Jenny Dorsey is an NYC-based Chef, Entrepreneur & Culinary Strategist. Jenny is the Founder of Wednesdays NYC, a dinner tasting series where fine dining meets engaging conversation. As a culinary strategist, Jenny creates unique launch strategies, culinary R&D, and designs experiential concepts for brands looking to engage their customers in a meaningful way. Her work has been featured in Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Forbes, The Huffington Post, Bustle and many others. In a previous life, she was a management consultant.
Hi, Jenny! It is so great to have you here. Where did you grow up and how did that shape you as a person?
I was born in Shanghai but came to the U.S. when I was 3. Mandarin was my first native language, and I remember having a tough time learning English when I first moved here. Both my parents are PhD’s, so for the first few years we lived in the Bronx (they attended Albert Einstein College of Medicine). Afterwards we left for Seattle and I grew up as a solidly liberal west-coaster, haha. One of the bigger transformative experiences of my youth was leaving high school after sophomore year and going straight into the University of Washington through a program called the Academy of Young Scholars. It was a great decision on many levels, but also a tough one that required giving up some of my other dreams (namely pursuing NCAA fencing). Now that I can review my decision more objectively as a young adult, I think it helped push me in ways for my career but also required my teenage self to make big decisions I wasn’t completely prepared for. I was much more susceptible to outside pressure then and that resulted in me taking a corporate route out of school. I’m happy I’ve found my way but I’m a big champion of letting our youth take more time to explore than our current school system allows.
You were in business consulting and then transitioned into food. What led you on the path to where you are now?
I started my career in management consulting because it was what all the cool kids at school was doing. It paid well, I got to move to NYC (and was paid to relocate), and I was able to wiggle my way into the fashion & luxury goods sector within the firm I was at (Accenture). But the funny thing about life is that we spend a lot of time thinking we want something only to obtain it and wonder “what was I thinking?”. I knew the job wasn’t the right fit for me from day 1, but I couldn’t help but want the title, promotion, paycheck, public image, clothes, etc. When I finally got to a place that seemed “so amazing” on social media, I realized I’d gotten there on an empty assumption that a life with more material goods is a better life. It isn’t. No designer jeans or shoes or bags can fix a gaping hole in your psyche that wants to be fulfilled with meaningful work. So I did what everyone does when confronted with a crisis: I procrastinated! I applied to Columbia Business School so I could have 2 years off to “think”. I was accepted early decision in December of 2011, which gave me 9 months before my MBA officially started. So I figured I would go to culinary school, because that’s what I loved to do all the time anyway, and didn’t think anything of it. And that’s the magic of life! Life happens when you’re not busy planning. I fell in love with the craft of cooking, my classmates, the food industry - with all its flaws and whatnot - and I knew it is what I was meant to be doing. I still attended Columbia for a semester but this time I listened to the voice that said “this is not for you” a lot faster than the first time around and left so I could pursue the world of food. I started my career over from the bottom, doing all sorts of funny entry-level jobs - including one where I sold juice to top Silicon Valley VC funds - to eventually find my way into Global R&D at Le Pain Quotidien. I learned a lot of amazing skills there and decided to branch out and start my own consulting practice. This dovetailed nicely with my foray into experiential dining - I had started Wednesdays while still at LPQ - and I quickly learned my passion within food is creating immersive concepts and making an wonderful experience beyond “just” food & drink to something that really resonates with the guest. So now I’m blending my consulting work and Wednesdays to launch a new space named Studio 10x. It’s a creative culinary studio that uses food & drink as a medium to open the dialogue and connecting people on bigger social issues. I’m in the process of forming my advisory board and putting together our first themed culinary + social showcase! Oh, and finding a space, that little thing...
It’s also quite a mindset shift when you go from a very set path (with the prestige and set milestones) to one that is personally rewarding but can be overwhelming - as there is no set path nor milestones. It’s just you steering the boat, literally and figuratively. Are there mindsets and value sets you had to re-learn to adapt your life around your newfound passion and work?
