Jen Agg dishes on the food biz

Toronto’s Jen Agg insists she’s always been pilloried for doing things male restaurateurs do
Alexandra Gill
Jen Agg. (Renée Rodenkirchen)
Jen Agg. (Renée Rodenkirchen)
Jen Agg. (Renée Rodenkirchen)

As a child growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, Jen Agg would pump her arms and jump out of tall trees. She couldn’t get enough of that crazy tree-jumping. Craving ever-wilder experiences—sex, booze, underground nightclubs—that would deliver her from the crushing boredom of convention, the natural-born risk-taker eventually found her escape by running restaurants, a path to freedom that would allow her to build her own fantasy, channel her artistic creativity, choose how to love on own terms, stand up for the rights of women in a sexist industry and be her own boss.

Or so she thought.

In her deliciously titled memoir, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, the “outspoken” restaurateur (she rightfully bristles at the label) explains how she has been vilified, pigeon-holed and ineptly misunderstood ever since a fateful night in 2011 when, fed up with  badly behaved customers at The Black Hoof, her first restaurant in a current group of five, she infamously tweeted: “Dear (almost) everyone in here right now. Please, please stop being such a douche.”

Which isn’t to say to that she ever let the haters drag her down. She’s been fighting the patriarchal status quo—with a hilarious Twitter account, sharply written editorials and the sweet smell of business success—the entire time.

At the end of the memoir, Agg is preparing to open a new restaurant, Grey Gardens—her last restaurant, her dream restaurant, an antidotal oasis to the bro-chef way of life, a beautiful distillation of everything she has learned about existing in the restaurant industry her own way. With partner Mitch Bates, a former chef in David Chang’s Momofuku empire and not “at all like me,” she imagines that together they will be “unf—withable.”

Then came the restaurant reviews….

Q: Let’s talk about the Mark Pupo review of Grey Gardens in Toronto Life because, really, that’s what everyone is talking about. And as a restaurant critic myself, I’m morbidly fascinated.

A: Who? Oh, that guy who attached himself to my coattails.

Q: Do you really think that was his motive?

I think that when somebody is in a job like that, and maybe not having the attention they want or feel they deserve, a really easy way to get that attention is to attack someone with a bigger platform. Yes, I think that’s part of it. The sexism is another part of it. It’s a many-pronged approach.

Q: Okay, I disagree about the self-promotion part, but I’m obviously biased. I do, however, think that his complete dismissal of your contributions—his belief that the restaurant is good in spite of you—is a strong confirmation of your book’s overarching theme, that “these erasures of talent happen ALL THE TIME when you’re a woman.” Did you feel gutted or oddly validated?

A: It was just disheartening more than anything. I was like, “Really? This is what’s going to happen?” It made me feel, honestly, a little bit like, “Should I keep making restaurants in a city that doesn’t deserve restaurants like this?” I spent most of the day being really pissed off and upset about it. Then I started firing off tweets and it was very therapeutic. And I got so much support. It was really shocking to me that people were being so supportive because I obviously understand what the magazine’s perspective is and why that was allowed to happen—that I was targeted for my reach in some ways. But I also think that they were not expecting that I would get so much support. I have no way of proving it, but that’s what I think.

Q: In my experience, a scathing review can often drive business to a restaurant. Do you think it worked to your advantage?

A: No, we’ve been busy since we’ve opened. It’s a great restaurant. People are happy when they leave here, for the most part. It certainly feels like that to me. I’m here every night. And I’m watching people have a great time. I know that it’s different from anything else being offered in the city. And people, I think, can sense that. So no, I don’t think it in any way helped the business. But I knew the only way to counter any possible negative effects was to lean into it and fight back because I thought it was wrong.

Q: And yet you didn’t seem too bothered by Amy Pataki’s review in the Toronto Star, which was actually very disparaging of the food.

A: I really didn’t take it that seriously. Honestly, if you come to Grey Gardens and you are not able to see what a great chef Mitch Bates is, I don’t have much respect for your opinion.

Q: And what about her so overtly stating that she isn’t a fan of yours?

I thought that was really tacky. Where is she getting that? We haven’t had any interactions. She is basing it on a perception. I appreciated her stating her bias so obviously. But I didn’t appreciate her suggesting I’m not a good enough feminist because I don’t have enough women working in my restaurant—or my kitchen, specifically. A), I don’t do the hiring. B), there are so few good cooks to begin with. And a much, much smaller percentage of good female cooks. We hired two women at the beginning and one of them didn’t work out for some reason. It wasn’t anything to do with us. She took a different job or something. It’s not for lack of trying. So I really didn’t appreciate that she made it seem like I’m a hypocrite. I thought that was really cheap.

Q: Have you ever thought of hiring a PR agency?

A: No, I don’t want one. I don’t need someone editing me. I think there is some value in having a gut reaction to things and actually saying what you think. A lot of the times I think PR agencies try to massage that into something that’s not the same as who you are.

Q: Some people simply don’t like your “particular brand of shouty snark.” You’re up-front about that in the book. But in the same sentence, you write, “I have enough lived experience to know the difference between dislike and misogyny.” How can you tell the difference?

