Acts of Care: A Conversation with Chef Jenny Dorsey (Part Two)
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Welcome back to our conversation with activist and chef Jenny Dorsey! Starting from where we left off in Part One, Jenny discusses sexism in the restaurant industry, what real change means to her as an activist, and what she does to be the most mindful activist she can be.
Jenny is an accomplished chef who competed on Cutthroat Kitchen, Chopped, and Beat Bobby Flay. She is also the founder and executive director of Studio ATAO. They envision “a world where all people can realize their power to secure equitable and inclusive change.”
Studio ATAO’s newest initiative is The Neighborhood’s Table, and they’re conducting a survey to guide further research! Click here to include your voice today and help fight gentrification in your area.
This interview has been edited for clarity and readability. The third and final part will be coming soon!
Emma Buchman (Digital Content Director, March On Foundation):
Historically, barriers have been placed to make it more difficult for women specifically to become chefs. Does this align at all with your experience? And if so, what do you think are some ways we can break those barriers down?
Jenny Dorsey (Chef, Founder of Studio ATAO):
I think what’s very difficult for folks in hospitality, restaurants, I think all industries when confronted with sexism is a lot of times nowadays there is not so much overt sexism. It’s not like we’re saying, “Women can’t vote” or “Women can’t do these things,” right? And because of that, a lot of folks who don’t want to recognize privilege and whatnot are like, “Well, there are no overt obstacles, so the absence of that means everything is fine.” And we all know that’s clearly not the case.
I think what’s particularly insidious about this [that] we never point out… because we have normalized everything around men, anything that women do differently is seen as weird or abnormal or something that needs to be fixed or mediated, instead of recognizing they’re different. And I think that’s where a lot of the discrimination against women is still happening.
When we talk about vocal fry and how women talk in a certain way, actually the research shows that men engage in vocal fry more than women, but we find it more annoying in women. We just see everything that women do as annoying. I wrote this essay about women’s interests, like rosé or fan fiction, or celebrities that women like. We immediately discount them as silly or frivolous because we don’t see women’s interests as real ‘art’ or worthy of discourse.
I think that’s the kind of unconscious bias that we’re still fighting against. Especially in restaurants, there’s a lot of this idea of what a good kitchen looks like or what a good plate of food looks like. That is really impacting how women cannot only continue their careers in food, but also what we deem as a “oh, that chef has potential to be promoted, that chef shows leadership abilities,” because we only recognize and respect one form of leadership, which is usually the really loud boisterous in your face [kind].
We don’t see different forms of leadership as real leadership, and that’s also an extrovert/introvert thing. We see a lot of women who have bought into that kind of “old guard” leadership because they feel that’s the only way to the top. So, that’s not helpful.
I also talk a lot about this idea of an unforced error. In tennis if you, as the player, just kind of f*ck up… nobody did anything, you just missed the volley or whatever, you call that an unforced error. And I think a lot of times when women mess up in the kitchen we say, “Why did you screw that up?” and depict it as an unforced error. But we don’t actually realize all the things that have made it harder for them to operate.
One thing that I always point out is simply – look at how kitchens are literally built. Usually women are a little bit smaller than men, as in literally shorter than men. So when you have things like kitchen counters that are a certain height, it’s more difficult for women to give you precise cuts if they’re the prep cook, because they’re literally not well-equipped to cut things on [that] surface. So then two people are placed into those sort of conditions where one is way better equipped to give you more finely sliced shallots or something, the reaction is, “Oh God, that person’s more experienced or better.” Without evaluating what conditions they’ve been given to succeed. So, I think it’s really difficult, I don’t know how to say that in a punchier way, I think I need to work on that. But that’s something I’m constantly trying to point out is that a lot of these unforced errors are actually not unforced errors.
These are symptomatic of a larger problem in kitchens of how things are built, how things are structured.
For example, I remember this instance where my team at the time was only women, and so we usually only had small and medium gloves because everybody had small hands. Then once we had a dishwasher who was a man and he needed XL gloves, and I’m like, “I’m so sorry, I don’t have any!” This was right before service started and there was nowhere to buy gloves nearby, so he ended up having to wash dishes all night without gloves. I obviously got him gloves the next day, but I felt terrible about this for a long time. That sort of lack of inclusion, that’s on me.
Imagine the scenario being reversed, which is way more common. Women are often put at a disadvantage and you can’t really do anything about it because everyone else doesn’t see that as a problem. If he hadn’t said anything, I may have not even noticed because I’m over here, happy with my little small gloves, right? So it’s just those little things are pervasive across all industries and we don’t do a good job of pointing them out, because we see them as so small, but they mount to be something bigger…
I point this particular thing out all the time, as even my kitchen counters in my house are too tall because kitchen counters are standardized to a person who’s 5′ 8″. So I have to stand on something to cut things or else my wrists or forearms tense up, since I have some old injuries from my fencing days. And I can say as a privileged homeowner, “Okay, my wrist is hurting,” and do something about it in my house, but in a restaurant, no one is going to listen to you when you say, “My wrist hurts.” It’s toxic masculinity in that way. Then over time your wrist gives out, your form gets f*cked up, and then you can’t do good work because you’ve really hurt your body. And then you’re told that you’re incompetent…
So we again touched on this before, but what made you begin to pivot more towards the nonprofit sector… What made you begin to incorporate nonprofit work into your work as a chef?