I’m really lucky to have my husband as my biggest supporter. He’s the one who brings me back to center when I start hyperventilating that I “have no idea what I’m doing” or “don’t know where I’m going”. The big thing I realized quickly that having someone tell you what to do is a luxury. I know that sounds crazy, but it really is. You don’t have to think about your next steps and have endless opportunities to evaluate against each other. When you are steering your own boat you’re in a sea of choices and no one can tell you which is the best one. You have to learn to trust yourself and believe in yourself - that's a much harder mindset to learn than listening to someone else give direction.
Speaking about taking next steps, what values influence which projects you create and take on each year?
I think it’s really easy to get sidetracked (see above) and start focusing on the wrong thing. For instance, last year I got really, really obsessed with hitting an aggressive revenue goal. I worked my tail off prospecting, closing new clients, building out new contracts, running myself into the ground, and also not cooking in the kitchen that much because of all my work it is (unfortunately) the lowest in ROI. I traded in my hours of tinkering in the kitchen and ceramics studio in take more meetings, more more more more. As you can probably guess, I hit my revenue goal and then...nothing changed. It’s not like I somehow became a more credible or awesome person. In fact, I was pretty unhappy and burned out and realized I had made very little progress to what I actually cared about (finding a medium to communicate and engage with others through food). So this year I readjusted my focus, am working only with the clients who I have projects pertaining to my main objective (experiential dining), went back into setting aside time to be creative in the kitchen & the studio, am studying for my sommelier test (something I always wanted to do but “never had the time”), learning more about how to create useful digital content, and overall evaluating success on how to push my actual desires forward.
When obstacles come up, what keeps you motivated and grounded within your food career?
My family. I have a relevant story for this. A few months ago I competed on “Chopped” and had a horrible, lousy day. I came home demoralized, muttering about how much I sucked and putting myself down as talentless and very frustrated with how the producers had treated me. My husband (and dogs) helped me realize that my career in food isn’t about some TV title but about how I’m able to take inspiration from everything in life, including the bad times, and that’s what so special about my gift - and why I should use it as strength to push past these challenges. So after I came home and cried to my husband about it, we sat together and I made an awesome f*cking dish inspired by my Chopped episode. He encouraged me to own the dish because I worked hard - so I ended up getting that dish (Crispy Softshell Crab in White Chocolate-Morel Sauce) featured in a video with The Huffington Post and used it as inspiration for what ended up being a winning James Beard Foundation Grant essay. Sometimes the light is a little further down the tunnel than you can see, and my husband always is able to spot it when I can’t.
What is your definition of authentic success?
Waking up everyday and never feeling like I’m “working” because what I do is my passion and also serves the bigger purpose I’ve determined for myself. Not worrying about titles like Forbes 30 Under 30 or what some asshat I went to school with has to say about me. Being able to voice my opinion around the people I care about most because they love and accept my authentic self.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Hehe, the irony. What I would say is: everyone has their own opinion about what you should/should not do. You are the only one who can determine their relevance, and 99% of the time all of their words are pretty much useless. Take “advice” with a grain of salt and listen to yourself first and foremost. You always already know what you want, it’s just a matter of doing it. Don’t do what I did, which is try to talk yourself out of doing something by asking others for their opinion.
I’ve met so many women in food that I absolutely adore - the creativity, warmth, directness and no bullshit attitude. Any favorite women in food you’d love to collaborate with?
So many talented women in the food industry! To start with popups, Yana of SALO Series is doing something unheard of with her traveling kamayan dinners. Lisa of Nomiku was generous enough to introduce me to sous vide cooking and I’ve been hooked ever since. Alexis of Blue Marble Dreams is an inspirational woman and I was lucky enough to work with her to open the Bel Rev dessert shop in Haiti - talk about a life-changing experience!