VR FOR CULTURE

Dining in 360° and what it means to be Asian in America.

The power of VR often lies in the completeness of the experience. Simply put on the headset and enter a fully enclosed, designed and controlled world. But for a chef with Jenny Dorsey’s concerns, that isn’t enough. Her new exhibition and dining experience, Asian In America, is a six-course, multi-sensory exploration of Asian-American identity. For Dorsey, “food is visceral, intertwined with emotion,” and when coupled with other media, it can be elevated into a storytelling tool.

The night begins with a beverage called “Eggs & Bananas,” Dorsey’s take on harmful stereotypes given to people who may identify with, or act more in accordance with, a race outside of their own. (Both eggs and bananas are different colors on the inside than they are on the outside.) Each of the courses that follow contemplates a different topic within the Asian-American narrative. Perhaps the most striking is a dish centered within an edible maze of chrysanthemum purée, which Dorsey uses to illustrate the confusion and disorientation of having to navigate two cultures, often simultaneously. Inside VR, these dishes become stories, unfolding as Tilt Brush animations walk diners through the larger meanings of ingredients as well as the cooking and plating process for each dish. In course two, Dorsey explains how the black sesame of the fresh pasta is an ode to her grandpa, complemented with dark rye reminiscent of her favorite Jewish deli. In course four, titled “Model Minority,” Dorsey uses offals — in this case veal sweetbreads — to draw parallels to the minority experience. She explains in the audio narration that offals, like minorities, are frequently dismissed at first, but given a chance gain acceptance by presenting themselves in a particular way. “I want people to realize the extent of what they don’t know. To listen and open up,” says Dorsey.

For Dorsey, VR is “a place of safety,” where introspection, understanding and empathy can happen. Her questions are rooted in personal experience, like when career counselors at culinary school looked at her and said, “You want to make Asian food, right?” Or when commonplace ingredients she grew up with, like chrysanthemum and celtuce, found their way into trendy restaurants, presented as new ideas by non-Asian chefs. That frustration of seeing a culture — her own culture — being ignored and misunderstood, then suddenly being “discovered” and misunderstood all over again, is at the center of Asian in America.

As Dorsey writes:
In the end,
being asian american is a maze,
a question about a hyphen,
a contradiction
all bound tightly together in a feeling
of growing up somewhere but never belonging.

Issues of identity are often complicated because they struggle to resist simple categorization. First-generation immigrants like Dorsey are buffeted by the assumptions and expectations of others, a life lived between two worlds. In VR, Chef Dorsey is bringing guests into that middle space, where they can experience alongside her what it feels like to be Asian in America.