Jen Agg Thinks Male Chefs Are 'Glorified as Egomaniacs'
via. Penguin Random House


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Jen Agg Thinks Male Chefs Are 'Glorified as Egomaniacs'

With her new memoir “I Hear She’s a Real Bitch,” Agg gets the chance to tell her own story of success in the male-dominated restaurant industry.

When I first walked into Jen Agg's cocktail and snack lounge Cocktail Bar, right before our interview began and with a full day of press before her, Agg was getting her makeup done. Outside of her restaurant, a truck slammed into the back of a car. While everyone in the room looked on in shock, without hesitation Agg ran out and called 911. Nobody was seriously injured, and she quickly came back inside as though nothing happened while most of us remained frozen in place. If you're even remotely familiar with the Toronto dining scene, you've heard of Agg. As the co-owner of Toronto 'It' restaurants like The Black Hoof, Rhum Corner, Cocktail Bar, and her latest spot Grey Gardens, Agg is credited for launching the casual fine dining culture we see all over the city. Agg's ascent didn't happen overnight—she's a self-made business woman having slowly built her empire with decades of experience in the restaurant industry. Writing frankly about her life and career in her new memoir I Hear She's a Real Bitch, Agg catalogues not only what it's like to literally start from the bottom and rise to the top, but more importantly—what it's like to do so as a woman in a male-dominated industry. Simply looking at a list of Canada's top restaurants one thing is certain—almost all are helmed by men. As her popularity increased since the late 2000s, press surrounding Agg has usually been heavily focused on her "outspoken" social media presence. One recent Toronto Life review of Grey Gardens referred to a 2013 tweet in which she calls for her patrons to stop being douches as one instance that cemented her "meanie reputation." Meeting her one afternoon at Cocktail Bar, she tells me she's always spoken her mind—even when told it'd be better not to. While the word "mean" gets thrown around liberally in profiles of Agg (a recent Globe and Mail feature suggested people did not want to talk about her publicly because they were scared of her) I found it hard to see what people saying when meeting her in person on her own turf.


"Near the [height of the] Hoof's intensity, I wrote a piece for a local magazine about how people saw me. The editor responded with as much politeness as possible saying, 'I'm not really sure if this is a good idea for the magazine, but also if this is good for the Jen Agg brand." And if her memoir is any proof, that only fueled the fire for her to speak out more on the sexism she's endured throughout her career. The title of her book itself is a tongue-in-cheek way of referring to how people perceive her. When asked if she still experiences sexism, even with her outrageous success she says yes and that she won't back down from speaking out. "You just keep stepping forward and stepping through the muck and fire. You bounce back." Most criticism of Agg leans on the fact that she lets people know exactly what she feels about the restaurant industry (that it's a boy's club that needs to be disrupted). Post Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, the public has grown to know and love chefs and restaurateurs as angry men who love to swear and tell it like it is. For men in the restaurant industry, it's a virtuous quality to be edgy and unapproachable. In another recent Globe and Mail profile, her former Black Hoof restaurant partner Grant van Gameren (arguably Toronto's second biggest restaurateur) suggests, "Maybe the reason why Jen doesn't get the respect she wants because she's too much of a bully." (Her memoir alleges that her and van Gameren's split had more to do with an "unpleasant" and "emotionally abusive" culture). Other sources in the same story say, "She is everything loathsome about the new Toronto." In previously mentioned Toronto Life review of Grey Gardens, the author suggested the pleasant atmosphere was likely because she was in the Caribbean and not at her restaurant. While it's easy to simply call Agg a "bully" or "mean" speaking with her myself and reading her book, it dawns on me that maybe all the negative press she gets for her personality has more to do with having to stand on her own as a woman in a profession where men get to be brash and women are expected to smile.

"I'm very conscious when I'm at Grey Gardens or the Hoof because when women don't smile enough it reads as bitch."

If you're already familiar with her as a restaurateur, you also know Agg is a vocal feminist. "I've always been like this since I was a kid, and it took a while for people to catch up," Agg tells me when asked about whether or not she felt the need to speak on behalf of marginalized groups in her industry. "It's part of the culture—they're glorified as egomaniacs," Agg tells me. "I think I may be judged by a different standard than men are." For example, Agg tells me about how Jake Skakun, manager and sommelier at Grey Gardens, is one of the best she's seen in the service industry, but doesn't feel the need to constantly be smiling. Only, for Agg who's frequently working at her restaurants during service hours, she doesn't feel she has that luxury. "I'm very conscious when I'm at Grey Gardens or the Hoof because when women don't smile enough it reads as bitch." While it might seem like Agg doesn't give a shit about what people think, she's hyper aware of her public persona. "It's a bloody fucking fight, all the time," she says. "It's still a fight to be judged for my work which I think is a fairly reasonable ask." Almost every interview begins with asking her about things she's said on Twitter, "It's so lazy. Find a different hook, find something interesting about me." Agg thinks this may be because so many have a skewed notion about what hospitality means in the industry. "It is really frustrating and I know that a lot of the time people equate hospitality [with] lying down and taking it from people." For the record, she'd rather more people asked about her successful restaurants than what she tweeted on a whim in 2013. As Agg continues to be vocal about inequality in her industry, she's turned into a spokesperson for feminism—whether or not she likes it. In recent years, a responsibility has fallen upon Agg to fix problems she hasn't created, or that men haven't been held accountable for. "It happened in a review where someone called me out for not having enough women chefs in the kitchen," Agg tells me. She wants to have more women working in the kitchen, she mentioned she hired every woman who had applied only for one to accept a position elsewhere. The criticism still stings she tells me. "To be taken to task for that by a woman criticizing my feminism as 'not good enough' was really just cheap." While Agg's book is a deeply personal look at her life, relationships and her feminism—it also is an informal guide on the art of running a restaurant. It details how deal with failure and how sometimes, despite your best efforts, dreams don't work out (she went bankrupt and had to close her first spot, Cobalt before she went on to open the highly successful Black Hoof). While it's clear Agg has an innate sense of how a restaurant should be (one of the first things she tells me is that you "can't teach a vibe"), her memoir also provides some great advice on how to treat people. Of her 10 Commandments of Restaurant Service, one is simply "be nice" (others include not being stiff, never saying "no problem" and generally being accommodating to guests). Now that Agg's completed her memoir on top of opening a new restaurant, she's going to take a well deserved break with her husband Roland Jean, her first real break since she entered the industry as a server at the age of 18. And while she tells me she really plans on slowing down by not opening any new projects, I feel we both know she's never going to really step out of the spotlight— much to the dismay of her critics. Follow Sarah Hagi on Twitter.