Toronto restaurateur (and sometime Twitter instigator) Jen Agg has built herself a mini empire of hit restaurants over the past decade. It started with the Black Hoof, and now includes Rhum Corner and Grey Gardens (both in Toronto), alongside Montreal’s Agrikol.
Agg can now add “author” to her CV: her book I Hear She’s A Real Bitch is out in the U.S. this week. It’s a memoir of how Agg found her way into the hospitality industry, from her (now-defunct) first bar Cobalt, through to the above success stories. Not just a retelling of her career, Agg also delves into issues of sexuality, sexism, and bro culture in restaurants and bars, and the minutiae of serving customers. Here now, an interview with the author and restaurateur, edited and condensed.
So why do people say that she’s a real bitch?
I have no idea, you'd have to ask them.
What’s your guess?
I mean, I have theories. I think that it's really easy for people to, especially when you're a woman with a little bit of power… it’s a lot easier to go oh, she a bitch because she's a woman, and we're not supposed to be [outspoken or assertive]. I know it's sort of repetitive, I've said it a million times, I've said it many different ways, I've made this joke a million times: If I'm beating a dead horse, then why is it still moving?
Who are the “they”?
I think really a lot if it is just this kind of like bro-faction. If we're going to divide up into factions, it's the bro-faction of the restaurant business. A lot of it's top down. The tone of the culture of this business is set by people who you could maybe describe as bros, if you were so inclined to label people.
Early in the book you lay out how you believe restaurant culture should be — open, diverse, equal. Do people fight against that?
I think it's very important, when you have a vision, to get people that work for you on your side. If they don't follow the way that you want to do things, or the way you want to set a table, the way you want to set the tone or the vibe in the room…[it] doesn’t work… I think I wouldn't have it any other way, I very strongly stamp my vision on a place. I pee all over it, I want people to get it and I want it to be representative of me.
What's the value of being detail oriented?
I sleep better. The value of it is all very self motivated in some ways. The gains are going to be that my business operates better, we're less wasteful, or we're more efficient with how we staff.
Does it really actually keep you up at night?
[Jokingly] Shh, don't tell anyone.
The book goes into detail about how your first bar, Cobalt, was forced to closed [for unpaid taxes] — is that sort of failure a good lesson?
I think it's really important to learn how to fail well. Which sounds like something you might see on somebody's really lame Instagram account. I think it's important to learn how to take a hit like a champ. I took that hit like a champ. Not Cobalt, Cobalt wasn't a hit, that was a success for a long time. The bankruptcy sucked, but that wasn't the hit. Raw Bar [Agg’s seafood-oriented restaurant that only lasted a year] was the hit, and it was so hard. It was very, very difficult.
On the flip side, when you have a long-running success like the Black Hoof, how do you keep up with the fixation on newness that’s sometimes part of the industry?
You keep doing good shit. I think that lots of times you can fool people with a beautiful space and sort of a mediocre food, or mediocre service… as I say, [The Black Hoof is] "for anyone, it's not for everyone." You keep doing that, and you keep like hitting those points.
What's your reaction when you have someone that comes in who’s one of the people who the restaurant is “not for”?
You try to very hard to turn it around for them. I think there's this sort of illusion that I'm not hospitable because of silly reasons. Actually, this happened not too long ago at Grey Gardens [Agg’s newest restaurant in Toronto]. This lovely older couple, maybe in their late sixties, very stylish, they loved the food, they were sitting at the communal table in the front. They were super cool about everything.
At the end, they very nicely said, "you know, we love it here so much but it's a little bit loud for us." We ended up following up with an email saying "we loved serving you,” and "we have a private dining room, so if you want to gather 12 of your friends sometime and have the same quality food with a different experience let us know.” Then they booked the private dining room.
I love that story because I think it really demonstrates how easy it would have been for me to just be like, fuck you, this is how loud it is. Which of course I wouldn't say, but in my head sort of having that attitude like "this is how we do it, so if you don't like it" which maybe was a younger me.
Is the “not for everyone” thing more than just a matter of tastebuds?
