People’s attitudes about food consumption span an incredibly large gamut. On one end of this spectrum, food is simply fuel that is ingested in order to keep us alive, energized and, hopefully, healthy. As we travel toward the other end of the spectrum, we encounter a myriad social, philosophical and artistic considerations about the institution of food consumption.
On Thursday, I attended a high-concept dining experience called Asian in America — an experience which included a stylized six-course meal with designer drinks, a poetic narrative about Asian-American identity and a virtual reality component — that fittingly took place at the Japanese American National Museum. It is safe to say that this meal tested the boundaries of experimental dining, and it passed that test in admirable fashion.
For now, this was a one-off event for L.A., but the experience has been enthralling minds and stomachs in various U.S. cities since chef Jenny Dorsey, founder of Studio ATAO, first presented it in 2018. I went in without knowing much more about the experience than what the press release had said: “Asian in America is a culinary-based storytelling experience that explores the complex narrative of the Asian American identity through food and drink, virtual reality, spoken word and poetry.
Over the course of the seated dinner, guests interact with both poetry and virtual reality creations that explain the symbolism behind the ingredients, cooking techniques and final plating of every dish. Each course tackles a different topic within the trials and triumphs of the Asian-American identity, from cultural hierarchies in the food system and the lack of individualism granted to minorities, to the internalization of the ‘white savior’ complex.”
Upon check-in, I met Matt Dorsey, Jenny’s husband and the mixologist behind all of the powerful, designer potions of the evening. Out of the three options for a starter beverage, and having revealed my alcoholic preferences, Matt recommended that I try the Saved by the Bell, which was comprised of vodka, green bell pepper juice, dill syrup and lime juice. The drink helped me start the evening properly with a bitter tinge that disguised the taste of the alcohol and finished with a refreshingly sweet aftertaste.
The museum was offering a free tour at the time, so I joined in and absorbed the horrific history behind the two current exhibits there: “Common Ground: The Heart of Community,” which employed historical documents and artifacts to tell the story of America’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and “Under a Mushroom Cloud: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Atomic Bomb,” which commemorates the 75th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and includes the display of artifacts which belonged to atomic bomb victims.
Come dinner time, guests took their seats at place settings including two postcard-sized documents, printed on very fine cardstock, and a VR set (with VR headset, headphones and a controller). We began our meal with a mighty powerful potion called the Eggs & Bananas. One of those fine cardstock documents had an artistic photo of the drink on one side, and on the other side it read the title: “egg (noun): a white person who acts ‘Asian’ / banana (noun): an Asian person who acts ‘white’ / Here is an egg’s cocktail take on the banana-inspired cheese tea / French oak aged bai jiu, fermented black bean & Sichuan peppercorn syrup, oolong tea, amaro Montenegro, salted whipped cream cheese lao gan ma chili oil.” I’m not going to pretend that I know what half of those ingredients are, but I can say with confidence that the drink kicked my teeth in.
The other card depicted our first food course. It read: “SUBSTITUTIONS / what of me is interchangeable? / I never did ask, but you told me anyway / individualism is a majority privilege / maybe it is you who cannot taste nuance / because my memories can / ‘BBQ pork’ (mesquite smoked jackfruit) / ‘chawanmushi’ (aerated egg with brie & shio koji) / ‘rendang’ (pork curry) / ‘dal’ (lentil crisp) / ‘som tum’ (pickled cucumber).” Ironically, it is difficult me to write in detail about these dishes. It is easy enough for me to say that Substitutions was eye-rollingly good, as were ALL of the evening’s dishes.
Prior to the meal, guests were sent questionnaires to ascertain dietary restrictions, and my fellow table guests — who just so happened to include Tyra Banks — had requested that their drinks be served sans alcohol. Thus, with a scientific control in place, there was not a single person at my table who did not utter various yummy sounds throughout the meal.
The presentation of the dishes alternated between having the dishes served with accompanying photographic cards (with poetry and ingredients on them) and having guests put on their VR gear and experience a fairly basic but charming 360° progression of illustrations. These were accompanied by Dorsey’s spoken word poetry about the dishes and the artistic, culinary, and cultural experiences and meditations that had inspired their creation.
I can say with some confidence that my favorite beverage of the evening was called “Skewer,” which included lamb fat washed brandy, charred garlic and chili pepper, kummel, Shaoxing wine, fennel syrup, and MSG ice. The bouquet of this drink was very sweet, it went down smoothly. It is harder to determine what my favorite dish was because they were all wonderful. However, if I had to decide, it would be a toss-up between the one called “Model Minority” and the one called “You Make Asian Food, Right?” I invite you to click the links to experience a 2-D version of the VR presentations that accompanied them.
The entire meal was highly satisfying in terms of taste, artistry, and cultural connection, and I don’t think anyone was still hungry at the end of the meal. That said, after Chef Dorsey and her team took a bow and thanked us for attending, we were all given small to-go boxes, each containing a delicious stuffed bun. The box included a colorful sticker and instructions to download the Studio ATAO app, which introduced yet another artistic component to the meal: AR (augmented reality). Once downloaded, the app enabled users to aim their phones at the sticker and see one final animated presentation, which they could do before, after, or during the time they chowed down on a dish that Dorsey had originally created for her dogs. The dish was called “Dog Food is a Necessity?”
Although there were membership deals available, the public price for this experience was $135. Considering the excellent quality of the food and drinks, the uniqueness of the experience, and the degrees of artistic and cultural layering, I’d say this was a great deal. After the meal was over, the Dorseys expressed their interest in returning to L.A. with this and / or other experiences produced by Studio ATAO. In the meantime, feel free to track their company’s movements at their website.