Q&A: Jenny Dorsey of Studio ATAO

A conversation about tokenism in food media, the importance of disrupting it, and what food media might look like in the future.
Jenny Dorsey, an Asian woman, sits cross-legged on the counter of an empty kitchen and smiles.
Photo courtesy of Jenny Dorsey.

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This piece is a part of our series “The Food Media Reckoning” — a collection of reporting, essays, and criticism about the holes that still exist in food media — and what its future could look like when we look to its past. Read more here.

In the summer of 2020, Puerto Rican writer Illyanna Maisonet lambasted Bon Appetit magazine for rejecting a recipe on the grounds of it being — according to one editor — something that could “be published 5 years ago.” Tammie Teclemariam, a freelance food writer, tweeted a photo of the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief, Adam Rapaport, in brownface. 

The tweets were the spark that lit a bonfire: BA Test Kitchen chef Sohla El-Waylly exposed glaring pay inequality between the show’s chefs of color and its white ones, then departed, soon followed by several of her colleagues. Rapaport stepped down. 

All of this happened against the backdrop of broader conversations about how systemic racism shows itself in American newsrooms — not just those covering the business of food — and how media has caused harm to marginalized communities. Newsrooms sprinted to open new roles focused on race and equity, or shifted older roles to do so.

But even when well-intentioned, that runs the risk of making people of color — and their stories — tokens to indicate an organization is taking steps in the right direction. It’s not necessarily systemic change, and Studio ATAO (all together at once) sought not only to call out that industry pattern, but to move away from it. 

The nonprofit, started by Jenny Dorsey in 2018 as an outgrowth of a supper club in her apartment, aims to create publicly available resources and education in service of social justice while pushing leaders in the food, beverage, and hospitality industry to fight for systematic change in response to the needs of the most marginalized community members. 

In 2021, it published the Toolkit for Recognizing, Disrupting, and Preventing Tokenism in Food & Beverage Media, to be followed by the Toolkit for Implementing Systematic Changes Towards Equitable Representation in Media Companies

The Objective sat down with Dorsey to talk about tokenism, Studio ATAO’s toolkits, and what an ideal food media landscape might look like. 

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity. An abridged version appears in the print version of the food issue.

Tell me a little bit about Studio ATAO’s origin story and how that dovetails with your own journey with food. 

I started Studio ATAO in 2018 — we were more focused on doing dinner experiences, and also exploring social justice topics. So our main focus [then] was something called Asian in America, which was a six course dinner that explored different aspects of the Asian American identity. There was food, there was cocktails. There was also virtual reality, augmented reality, poetry, and spoken word. It was really kind of a manifestation of a lot of not only the cooking and writing that I’d been doing, but the self-reflection and thoughts around identity and how to express that through food. That was what we were primarily focused on in 2018, 2019. 

We were touring across the US to different cities and film festivals, and by the end of that, I was feeling pretty burned out. From the travel and just the incredible amount of logistics that it takes to do events like that, with that kind of detail, and in so many different places that were often not even outfitted with kitchens, but also [from] the frustration of seeing people who were gathering, you know, in good faith to discuss and engage in these topics, and I didn’t really feel like there was concrete action happening. And I don’t think we were even reaching the audience that needed to do the concrete action, right? Tickets were expensive, because everything is expensive … it was very difficult to appeal to an average person who’s actually working within the food industry that is really affected by a lot of issues in our industry, as opposed to people who might be adjacent to food or just interested in it. 

One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that the whole team had a chance to restart. I had some chance to just take some time off and think about what was the right next step. And so we really started refocusing on our research, as well as our education arm, and incorporating some of the community-building aspects that we knew, but virtually. Now we focus on three big verticals. One is research; we work on a two year cycle. We do research on various issues that we identify within the food and hospitality industry. 

From 2020 to 2022, we were pretty focused on equitable representation within food and beverage media. And then for this last year, we’ve been working on the intersection of hospitality and gentrification and what it means to be an equitable hospitality or small business owner, when so many places — basically, every neighborhood — is gentrifying within the U.S. We’re facing a huge housing issue, displacement, all of that, and we’re all kind of complicit in it … We’re all trying to think about how we can be more community-minded — invest in folks in the neighborhood and be the smallest part of the problem, and also try to combat the problem from the inside. That’s what we’ve been working on the research side. 