A: What’s that famous quote about pornography?  I mean, you just know. You can just tell when you’re being judged by a different set of standards than all the men around you. I’ve been dealing with it my whole life. I’m going to deviate from your question for just a second…

I said in my book, “Don’t hate me or judge me for running my restaurant the way men run their businesses.” I’ve thought about that a lot because it was recently used as a headline. It’s not really true because I don’t necessarily run my businesses the way men run theirs. I run my businesses in a completely different way and I think part of that is because I am a woman. Even though I might have qualities that, upon first look, might be attributable to the kind of qualities male CEOs have, I am most definitely a woman and that brings something to what I do. I think it’s high time we stopped ignoring the importance of that and started embracing these more feminine qualities and more human ways to run businesses.

Back to your question. When I’m doing the stuff that is more like men do, I get judged for it, I get pilloried for it, openly criticized for it. Men don’t have to do that. Men don’t have to keep defending some dumb joke they made four years ago. Yeah, it’s f—ed up.

Q: Why do so many people still insist that the customer is always right?

A: Because they think they’re renting you the same way they maybe rent someone for the evening. They think they can do whatever they want. When they’re spending money in your establishment, there is a certain type of person—not most people, let’s be clear that this is not most diners. Most diners are respectful and awesome and happy to be there and understand the exchange of money for services and are awesome. But every once in a while, there is a certain kind of clientele that think they can act like hooligans or be abusive to your staff, and I’ve never stood for that. If you are allowing this to happen, you’re not a very good boss or leader. I can’t even believe I have to defend that.

Q? Grant van Gameren, your former partner at The Black Hoof, sounds more like a baby than a brute—my words. And while it’s true that insidious passive-aggression can be just as damaging as physical harassment…

A: Absolutely it can be.

Q: Still, it felt like you were bending over backwards to be fair about the breakup. Why dwell on it?

A: I didn’t enjoy writing about Grant. I would have happily not done it, but I don’t think it would have been fair to the story or to the book or to the good people in the City of Toronto to not write about it. Also, at the time, I didn’t really write the narrative of what had happened. I kept my mouth shut for a long time about it—publicly. There were some untrue things that were said about our breakup, by Grant. I felt it was important to explain that that wasn’t what happened. At the end of the day, I was the one who wanted out of the partnership. I couldn’t take it anymore. And I think that he has said to a couple of publications over the years that he chose to leave. Well, yeah, maybe he chose to leave after I asked him to. Those are the kinds of things that only matter to the people getting divorced. Nobody gives a shit about that. It makes both of us sound petty to dwell on it. But it really bothered me that there was this incorrect narrative out there. And it’s a hard thing to fight, especially as a woman of my personality type because it’s really easy to dismiss me as crazy. So yeah, I wanted to tell the truth and it is the truth. I mean, it was vetted by a lawyer.

Q: In the book, you refer to yourself several times as a “bad feminist.” What is a bad feminist?

A: Those are just conversations I have with myself when I think or say a horrible thing. It’s just a tongue-in-cheek way of explaining that, of course, I’m not always perfect and I’m not always going to be the perfect feminist and I think the idea of the perfect feminist is its own kind of betrayal to women, to be honest.

Q: Life certainly is full of contradictions and dumb decisions. But getting married? You imply that you were a bad feminist for wanting a wedding. Why did you feel the need to justify that?

At the time, I was just excited and in love. I hope I described it that way in the book. But we just don’t need it and I don’t know why at the time I did need it. Maybe it had something to do with Roland having gone through a difficult divorce with his previous wife. The reasons I felt it so important to say, “We are a unit” now feel meaningless to me. We could have a divorce party and stay madly in love forever and that would be fine.

Q: You have a very endearing soft side, especially when you write about your staff and your husband. Do you think that will come as a surprise to people?

A: I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone who has ever met me.

Q: You write extremely candidly about your sex life. Why?

Having sex is part of being a human. And it would be crazy for me to have a memoir that didn’t include stuff about sex. Maybe I have a higher, bigger, stronger, more ferocious libido than some. But it’s a part of who I am. It informs my marriage and the way I communicate with the world and it’s a really important thing to acknowledge.

Q: Forget about women in the workplace. The double standards are worse when it comes to women and sexuality. Are you at all worried that some of your critics might judge you even harsher for your willingness to divulge so much?

A: No, that’s other people’s problem, not mine. The same way if I wear a short skirt and someone is checking out my ass and my legs. That’s their problem, not mine.

Q: What is the main message you want readers to take away from this book?

A: One of the most important things for me is having women feel free to speak and to f— and to be. I think that’s really what it’s about. It can be distilled into something that simple.

Q: And if you could give one piece of advice to fellow female restaurateurs, what would it be?

A: Don’t take any shit just because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do.  We really are told in so many ways to just simmer down. Be quiet. Relax. We don’t have to. We can say the stuff we’re thinking. And I think it’s really hard for women. Even when we know ourselves to be capable of greatness, or of strength, or of making a more correct decision, we will still accommodate mediocrity because we think it’s the only way to the top.