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Ed. Magazine


Jenny Dorsey wants to educate people about her passion: food
Jenny Dorsey
Jenny Dorsey in the kitchen at Pagu, a Japanese tapas restaurant in Cambridge, owned by friend and fellow chef Tracy Chang
Photo: Matt Kalinowski

Jenny Dorsey is a bit of an anomaly at the Ed School. She’s never been a teacher or superintendent. She’s not interested in working at the Department of Education or at an edtech startup. She’s interested in food.

And she’s interested in educating others about food.

As she wrote in her Harvard statement of intent, “Food tells us where to belong. At least, I know it did for me. As a first generation Chinese American, how I learned my place in the world in relationship to food: where I sat at the dinner table; who I could linger with during lunch at school; what flavors, textures, and appearances of food were acceptable and ‘good’ — and in contrast, which ones were ‘foreign’ or ‘different,’ like me.”

“Disgusting,” something she heard often from her classmates in the cafeteria, is a word she still feels “crawling” up her spine, she says, “hissed by others when I unscrewed my hot thermos. … Like so many other immigrant children, the task of eating at school every day played out as a battleground.”

This is partly why Dorsey, who went on to culinary school and competed on the Food Network three times — once on Chopped, once on Cutthroat Kitchen, and another time on Beat Bobby Flay, where she did beat Flay — decided to spend a year studying at the Ed School.

“I believe it’s critical to build a different food education that challenges the notion that our relationship with food is just one of physical need,” she says, explaining her reason for getting her master’s in education. “Take a close look at how we eat, and it reveals hidden parts of who we are: what people we are apt to judge, what skills we tend to deem valuable, what narratives we are committed to believing. Yet right now, we are repeatedly inhibiting the next generation’s capacity to understand the very foundation of our society by not integrating the role of food history and politics into our education systems.”

This is where Studio ATAO comes in. Dorsey started the nonprofit, which stands for “all together at once,” to help educate people about the food, beverage, and hospitality industry through programming and research initiatives such as the one focused on equitable representation in food and beverage media. Studio ATAO’s main offering is Food Systems 101, a curriculum made up of seven modules that will be accessible online next year. (Culinary students are currently testing it.)

Dorsey is hoping the curriculum, a crash course into how food systems developed and continue to work, will not only educate people studying these important issues, but will also reach those actually working in the industry. It’s not enough, she says, to have only “food academics” paying attention. Discussions need to reach people actually growing the grapes and waiting on tables who may not realize how the food system that controls their lives has grown to be where it is today.

“Fundamentally, education is an important part of making sure people feel empowered to do something,” she says. “Having worked in the food industry, a lot of people do feel a sense of powerlessness. I don’t want to ascribe that all to education, but a lot of it is, if you don’t understand how restaurants are the way they are, how are you supposed to change them?”

Her goal this year as a student at the Ed School is to expand on the work she’s doing at Studio ATAO and around food justice.

“I’d like to learn a lot more about effective curriculum design, student engagement, and especially adult development patterns,” she says. “In particular, I’m interested in how to support adults in unlearning problematic, internalized, socialized narratives and build capacity towards individual and collective change.”

Learn about Studio ATAO:

Check out one of Dorsey’s favorite recipes.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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