Chef Jenny Dorsey sits up in the middle of her acupuncture session in early 2017 with a thought she’s never had before: I should pair augmented and virtual reality with my work in food. Not interested in starting a restaurant, she was searching for the next step in her culinary career. Working with computer-generated images and 3D simulations hadn’t previously come to mind; probably because augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) were almost entirely foreign to her. After her epiphany, Dorsey started learning as much as she could via informational interviews and scouring the internet for news. “The beauty of AR and VR is that it’s an emerging tech, so the people who are in it are very, very into it,” Dorsey tells me over the phone. The tech alone doesn’t interest her; it must pair with a higher purpose, such as personal transformation or just allowing people to stop and think.
Bringing engagement and augmented reality to dinner
In 2014 Dorsey starts an experimental pop-up dinner series called Wednesdays. At first, she wants to get people to experience that fine food can be fun (as the tagline states). “But then, I had to ask: what good is this doing? Now the dinners are about engaging people,” Dorsey says. Which doesn’t happen naturally, she points out. “You can’t just stick a bunch of people around a table and say, ‘Look a community has been built,’ that’s bullshit." One way she safeguards against superficiality is requiring potential dinner guests to answer questions that test the level of vulnerability they’re willing to reach. Questions such as: What is your biggest failure and how has it changed you? Are you in the career you want? Not exactly what one would lead with at a dinner party, but Dorsey isn’t going for polite, and she puts the responsibility on herself. “If you want other people to be vulnerable, you have to be vulnerable yourself first,” Dorsey says. “I ask myself: If you're not going to show yourself honestly in front of all these strangers, how can you expect them to show themselves honestly in front of everyone at the table?”
A branch off of the dinner series is Dorsey’s handmade ceramics line that she’s expanding to include augmented reality. Dorsey is working with an AR developer to integrate 3D visuals into her plates, hoping to launch later this year. One example is a dish called “That’s Disgusting.” The dish is different ingredients and preparation styles that American culture has deemed gross. The plate itself is white clay with a chinaware inspired design. The AR component is that after hovering over the dish, audio plays voices from different backgrounds sharing what they’ve been told is disgusting in their food culture. Another AR plate in progress is an off-white plate splattered with dark paint. The paint will appear in mid-air around the food (a relatively straightforward idea compared with Dorsey’s others.) “I’d rather be a little more interactive or interesting – but not cheesy,” she says. One idea Dorsey rattles off is a plate with an edible cage and ashes, and then an animated Phoenix rising out of it. “Something fun and beautiful.” She finds many similarities between cooking and ceramics and likes how it affords her the ability to enhance her guest’s experience further. “I’d love to be able to serve all the food for all my dinners on my plates so that it’s a very custom feel,” Dorsey says. “It became a necessity thing, too. If I’m good at ceramics, then I can also offer this custom experience but not at a crazy price point.”
As an experiment, for a dinner earlier this year, Dorsey named each of her seven courses. Laughing, she says some of the names were “stupid,” but they were all meant to get people talking. One was called “You make Asian food, right?” The dish was Shiro miso cavatelli with thai naem sausage, charred savoy cabbage, and romesco foam. "This came from basically every person saying to me, ‘Hey, what type of food do you make? Asian right?’” The point is to show a dish with many Asian components that, ultimately, doesn’t fit neatly into a category. “Just like many other Asian American chefs and me trying to pave their own way,” Dorsey says. Another dish was named “Respectful tourism is hard” inspired by Dorsey’s experience coming back from a trip to Nicaragua and wanting to pay homage to the food culture there without making any assumptions. She made a lengua roulade with mondongo stew "sauce," pickled okra, mustard greens, roasted celtuce, and garlic scape. “It’s difficult to walk that line, so let’s talk about it using the dish,” Dorsey says. “This dish is meant to be inspired by what they make in Nicaragua, but I’m not an expert on it, and maybe it doesn’t taste right to the Nicaraguan whose sitting there. How do we interact and talk about that?” This question can be hard to answer, but complex issues are Dorsey's favorite. “I would like to think that my work encourages talking about bigger things or bigger emotions that people don’t like to express or are sometimes afraid to express, and use food as a way to draw that out," she says. "Essentially, use food as this way of making people uncomfortable enough to think about these things.”
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