Yeah, I have this very strong theory that it's not just about food. We're gonna always start from a baseline of having delicious food. I don't think that's what brings people back to restaurants over, and over, and over again. I think it's all of those things. It's the warmth, it's the atmosphere, it's the service, it's the vibe, it's how it makes you feel when you're here.
Bro culture, yeah. Is bro culture…
Don't ask me if bro culture is real.
...the problem. Is it the problem?
It's a problem. It doesn't just affect women, it affects men too. I think it's an important thing to acknowledge that it is a thing. Women can be bros too, which is another thing that is hard to talk about.
Well bro culture is about “masculinity” rather than “men,” to some degree.
No, absolutely, but women who operate within that system might feel the need to conform or adjust, or joke around in the right way… The issue is that, if you are in leadership and you think that this bro culture is camaraderie… you might not actually be looking at your situation all that clearly. You've got people under you, who are young cooks, young dishwashers, young servers, whatever. You're setting the tone in your restaurant. You're saying racist jokes, sexist jokes, rape jokes, whatever kind of ugly fucking jokes that you think are funny, and your young kids want to keep their job… [so that becomes acceptable, gets repeated]. You can be an inspiring leader, and a good chef, and a good teacher, and a shitty bro, all at the same time. I think that's what people forget sometimes, that we contain multitudes.
You might want to learn from this bro as a young person. You might be aware enough and woke enough, for lack of a better word, to understand that it's shitty, it's a bad environment, that this person is being awful. But what do you do? Do you go to your boss and say, "You know what man, I feel like that joke was kind of racist." No, you fucking don’t.
Can your staff can come to you in this sort of situation?
I've had a cook show a server a dick pic and she came to me, thank god, three days later, and she finally told me. He was on his way out anyway, he was on his last week and I have never screamed at someone the way I screamed at him. I screamed, I was furious, I explained how insane and wrong it was and when I was done I told him, “You're done, we're done here.”
Why is it so hard for people to stamp this out?
Because it's the water you swim in… There's this sort of idea that in order to make great food you have to be tough. You have to work that 16-hour shift, 12 hours isn't enough. I know it's a key buzzword, but [it’s] toxically masculine… I think you need to set the tone. Everything is top down, so when shitty things happen in restaurants, the owner is responsible in some ways… I think owners need to take more responsibility in that sense. Instead of just going, “Oh, I had no idea...”
I've had people criticize [me] super publicly and say, "Well that's just how restaurants are, she wants to take the fun out of kitchens." It's like fuck no, I swear like a sailor, and I'll tell funny stories that are maybe not super PG… But they're not making someone the butt of the joke. That's the only fucking point here. When you're making people feel uncomfortable, feel humiliated, that's where the line is.
Do you think the people who might call you things like "the fun police" are willfully misunderstanding?
Maybe. Sometimes I think it's not even willful, they just really have drunk the Kool-Aid of shitty kitchens.
Do you filter for bros in the hiring process?
Is that racial profiling? Racial bro-filing? Yes. Yes i made the worst pun of the day. I think you can bring us somebody who might tilt a little bro-ish into an environment that isn't bro-ish, and it can have a positive effect. But if you got too much of the bro, it takes over.
You end up draining the bro out of them, by immersing them in a different pool?
I'm just showing them there's a different way. That cook might still end up in another kitchen in a couple years that's super bro-y, and that might be fundamentally who they are. But for the time being, they're not being that person in my kitchen.
Do you think anyone will be like, Oh, eyeroll, that loud woman on Twitter wrote a book.
I'm sure lots of people will. But go write a fucking book. Show me your book.
In 30 years do you want to be one of those people getting profiled in Toronto, the Globe, the Star, as a famous restaurateur retires?
Why don't you want to be remembered as that?
You're leading the witness, ‘cause you know what I'm gonna say. If it says “restaurateur” on my tombstone, I will have willfully fucked up my forties.
What would you want it to say on your tombstone then?
[Laughing, sarcastically] I don't know, feminist icon?