If Standing Up To Restaurant Bro Culture Makes You ‘A Real Bitch,’ Food-World Rock Star Jen Agg Says Bring It On

With I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, a juicy new memoir about being a boss in a macho business, the Toronto restaurateur reclaims the b-word.

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Restaurateur Jen Agg at Grey Gardens in Toronto

Photo, Renée Rodenkirchen. Hair and makeup, Robert Weir. Styling, Erinn Stewart. COACH Jacket, $700, nordstrom.com. ACNE top, $410, nordstrom.com. Jeans, $218, fidelitydenim.com.

I Hear She’s a Real Bitch. That’s the title of a new memoir by Jen Agg, one of Canada’s most influential restaurateurs and the hospitality industry’s foremost feminist firebrand. The book title’s B-word is sure to get a lot of attention, but the “I hear she’s . . . ” part is equally important — because Agg is someone people talk about.

I first heard about her back in the late aughts. I worked for a Toronto magazine, and I was editing a story about the most powerful people in the city. Part of the feature was a scavenger hunt, in which I asked local movers and shakers to take on a series of challenges to prove their influence. Among the tasks: scoring a Saturday night table at the Black Hoof, Agg’s first and most lauded restaurant, which famously doesn’t take reservations and draws hours-long wait times for its beef tongue, bone marrow and expertly mixed cocktails.

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Participants came back with Raptors tickets and out-of-print books, but not one could wield his or her power over Agg, who refused to bend her no-resos policy for anyone. She’s even made Justin Timberlake wait for a table (presumably the last time he’s waited in line for anything), as well as food-world rock stars Gordon Ramsay and Daniel Boulud, who queued before lavishing praise on the little restaurant that made Toronto a major player on the global culinary map.

Even if you’ve never eaten in one of Agg’s restaurants, you’ve likely felt her influence on contemporary Canadian restaurant culture. In 2008, just as the financial crisis was calling time on white-tablecloth-style fine dining and hipsterism was exploding into the mainstream, she and her then business partner Grant van Gameren opened the Black Hoof, an artisanal charcuterie and cocktail spot that feels a lot like your favourite dive bar: Servers wear band T-shirts, indie rock blares from the speakers, and the decor consists of little more than Christmas lights and a slapdash chalkboard.

That high-low formula (pricey food, mostly meat, plus a loud, shoestring room) redefined what a restaurant could be and sparked dozens of copycats across the country. Van Gameren was the whiz behind the offal and foie gras, but it was Agg who nurtured the restaurant’s more ineffable currency: cool factor. (The two split acrimoniously in 2011, when Agg bought him out. On the Toronto foodie scene, the breakup was bigger than Brangelina.)

Now 41, Agg has expanded her empire to five establishments, including Agrikol in Montreal, which she opened last year with two members of the band, Arcade Fire, and Grey Gardens, a more polished spot in Toronto’s Kensington Market, launched this February. Her success is unique because, aside from her partnership with Arcade Fire, she bankrolls her own projects. (Most owners of multiple restaurants are backed by the big money of entertainment groups.)

And also because she is a woman in an industry that is mostly run by men and that is permeated by a culture of chest thumping, my-knife-is-bigger-than-your-knife masculinity that informs all aspects — who enters, who succeeds and how those who fight back against it are perceived.

Restaurateur Jen Agg

Photo, Renée Rodenkirchen. Jacket, $680, ca.allsaints.com. Helmut Lang top, $520, saksfifthavenue.com. Jeans, $198, fidelitydenim.com.

Agg’s experience as both a key player and a ferocious critic of the bro-dominated restaurant world is the focus of her new memoir, a mash-up of personal narrative, female-empowerment tome and survival guide for women in hospitality (it’s out this May in Canada and this fall in the US). The provocative title was — no surprise — her idea. It’s a joke and a wink and, for Agg, an opportunity to reclaim a word she says people have been disparaging her with for her entire life.

Agg was born in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where her earliest memories include jumping off things that she wasn’t supposed to. In a high school journal dated September 8, 1992, she complains about her first day of grade 12: in particular, the “mindless chatter” between two girls who are talking about their tans and what they did over the summer. Seventeen-year-old Agg writes: “Does anyone give a sh-t about Mandy’s summer? I sure as hell don’t. Now does being honest make me a bitch? That’s the real question.” Twenty-five years later, the question still hangs.

