Jenny Dorsey is always moving. Her hands wave enthusiastically, physically punctuating and highlighting her short and succinct sentences. A tiny but loud whirlwind, she bustles in and out of the dining room as lunch is being prepared. Everyone — two dogs, Jenny’s husband, and myself — scatters as she blazes by with a rack of lamb rubbed in leek ash, ready to be plated. Bite-sized, gently smoked cubes are tenderly placed on a cloud of sweet corn puree. Young pea vines nestle in alongside thinly-sliced cones of watermelon radish, and a hint of crisp is added with a well placed fried maitake mushroom. Fennel seed-scented jus is luxuriously poured over the dish as a finale, accenting the juicy tenderness of the lamb.
Seated at the foot of her long farm-style table, I wonder if all of Jenny’s supperclubs are this exciting to watch. “No,” she informs me. Patrons in her dining room are entertained by her husband Matt (mixologist and maître d’) while she cooks, plates, and sweats in the kitchen. Food is her communication, and it always dominates the conversation.
For chef Jenny Dorsey, founder of the New York/San Francisco supperclub I Forgot It’s Wednesday (IFIW), connection is the central theme of both her business and her craft. Serving small groups of no more than 10 people, Jenny and Matt use name tags, seat switches, and interesting cocktail pairings to encourage guests to mingle and engage in conversation. Unusual ingredients like perilla leaves, ngo om, and tea-flavored tofu stimulate thinking and bring new flavors to audiences in an approachable way. For example, duck is served with an earl grey & sichuan peppercorn rub, two flavors from vastly different cuisines that are rarely seen together. Her cool take on a Beef Wellington replaces mushroom duxelle with a blend of chinese sausage and shiitake.
“We’re striving to not just be this trendy place where you can Instagram your food,” Jenny says emphatically. “It’s a place where people can come and be totally immersed in a new experience and actually have an opportunity to interact with each other and not just make small talk. It’s about finding people you can connect with.”
Authenticity was not something Jenny often experienced in corporate America. Having studied at Columbia Business School and worked in management consulting, Jenny lived in a bubble in which she often felt that work, money, and social status defined the identities of herself and the people around her. “I never ate,” she recalls. “I hated my body, I hated food, I hated everything. I was just a humongous hater and so angry all the time.”
Eschewing the social obligations of her cohorts, Jenny instead began taking culinary classes, a hobby which quickly tapped into a vibrant creative well. “Through cooking I was able to find different things that I cared about and enjoyed; I was able to cook through my feelings,” she says. Whereas the business world made her feel insecure and isolated, cooking allowed Jenny to experience real teamwork in a kitchen, learn how to ask for help, and feel pride in creating food that brought joy to others. “It was a very special way of realizing parts of my personality that I had never been able to before.”
Jenny brings an intellectual energy and curiosity to her cooking. Her excitement is fueled by the creative problem solving that goes into making and discovering new dishes. Interesting ingredients, meals, and inspirations she encounters in daily life are obsessively recorded and then studied to create new recipes for IFIW. “I can regurgitate every single New American menu in New York right now and it’s so boring,” she says. ”It doesn’t make you think, it doesn’t make you consider an ingredient and wonder — oh, why did you do that?” Instead of following the crowd or latest trend, Jenny strives to design recipes that stimulate curiosity and encourage patrons to explore cuisines outside of their comfort zones. Uncommon ingredient pairings such as duck confit wrapped in betel leaves or fish with tea-smoked yogurt are central to a new menu she’s developing for her larger pop-up events. “I’d never had anything like that before unit I visited Vietnam,” she remembers, “I could only think, how do I make that more interesting to the American palate?”
Jenny’s business is small, but her talent and good taste have been featured in publications such as San Francisco’s 7x7 magazine and media outlets Oxygen Network and Eventbrite. She has recently joined the team at NYC’s two-Michelin star restaurant, Atera, and is preparing to reopen IFIW’s doors in NYC in January 2016. With little desire to expand, Jenny continues to run IFIW as a creative outlet, a true form of expression and an avenue to connect with herself and others. “I don’t want [IFIW] to turn into an operation where I’m just hustling out food,” she says. “I like being able to create, to transform a nebulous thought into a dish.”
On a recent trip to Big Sur, Jenny was inspired by the tidal pools and tiny crabs of the beautiful California coast. The resulting dish is a visual interpretation of the region: poached fish with shiitake consomme represent marine life. Smoked squid ink potatoes and “edible sand” are the rocks, and a tiny crab cracker garnishes the scene. Looking down on the dish from above, one “sees” the tidal pool through Jenny’s eyes, turning the dish into a truly multi-sensory experience. “When someone eats [my dish] and understands what I was thinking when I made it, that’s a very specific form of communication,” Jenny says. Then with finality, “That’s the career I want to have.”
How would you describe your personal style? Plating style?
JENNY: I’m working towards melding my personal style so I’m the same person in and out of work. My personal style is very opinionated — no bullshit, very direct. At the same time, I’m also a harmonizer. I want everyone to be happy and I try to look for the altruistic sides of people. I’d like to think that i'm very free spirited.
I would say my plating style is all over the place, like a hot mess that has an advanced degree! It’s free flowing, a little weird, and unconventional. Not intentionally messy, but not strictly organized.
What other creative projects are you working on?
JENNY: I started doing pottery a few months ago. I’m definitely a beginner but I'm making really good strides in terms of being able to make custom plates for my food. I’d like to be at a place where I can serve custom plates with custom food at all the supperclubs, for every single course.
One thing I'm working on right now is this beer can chicken dish that I’m really trying to do. I would take all these different types of chicken cuts — chicken heart, chicken leg, chicken skin — and brine them in different types of beer. I made cups in pottery that I'm going to paint so they look like those vintage beer cans. Then I’m going to put all the chicken in the beer cans and serve.
Ideal reaction from a guest?
JENNY: My idea reaction from a guest would be something along the lines of — “That was really interesting, I can really see where your inspiration came from.” Or “I’ve never had X served in Y way before, and it made me really wanna try X again.” For example, at the event I served beef tongue and all the guests were like, “Oh this is great! I’ve never had beef tongue before, I want order it again. I’m gonna go to the Korean BBQ restaurant that serves this and order it.” That’s a perfect reaction.
JENNY: I would like to leverage IFIW as a brand in the long term. Matt and I are also thinking of starting up a wine shop. I'd like to use IFIW as a creative outlet and continue to pursue other creative routes. I don’t think I'd ever want to turn it into a full time restaurant because then it takes the joy away. However, I don’t mind having another full time business — I really want to keep IFIW as my special creative outlet. I would love if it were a very profitable one but mostly i just want it to be my own.