin," which is about the normalization of female pain. I really wanted to talk about the fact that women are suffering everywhere. But, the problem is that both men and women are used to it. We accept that that’s how things are supposed to be.
So, for the first mini course I started with what is the concept of pain and what use it serves. One of the ideas that stood out to me was the trope that women needed to suffer some sort of violent act against them in order to grow and evolve. We see it all the time in books, movies, TV, even everyday conversation. So, how do I get that into a food idea?
I was inspired by a line from Sansa Stark on "Game of Thrones" in response to being asked if she regretted her decisions that had caused so much pain. And she more or less says, "If I hadn’t suffered being raped, abused, etc. I would have remained a ‘little bird’ forever." That is infuriating; in her moment of having overcome so much she is attributing her own abilities to those of their abusers.
I created a dish where the dish itself is like a bird cage and people are reaching in with this idea of helping to free the little bird. So, they grab this ball made out of partridge and it’s adorned with fancy things, but it’s been speared with an edible glass shard. As you eat through it, you find the actual flavor of the dish lies in the center, which is this molten mousse made out of chicken liver, while the glass shard, or the perpetrator, has no taste at all. The idea is that the complexity and the strength of females have always been inside them and owe nothing to their oppressors.
So as you’ve been doing this in creating your own food projects, do you feel or do you think that you’ve ever faced any racism or setbacks because of your ethnicity?
Yeah, for sure. I think a lot of times when people are uncomfortable, they usually act in one of two ways: they either withdraw or get really angry.
We’ve never really had anger at our dinners because, for the most part, our dinners are self-selecting. People know what they are paying for. However, we’ve had public demos where we get invited to film festivals, conferences, and random people come in. People who have never had to contend with their privilege or been asked to. So, they feel uncomfortable and they can say snarky things. Often because I’m female and young, they tend to be dismissive instead of possibly being more aggressive if I were male. Instead, they make comments like, “very cute” or “what a cute idea.”
How do you find yourself responding to that?
I used to get very angry and I do still complain about it, but I think I have just become unfazed by it because I realize it has nothing to do with me.
What do you want people to most gain from one of your culinary experiences?
Our big mission is always about how we can create empathy. Because at the end of the day, it’s one thing to see someone, but unless it pertains to you we can’t imagine how it feels since we haven’t lived their experiences and it’s difficult to really care about their struggles. So, how do we bridge that gap?
We really believe that if you can sit across the table from someone who is experiencing something and you can have an open conversation, that’s the beginning of opening your mind in a new way and hopefully changing your worldview. From there, maybe you take a small action like posting on social media and sharing about a new topic. Any step is better than nothing, even if it does feel demoralizing at times. This is the sad reality of the slowness in social change. We’re just trying to create every step we can.
What would your takeaway be, then, for younger, aspiring universal Asians?
Because Asian-Americans don’t have great representation in so many industries, you don’t even know what’s available to you. I think any time you perhaps don’t know what you want to do, or you literally haven’t seen an example of a person doing what you may want to do, there may be a feeling of discouragement.
My biggest advice would be to encourage the next generation to not listen to anyone else. It doesn’t really matter what other people think because you’re the person that you have to go to bed with everyday. You are the only person responsible for you.