For education, we publish a lot of longer-form content. We’re working on launching our first-ever curriculum for the studio. That’s called Food Systems 101. It’s really meant to be a comprehensive food studies program that’s actually the first one designed for food professionals. Everything else is pretty much at a graduate level, if offered at all. Food studies isn’t really a thing you do in culinary school. We found that a lot of people who are working in the food industries just don’t have basic knowledge of things about food history, why there’s such oppressive systems within our food industry, and that’s a deliberate and very conscientious effort by the powers that be in order to keep people disenfranchised and uneducated. We really want to fight against that by creating education that’s going to be accessible for more folks. 

The last [vertical] is community-building and community organizing. We just launched a series of hospitality worker town halls that are all about bringing together hospitality workers on the ground in different cities, and learning from them what they want to see in terms of change in the workplace, and being able to filter that back up to management … while creating safe spaces where people are actually able to think through what they want in a cohort with like-minded peers. There’s no managers there. There’s no chance of you and your manager in the same room together. So we learned a lot from the first town hall in Chicago. And we’ll be continuing to do that this year. And we also have a Discord for people to connect virtually if they can’t come in person.

I’m sure you put a lot of time and work into building out all these verticals, especially since Studio ATAO initially was more event-focused. With regard to the education vertical, I know you have a wide variety of resources on your site about cultural appropriation and other structures. Why do you think it’s important to house those resources on the site?

I think it’s really important for people to have a place where they are getting in-depth — and hopefully, not so academic that they’re completely tuning out — resources on things like socialism and cultural appropriation that you often hear about in pop culture, or mainstream media, but [that] a lot of people are hesitant to admit that they actually don’t understand … the implications of … There’s coverage of it where people will click on the headline versus an academic paper or book around cultural appropriation, where unless you really care about the topic, you’re not going to read that. 

How do we bridge that gap so people have something a little bit more concrete to understand when it comes to things like, for example, respectability politics? A lot of the terms that we tend to tackle are the ones that people actually don’t, they don’t really know what they’re talking about when they say them. And as a result, it creates a lot of — not only useless conversations, where people are debating things they don’t understand, but also creates a lot of tension in the social justice community when we’re talking about something. And it’s totally alienating people. 

Since some folks are consuming various content, they might have a strong opinion about something, but they haven’t really, they don’t know enough backstory about it to kind of have critical analysis there. They’re just attaching themselves to one social justice perspective, from like a blog or an Instagram post that they read. And while of course, we would prefer most people agree with our own perspective, I think it’s more important that we’re encouraging people to develop critical analysis skills on their own. Anyway, that’s the point of having these longer-form primers, so hopefully, people have the context to develop their own thoughtful, intentional, critical thinking skills.

I know these longer-form primers on social justice terms also help contextualize the white papers you have on the Studio ATAO site, too. What goes into the planning and creation of the organization’s white papers? 

As I mentioned, we work on two-year cycles. The first six months of that is usually just planning, organizing, getting our resources ready, figuring out who we want to interview, what the right research methodology is. Does it make sense to do one-on-ones? Does it make sense to do focus groups? Does it make sense to do public events? And what are our goals for each different kind of research? What are the ways every type of research method is better for some things than others? Trying to match those appropriately is a big part of the planning phase. 

Then we get into actual execution. For our last initiative, The Neighborhood’s Table, we were doing one-on-one interviews, focus groups, as well as public events, to hear from folks [about] “What are the issues that you’re facing as a hospitality business owner when it comes to gentrification?” Asking residents what they were facing and what they were most frustrated by, or what they wanted to see change. We also did this nationwide survey that took about six to eight months of concentrated work. That was just gathering data, and then you have to tag the data and clean the data and do all the data organizing stuff.

Then there’s the writing part, which is actually the content we need to create, because it’s, of course, great to have more data. But if you can’t synthesize it in a way that’s helpful for people, nobody will read it. We’ve definitely received feedback that some of our initial toolkits were just so laborious to get through that people were, like, tuning out halfway. I know that for our first toolkit, because we were doing specifically [food] writing and we were mostly appealing to editors, editors have the appetite to read, so we got lucky. For a small business owner, they don’t want to read a 100-page document, so we had to be a little bit more creative on what to do. For our last toolkit, we actually housed it on our internal Notion page. There’s more emojis, the path to finding things [is] a little bit easier. So that’s all ongoing. 

Something we did for our first initiative on food media that we’d like to repeat for The Neighborhood’s Table is we also did this white paper process where we followed up with different food media organizations for the duration of a year, and really looked at how they were implementing recommendations from our toolkit and how that was working in real time. 