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Her first job in restaurants was as a server and then a bartender at Toby’s Bar and Grill in Toronto, where she says she learned how to make “every shot known to every college kid” and how to handle the realities of the gig — at 18, Agg filed a police report about a regular who had a habit of masturbating under the bar while she served him.

In her early 20s, she married her “starter husband,” Tyler Taverner, and the pair opened Cobalt, a clubhouse for Toronto’s cool kids, in the late ’90s. (Agg split from Taverner in 2004 and married her current husband, a Haitian artist named Roland Jean, the next year. When she talks and tweets about their love — which she does a lot — she sounds like a cross between a teenager doodling on a binder and an 18th-century Romantic: “Roland and I are arguing about who loves the other more and we’ve been together TWELVE YEARS and anyway love is nice”).

Long before Mad Men fever brought about a retro renaissance, Agg was an advocate of boozy, old-school cocktails and a critic of the fruity, “girly” drinks that were popular at the time. In a story in the Globe and Mail, she dismissed customers who dared to order a cosmo. This was the peak of Sex and the City everything, so crying foul on the fave drink of the fab four bordered on female treason.

Agg has never worked with a publicist — she’s never needed to. In 2011, the media wrote about an industry “vodka backlash,” spurred by her aptly titled manifesto, “Vodka Is Stupid,” which she posted on the Hoof’s website. When activists fired up a debate over horse meat in Canada, she declared that people who complain about restaurants serving horse but who still eat burgers can “just f–k off.”

I hear she's a real bitch by Jen Agg

Jen Agg’s memoir hits shelves in May. Photo, Jenna Marie Wakani, courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada.

Arguably, she took the extreme ’tude thing too far in the spring of 2013, when she tweeted from her restaurant: “Dear (almost) everyone in here right now. Please, please stop being such a douche.” She was kidding — kind of. She appeared on The National to explain her position: 1) Patrons who behave like com- plete jerks deserve to be called out. 2) Can’t anybody take a joke? 3) Nobody would be making such a big deal about this if she were a man. By bringing her gender into the conversation, Agg was entering a new arena — one that was a lot more contentious than Don Draper vs. Carrie Bradshaw.

In the fall of 2014 , when Jian Ghomeshi was fired from CBC, Agg was among the first on Twitter to condemn the former radio host and support the women who came out against him. Then, in the summer of 2015, Kate Burnham, a pastry chef at the Toronto restaurant Weslodge, filed a sexual harassment complaint against three male superiors, alleging that she had been subject to all kinds of verbal, emotional and physical abuse.

For Agg, this was the catalyst she needed to start a larger conversation about the culture of misogyny that rules kitchens across the country and beyond. In an op-ed for the New York Times, titled “Sexism in the Kitchen,” she called out the “chaotic environment of accepted abuse and harassment, supported by an understood code of silence.”

Women who have worked in restaurants undoubtedly know what Agg is taking about. According to a poll by the American non-profit research firm Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, 50 per cent of women who work in the industry have experienced “scary or unwanted sexual behaviour.” There are plenty of industries where sexism is still the norm, but rarely is it as overt as in restaurants.

It took until this year, for example, for many Canadian franchises, including Earls, the Keg and Cactus Club Cafe, to adjust dress codes so Ontario servers no longer have to wear sexy outfits, like skin-tight dresses and foot-destroying high heels. And they did so only after the province’s Human Rights Commission flagged the requirement as a violation.

Behind the scenes, the industry has long celebrated hot tempers, high performance and an ends- justify-the-means mentality. Those who can’t take the heat (i.e., harassment and intimidation) are told they should get out of the kitchen. Burnham — who was allegedly subjected to name-calling, breast grabbing and having hollandaise sauce spurted in her face to simulate ejaculation — eventually left the industry after settling her complaint.

As a woman in a male kitchen, I put up with abuse to fit inAs a woman in a male kitchen, I put up with abuse to fit in

Her case inspired Agg to organize a conference called “Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time.” The event featured guest speakers, including prominent female chefs, and panel discussions on sexism in hospitality (as well as lots of food and drink and a late-night dance party). Hugh Acheson, the Ottawa-born Top Chef judge, was the only high-profile male chef to get behind Agg, who vented openly about the lack of support she was receiving from men in the industry.

