Jenny Dorsey is a professional chef and all-around creative person born in Shanghai and based in New York City. She started her career in management consulting after graduating from Columbia Business School, and now she consults for many food brands and runs Studio ATAO, a not-for-profit production company that designs immersive experiences using food and both augmented and virtual reality. She is also the founder of Wednesdays, a culinary supper club for the inquisitive and adventurous.
Dorsey created Wednesdays to build a community of people willing to connect on a deeper level than they would at typical networking drinks. Taking place once a month in a secret venue, Wednesdays strives to push guests both intellectually and emotionally, pushing them out of their comfort zone. Small talk is left at the door, and attendees are encouraged to immerse themselves in stimulating conversation and fine food. Dinner guests range from 8–100 people, and the meals usually sell out in roughly 20 to 30 minutes.
Have you always been interested in cooking?
I’ve always gravitated toward food — I studied abroad in Rome and fell in love with open-air markets and farm-to-table cuisine — so during my really low days in management consulting I would take recreational cooking classes. I realized after a few classes that I’m not made for recreational anything, and that I wouldn’t feel satisfied without going for the full program. This coincided with my early acceptance to Columbia, and I ended up having nine months before I officially started my MBA. I practically ran to the culinary school admissions office, and I started school in the next week. I graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education three days before I started at Columbia Business School, and [by then] I knew that the corporate, traditional world was no longer for me.
Tell me about Wednesdays. How did it start?
My husband and I started Wednesdays to bring people together. We met at Columbia, a brewing pot of interesting people — who spent all their time talking about school and work. We wanted to get to know our peers on a deeper level. The most important part of our concept was to find ways to have people interact with each other in a meaningful way, and the food, drink, and ambiance needed to elegantly prop up that mission. It’s been a dream that Wednesdays has become so popular, and for us to see so many excited guests genuinely interested in engaging in intellectual conversation with strangers at our communal table.
How do you ensure that people make deep connections at Wednesdays?
Our mission is to bring people together to talk candidly about deeper-level topics. We don’t shy away from hard questions — we ask things like “What’s your biggest failure?” or “What’s a societal norm you want to change and how would you change it?” [and then] we don’t moderate the conversation at all. We challenge everyone to be honest, in a room surrounded by strangers who are eager to dive into a meaningful topic. [There are also] interesting activities that are part intellectual, part just for kicks. We also allow our silly personalities to shine through, with cookie shots or group painting, and there is a seat change in the middle [of each dinner].
What else makes Wednesdays unique?
We find great joy in playing with our food, so every dinner has some quirks to it — guests might find themselves roaming through a Nicaraguan coffee farm in 360º, unlocking behind-the-scenes videos, or munching on bugs inside of edible terrariums.
How would you describe the cuisine?
My restaurant background is all fine dining — mostly French — so my food certainly has elements of that. It’s also influenced by a lot of ethnic cuisines I’ve learned about and love — a variety of Asian cuisines, my own heritage of Chinese food, plus places I’ve traveled to or researched such as Haiti, Nicaragua, and Nigeria. I like to say it’s eclectic and adventurous food with an elegant flair.
Tell me about the first ever Wednesdays.
It was in January of 2014. It was a “beta” meal — $30 for five courses plus cocktails and wine. It was a disaster in many ways — we didn’t even have romantic lighting! — but it was a crazy good learning lesson. Everyone we invited were our friends, so we received tons of valuable feedback and had a forgiving atmosphere to make mistakes in. I had a poached egg dish in the middle of the meal and was almost in tears because I didn’t know how to execute eight eggs at once. I also couldn’t really make pastry at that point, so I served tofu chocolate mousse (it’s not as gross as it sounds, I swear). It’s hilarious thinking about it now. We’ve grown so much!
What do you have coming up in the future?
Our next Wednesdays event will be on January 13th for 40 people in a beautiful space with lofted ceilings, a long lean bar, and an open chef’s kitchen. There will be a fair share of silly activities, and we’re working on maybe getting a drone involved! I also just launched a nonprofit studio and am planning for its first installation — VR meets immersive dining experience — so I’ll probably be focusing a lot on that.