We’re not going to be here and be like, “Yeah, we have all the answers. If you just follow our document, all your troubles will go.” That’s definitely not the case, there are going to be random problems that come out, [and] I think we all know that you fix one thing, [then] a couple more problems magically pop up. How do we cultivate an era of transparency in our industry so that people or organizations feel that they can share some of their challenges, as well as their successes? How do we encourage more of that? Because everyone is struggling, and it’s just that it doesn’t look like it, because nobody’s talking about it. 

We’re really grateful for the two orgs that we were able to work with, The Kitchn, as well as Well + Good. They were very public with like, “Hey, we tried to do some stuff with diversity in hiring, and it was really stressful,” and “It was really difficult or too expensive to do this one thing.” So I think that created, I hope, a precedent of “DEI is an ongoing project. And we’re all working through it together.” 

In Studio ATAO’s first toolkit — which focuses on tokenism — you all use the word “disrupting” in the title. I’m really curious about that word choice. What led you all to focus on tokenism specifically as a big part of equitable representation and food media?

It’s funny — we did this initial salon in February 20, [2020], before COVID happened [to hit the U.S.]. So when it came out, it was at the height of the food media “reckoning.” But one of the things we had noticed was in their efforts to make places more diverse, it was all very performative. There wasn’t a lot of widely-known language on how to verbalize what was happening. I think if you asked freelancers, writers, editors –especially BIPOC ones – what was going on, they could tell you: “We didn’t suddenly see a problem that nobody else saw.” Everybody saw it, but there just wasn’t popular discourse around it a lot. 

We were seeing that as two issues. One, it was really perpetuating a different issue. That was the thinking behind: “How do we get this idea of tokenism more out into the mainstream, so when it’s happening to you or when it’s happening to someone else, it’s easier to say?” 

Robbing someone of the language is a very important part of oppression. That was one thing, then this idea of disrupting — we really want to push that change can’t happen in bits and pieces. It really has to be a systems change. And even if it tactically happens in bits and pieces, every bit and piece needs to be in concert with the rest of the system.

… We wanted a word that would evoke the sense of “pulling out the roots.” Pulling out a bigger structural issue, which was less so that one or two people might get tokenized, but [that] there wasn’t a lot of BIPOC [in food media] to start with, because there’s this idea of what the BIPOC employee should be, or what BIPOC food should look like. That was the big issue, as opposed to only “Tokenism gets people to come in and gets eyeballs.” 

Similarly, when people get up in arms about cultural appropriation — cultural appropriation is a natural byproduct of the oppressive systems that we live in. We can get mad at people for being appropriative. But until we address power dynamics, or understand why these dynamics tend to be, we can’t really do anything. Or maybe we can do something about it, but it’s a bandaid solution.

Since 2020, and since seeing organizations start to implement the toolkit, how have you seen food media change? Obviously it’s not going to be fixed in the span of two or three years, but I’m curious to hear what you’ve seen. 

I think the positives that I’ve seen are that people are starting to pay more attention to this question of who should be writing things.And recognizing that the writer is not a neutral party in anything that they’re presenting, because everything is being filtered through them. Being more cognizant of that is something that I have seen shift. Does that mean it’s completely eradicated tokenism? No, but I think that’s a good mentality shift. 

People have been putting a lot more effort in terms of hiring more diversely. I’d like to see that on an intersectional lens. But I think people are more keen to say, “We need to think about race or gender.” People are not really talking about a lot of other marginalized identities.

I would say, generally, there’s been more transparency. People are being more clear about their pitch guidelines. I think editors are being more clear about how they want to work with writers. I’ve heard some accounts of internal DEI apartments that have established various things that have been working for folks, whether that’s like safe space sessions or more like a regimented feedback process. There’s small things happening. 

But I think the big problem is that for the most part, [in] a lot of these big food media companies, the concentration of leadership hasn’t really changed. So a lot of white men at the top and some white women. And I’m not saying “All of them need to be fired, and we need new people.” But we’re still not seeing a huge amount of diversity change up at the top. Because a lot of times when you’re hiring for an executive, the pipeline is all white people, because of all the systemic privileges that they have accumulated over decades of their career. And you can’t just unravel that because you decided that you’re going to try and hire more diversely.

The big problem is that for the most part, in a lot of these big food media companies, the concentration of leadership hasn’t really changed. 