Acheson appeared on a panel of restaurateurs, telling the standing-room-only crowd, “The fact that we’re here tonight talking about [sexism in the industry] is progress.” To cap off the event, Agg got onstage and literally smashed a plate. Looking back, Acheson describes the conference as a positive experience but, he says, “there was a little too much vehemence, and I understand that; I just don’t think it’s the way we make progress.” To Agg, though, the night was really about throwing down a gauntlet, challenging men and women in the industry to speak out against the status quo.

Kristin Cochrane is the president and publisher of Penguin Random House Canada (which is releasing I Hear She’s a Real Bitch) and the most powerful person in Canadian publishing. She first met Agg a few years ago, when she came into Cocktail Bar (Agg’s speakeasy-inspired bar across the street from the Black Hoof) with a mutual friend. Agg brought over some wine; hours later, the friend had gone home and the two women were still talking. “With Jen, there is no casual conversation. Within 15 minutes, we were into the deep stuff,” Cochrane recalls, adding that she can count on one hand the number of times she has told someone they should write a book after a first meeting. Agg is one of them.

The fact that Penguin picked up the book for the American market suggests that Cochrane was correct about Agg’s appeal: It extends far beyond those who follow Toronto restaurants. At the time of their initial meeting, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was still burning up the bestseller lists, and in Agg, Cochrane heard an important voice on female leadership. “Jen doesn’t have to be told to ‘lean in.’ She’s just naturally at that table.”

Jen Agg at her new Toronto restaurant Grey Gardens

Photo, Renée Rodenkirchen.

If there’s a difference between leaning in and courting controversy, Agg doesn’t see it that way. When we meet at Grey Gardens, a couple of weeks after opening night, I ask her about whether she can appreciate that her brand of always-on-duty comes across like, well, a lot. She says that she is relentless because the problem she is fighting is relentless — and then she pauses to tweet the same sentiment.

We chat about the esthetic of Grey Gardens, which she describes as clean-lined modernity meets urban decay. I tell her that I associate seafoam green, her signature hue, which accents the walls and the furnishings, with ’80s prom tuxedos, and her response is typically measured: “That’s because you’re the devil and you don’t understand.” Agg art-directed the cover of her book, which is not the norm for a first-time author, but for her it was a deal breaker. “There was no way for me to write the book without being really controlling — but in a fun way,” she says, laughing at her own Jen Agg-yness.

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She is, for the record, really fun — she watches trash TV (Buffy the Vampire Slayer during workouts) and considers ketchup chips an essential food group. She can be vulnerable when she talks about her parents (her mom died of kidney failure and her dad has Alzheimer’s). And she has a mother hen quality that seems at odds with the fiery woman on the internet. “I don’t know that Jen’s kindness comes across on Twitter,” says Cochrane. “I don’t know that it needs to.”

Agg gets annoyed when people describe her as outspoken, which a lot of people do. She feels that it’s another form of subtle sexism, and that’s certainly fair, since the way that our society responds to loud, opinionated, “nasty” women speaks to an outdated and limiting view of the way we should behave. Equally certain: Jen Agg is outspoken — compared to most men, compared to most women, compared to the love child of Ann Coulter and Kanye West. And this can put people off. “Jen’s biggest issue is that, to Jen, Jen is always right,” says Acheson. “She doesn’t take criticism. It’s kind of like talking to a very loud wall. And it’s a loud wall that I like a lot, but it’s not really open to any other perspective.”

Whether this makes her a modern-day Jen of Arc, her own worst “Jenemy” (as the Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic once said), a boss or a bitch is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, and maybe also beside the point. Spending time with her, I am reminded of a great anecdote Tina Fey shares in her memoir Bossypants about when Amy Poehler was new to the Saturday Night Live cast, and one of the male performers didn’t like a bit she was trying because, he said, “it’s not cute.” Poehler’s response was that she didn’t f–king care if he liked it because she wasn’t there for him to approve or disapprove of.

Similarly, while readers, critics and culinary-scene watchers mull over whether Agg is or isn’t a bitch, she will keep railing against the system that allows for such a misogynistic question to determine anyone’s worth. In her book, she says if “restaurateur” is on her gravestone, she will have “woefully f–ked up her 40s.” Her goal is to be an inspiration for those who need it: “I hope that women, especially young women, can see that there’s a different way to live and that you don’t have to lie down and you can push for what you want.” Agg plans to keep doing exactly that.

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