I started doing more work just talking about my identity and why I think food should be all of these things, sadness and joy. For a while, especially when I was touring “Asian in America,” I realized that a lot of people resonated with this… But it still felt like, okay, we’re raising awareness, and that’s great, but… then what? It kind of felt like people were still coming for a ”Fun food thing” and “maybe I’ll think a little bit and talk a little bit and afterwards I’m going to forget all about it,” you know? I don’t want to discount our guests and the people who came, and I’m sure [for] some people, it made more of a meaningful and impactful experience, but I just felt like there wasn’t enough actual action that was happening.
I didn’t really know what to do with that feeling besides feeling frustrated by, “What am I really doing to help move things forward for the industry versus ‘is this just like a vanity project for me?'” I’m glad that I could do my work and be creative and that was fun for me. But, is this really it? Also, the onset of COVID where we couldn’t do events anymore helped me have a little bit of time to think: “Okay… I want to do something more than this. What does that look like?”
If it is for the good of the industry, I don’t think it makes sense to be a for-profit business. Nonprofit businesses have all sorts of other problems, which we can and should continue to talk about. But I think it made more sense to me just from an emotional level that it should be a nonprofit. And then I really wanted to be like, “Okay, we’re going to create change from the ground up. What does that look like?” And figuring out all the methodology from there.
The key was, “What does actual change look like and how can we document it?” Because change happens so slowly over a period of time, I sometimes wonder when we look at the Civil Rights marches and we know that they were hugely impactful right now, 50 years later, but at the time how did everyone in them feel? I wonder if they also felt unsure of the future and if this was going to create real change. So I remind myself maybe when you’re in the thick of it, you don’t know.
And so for us, it’s, “How do we find little markers of change happening to keep us going?” Because as I talk to more activists who’ve been in this space for a long time, they’re just like, “I know that the change that I want is going to happen after I’m dead.” And I mean, that’s reassuring, but also not? So how do we keep up the energy while we’re still alive, to keep doing change, even though we know that’s going to be really slow?
I think Esther and I are having the same thought because we are doing the same thing of trying to find little markers in the work we’re doing to show the tangible change. A lot of what we did [in 2020] was Black Lives Matter protests and being a part of whatever movements the Black-led organizations in [Anne Arundel] County were doing… and it didn’t feel like there was a lot of change, but I’m sure when we look back on it a decade or so from now that we will see how it made that change. But like you said, it’s positive because you can see it over a long period of time, but it’s negative because this [situation] is people suffering right now. If we have to wait until after we’re dead, they’re going to be dead too, having suffered.
Yeah, and I also think what’s frustrating is when you see… I do think I see some changes, but I don’t know if that’s us or just the world, you know? Sometimes you get into that imposter syndrome of, “Well, is what we are doing specifically, does it even matter?” Because… you don’t usually see a direct line between your work and whatever end goal you have. That’s also very hard.
I’m looking at Esther [on Zoom] like, “Yep, exactly!”
Esther Pang (Executive Director, MO Foundation):
Yeah, I also think about this a lot, because I’m on another board and we’ve been talking about street harassment for like the longest time, I want to say like 10 years now… We [knew] that the work was important, but no one wanted to fund the work. So we were doing a lot of unfunded work and then trying to change the narrative about street harassment, trying to get people to recognize it…We’ve done the work, we can take the win as-is. And then knowing that much more work needs to get done and, like what you said, perhaps this vision of a world without harassment is gonna happen when we’re all not here.
I feel like you’ve already covered this, but just in case there’s an additional thought that we haven’t touched on: did you find it difficult to combine the work required for your advocacy and the career you had already built? Did you think it would be easier and then it was actually really hard, or was the opposite, or…?
There were definitely some challenges. I think the biggest challenge beyond just pivoting away from cooking all the time [was] self growth. Because even though I had been really passionate about activism and social justice and all of those things while I was a chef, the reality is I wasn’t super well-versed on that stuff. I still had to really do a lot of that learning after deciding this is the career path that I want to pivot [to] and do.
I can always experiment, but truly getting the necessary background information when it comes to social justice, reading about philosophy, reading about communism and socialism, all of that sort of stuff…
I think sometimes people, especially because of 2020, a lot of people thought it was trendy and cool to become advocates or activists or throw social justice lingo around. And I’ve had some heated conversations with friends where I’m like, “I’m not doing this for fun. I’m not playing a social justice character.”
And I’m not trying to say, “bad you, you’re not doing x y or z thing.” I’m just saying, “I’m serious about this. This is not just a phase.” And I think that has been sometimes a little stressful, especially because, mostly, social justice people are women, especially women of color, especially Black women, as they’re usually the people that are most marginalized, and as a society we don’t value their labor. As a result, we often don’t value a lot of the incredible things that social justice work has provided us, like: anti-discrimination laws, anti-harassment laws, Black Lives Matter, transformative justice, the list goes on.
Even if we see these important movements happening, we continue to not compensate people who are helping us learn these things. I think fighting for my right to be here, fighting for the fact that what I do is valuable and also having to constantly, exhaustingly point out to people that this is actual work. This is not, “You do a few Googles and then you’re good.” This is work that you have to maintain like any other practice. It’s a practice.
Check back soon for Part Three!