You’re still seeing this lopsided representation, even within newsrooms, and I think that’s an issue that can only be solved if you’re going to hire people and train them for these jobs, because you’re not going to find the magical unicorn that hits all your intersectional identities, and has all this newsroom experience, because they didn’t exist before and they won’t exist now. Somebody has to create that pipeline. I think that that’s going to be the big challenge.

There’s research that shows, especially for women, and definitely for BIPOC women, [that] they won’t apply for something unless they feel they meet 100 percent of the credentials. A lot of times, these job listings not only have just arbitrary things, like a bachelor’s degree, but also a lot of writing tests where you’re getting tested on things that you actually wouldn’t do in your job. You’re asking an entry-level associate editor, assistant editor: “Okay, you’re going to think of the next theme, and then you’re going to commission all the things.”  That’s three levels above their pay grade. Why do they need to be good at doing that? Then you’re testing people on the wrong things altogether. And of course, that’s inhibiting their chances of being able to get in the door and get the experience that they need.

How would you describe the reach of that first toolkit?

I would say pretty good. Because we had been able to successfully get a lot of editors into interviews and focus groups. They all shared within their networks and just because of the timing, people were like: “Oh, my God, Bon Appetit blew up, maybe we should do something about ourselves.” 

For example, Eater really signed on and they now make it a mandatory training for all of their staff to read that toolkit every single year, and look at their processes. That was really cool to see.

We’ve had these one-off conversations with other editors-in-chief and other senior-level folks of how they’re integrating the toolkit, and are working with the James Beard Foundation to spread the word within their network. So yeah, I think that reach has been great. But as we see with all things, especially when it comes to DEI work, with the long timeline that comes with implementation, it’s been very hard to keep those people engaged. So that’s kind of the uphill battle that we’re fighting now.

In an ideal world, what would food media look like to you? And how would it work with the food industry, or alongside it?

I think one of the things the media is dealing with, or grappling with, is: What is the real responsibility of the media? Is it to educate people? Is it to mobilize people? … I think media [workers and organizations] are finding themselves in that pinch of, they have to entertain people in order to have the reach, but they might not feel great about that, because they want to actually activate or educate people. How do you do that, and entertain people, and get your SEO up, and get your clicks up? And [get] all these traditional analytics that often drive revenue because most of [media] revenue is still based on ads.

In an ideal world, what I’d like to see food media doing is being the place that is going to encourage and inform those who are in food,adjacent to food, and interested in food; arm them with the prerequisite knowledge to have critical analysis around what is happening in the industry, and hopefully try to create some of the changes that they want to see. I just don’t think that food media actually thinks that’s necessarily their role. For example, you might have seen in recent news about Noma closing down and every single outlet has reported on it. And there is no critical analysis, I have seen no critical analysis.

Yeah. I remember this story from Eater where the headline was “You’re not going to be eating at Noma anyway,” which I think is one of the most critical stories I’ve seen. It’s true, because it’s a restaurant that, for so many reasons, is out of reach to so many people. 

Yeah. And also, why should I care [about Noma closing]? I was probably never going there. Why does this matter? Why didn’t someone report about how much it cost? Noma was like $500 per person. It wasn’t making a lot of money. It’s shocking that René [Redzepi, the co-owner of Noma] took this long to say they weren’t making money, [that] they had been losing money. 

If they had actually paid their staff, they would have been losing money every single year since they started. So it’s like, this is no surprise, but we’re championing this man as some sort of hero-savior for making this decision that should have been made 10 years ago. … They arguably shouldn’t have opened, this entire structure shouldn’t have been in place. And René is known to be hostile, and causing PTSD in his staff. What is then the responsibility of food media to constantly be creating this idealization of this man? Who many, many, many, many people have said, should not occupy that kind of spotlight, and occupy that role? 

This larger question of “Who is food media really reporting to or reporting for?”, I feel like most outlets haven’t really answered that question. Is it people in food? I think Eater kind of has that, like “We actually write for people who are in food.” But is it for people who are interested in food? Is it people who are rich and like food? What is actually the target audience? I think that would help clear some stuff up. 

Moving back to the curriculum that the studio is developing right now — how that’s going?

It’s the first curriculum that’s really specifically for food workers, and so it consists of eight different modules. We just completed Module One, and we’re working on Module Two right now. So the first module is a food history timeline. The big theme of the curriculum is “How do we not only educate food professionals on how the systems that they’re currently operating in came to be, but be really, really candid about the realities of the oppression and the very terrible things that have allowed the system to perpetuate all of these inequality, inequities?” 

Without sounding like a conspiracy theorist, it’s not an accident that these things aren’t in our regular curriculum. It’s not an accident that this isn’t being taught in culinary schools. All of this is being omitted for the intent of disenfranchising people and making them feel like they’re part of this system that they can never change. And I think that really has to start with education. And it has to start with worker-focused, worker perspective-led education, and a real focus on how BIPOC have really shaped food history. 

If you think about, “What is American food?”, what is American food, besides immigrant food, and indigenous food and Black food, right? … A  lot of people associate American food with canned goods. And that’s fair, that’s a lot of it. But do most people understand why we have so many canned goods? It’s all the military-industrial complex, and that directly relates to American history of imperialism abroad. Why did we have that imperialism? Because we were trying to command these new places so we can take their food and their spices and their people. 

What is American food, besides immigrant food, and indigenous food and Black food, right?

It’s all a big circle. So getting people to understand that first and foremost, and also making this a program that’s going to be accessible for folks, because most people don’t have the luxury of going to NYU Food Studies. One of the NYU Food Studies teachers is one of our advisors and he’s very much like, “Yeah, people who come into NYU, my students, they’re often not working in the field.”

It’s really important to actually get in front of the people who are working in the industry right now. That’s the big goal. We’re hoping to launch that by the end of the year. And we’re working on both a mobile native version as well as a desktop native version. Not everyone has time to sit in front of their desktop all the time. A lot of people, especially food workers, are [more easily] on their phones most of the day. So how do we create an experience that’s going to be accessible for them on their phones, too?

How are food service workers kind of influencing the direction of the curriculum or workers on the ground? 

The big thing is beta testing — making sure that as we create the content, every piece of it, we beta test with culinary school students, people that are currently working in the industry, and get detailed feedback. So it’s like, “This is too long, this is really boring. We don’t like this.” And then making sure to kind of the big takeaways that we want actually something that they remember. 

When we created the food history timeline, one of the big things we asked the beta testers was “What is the main narrative that you took away from it?” We didn’t tell them what we wanted to hear — obviously, we had something we wanted to hear. But hearing from them, it became readily obvious we weren’t getting that main narrative across. So then we went back to the drawing board of things that we need to remove, things that we need to add. Just making sure that we’re doing more participatory curriculum design, than creating in a vacuum. 

In the most successful iteration of the curriculum — however you want to define success — what would it look like?

When I think about who would be using the curriculum, for people who have decision-making power at their workplaces, I hope that this will influence the processes that they’re in charge of. We have engagement activities for each of the modules. And those are specifically tied towards things that people might actually do at their workplace. Perhaps it’s looking up the real cost of the supply chain for an ingredient, and then determining who the right vendor you want to use is, and maybe that’s not who they’re using right now. That could be something that they change. So that’s like one kind of trajectory of students.

For those who might not have as much decision making power, [it’s about] what are some ways that you can influence upwards? Not only giving them the vocabulary and the context, but also suggestions and ideas on how they can manage their managers … and also build collective power within other colleagues of theirs. One of the things we want to do as we launch the full curriculum is live cohort learning. So that people are learning with other people, they can bounce ideas off each other. Hopefully, also, if we can get this to a point in terms of volume, we can do [learning] by city, that we are doing the community organizing, capacity-building, getting people to have like brainstorms together, and then being able to carry them out and have the support of others while they’re navigating that process of change. So that’s kind of like long-term vision in terms of effecting change on the ground.

What are other hopes you have for Studio ATAO moving forward?

I think big dreams for Studio ATAO — I’d like us to expand more into influencing public policy. For now, we’ve been doing a lot of work within private organizations. And I think private-public partnerships have to happen in order to have systemic change, so I am in grad school as part of that reason, and also just thinking about: What does it mean, or where does it most fit for us to get involved on a public policy standpoint? Do we influence by trying to make connections with legislators? Do we influence by working with a bigger think tank? What does that look like? I think that’s like the big thing on the horizon that we would like to do in the next couple of years. But otherwise, yeah, I think that’s it. We’re excited to hopefully see more change in the food industry.

Janelle Salanga is the editorial director at The Objective. They’re based in Sacramento, CA.

This piece is edited and copy edited by Gabe Schneider.

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The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

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