ARTS AND CULTURE
Interview: Restaurateur Jen Agg on Her Book, I Hear She's a Real Bitch
Agg's memoir has been as hotly anticipated as one of her restaurant openings, especially in her home turf of Toronto. So why are people so interested in her?
Jen Agg is on fire. The Toronto restaurateur, known as much for her successful food and drink establishments (including The Black Hoof, Grey Gardens and Montreal’s Agrikol) as for her public advocacy against sexist “bro culture” in her industry, has a new memoir, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch [update: A separate U.S. edition is now out].
The book opens a frank window into Agg’s upbringing in Ontario (Scarborough, specifically), her seminal career, and her relationships in business and in life. Billy recently met with Agg in Toronto’s Kensington at her newest restaurant, Grey Gardens, to talk about writing, feminism and finding her voice.
Q: How as writing your first book?
A: I just wanted to finish, and there were moments maybe of thinking it wasn’t good enough, but the more I read it, the more happy I was with it to be honest. It’ll suck if people don’t like it. Of course I want them to, but I like it, so that’s good enough for me.
There are a couple of themes in the book: sexuality, power, feminism, obviously. If there was one thing you people would take away from it, what would you want it to be?
One thing? [I’d like them to say], “Wow, that was a great book.”
Three things then.
I would like women to know that you can have a voice, you can own your sexuality, your body is yours. [Women] can contain multitudes and that’s OK … all those things.
Why do you think people are you so interested in you?
That’s a difficult question, and it’s not for me to answer, I guess it’s for the people to answer. I don’t know; I’m a lot of fun.
Do you think it has something to do with people still, like you say in your book, not being used to a woman who is very much OK with saying what she feels?
Yeah, I think most women aren’t. It’s not their fault. You grow up learning very quickly that it’s not OK, and that your jokes don’t get the same laughs that the guys’ jokes do. … The subtle cues are there from when you’re four years old.
And you’ve gotten heat for saying what you feel…
It’s really strange. It’s perplexing to me that it continues to happen. That I’m at the top of my field in this country, and my restaurants are all very good, and I still have to deal with garbage restaurant reviews like the one that I had to deal with from that Toronto glossy mag that no one likes this week. I shouldn’t still have to deal with stuff like that.
What is your definition of modern feminism?
It’s always just meant equality amongst the sexes. It’s really quite simple. There’s still lots of people that will attribute the restaurants to Roland [Jean], my husband, in some way, and it’s like, come on.
"If everybody is agreeing with everything you’re saying, you’re probably saying really bland things."
It’s hard to define feminism and it’s really refreshing to read a book like yours where you say, “When I have my period, I feel like s---, and I like makeup because it’s a mask.” But there’s a lot of people who try to label it.
The moment that women start competing over who is the better feminist – that’s what we’re supposed to do to keep the movement down. The moment you start doing that, you’re just playing into it. I was recently accused of not being feminist enough. Are you kidding me? It’s ridiculous.
Do you think you’re going to get that same criticism (not being feminist enough) after people read the book? It’s a very real account; it’s very human. You essentially say, “I’m a feminist, but I’m also a human being.”
I believe you can be both at the same time. I don’t know what to expect [from the book.] I’m sure there will be lost of positive responses and lots of negative responses, and that’s fine. If you’re somebody who is speaking up, and everybody is agreeing with everything you’re saying, you’re probably saying really bland things.
In the book, you talk a lot about your ex-partnership with Grant van Gameren, a fellow Toronto restaurateur. One thing resonated with me, when you said how you relegated to “nurturing accommodation.” How do you find your voice?
That’s a complicated question because that implies that I [found a voice] through that relationship, which isn’t true. I already had that voice, and to try and preserve a partnership, which I thought was important at the time, I was quieter than I felt comfortable being. Eventually I couldn’t do it anymore.
"I was quieter than I felt comfortable being. Eventually I couldn’t do it anymore."
How often are you travelling to Montreal? What’s your schedule like?
It’ll ramp up again this summer, because we’re going to be opening up the terrace. In terms of my schedule, this will be the first time that I’ve had a book coming out and have opened and re-opened a restaurant. I’ll probably try to be in Montreal twice a month for a few days at a time. But it might be more, or might be less.
What do you guys do when you’re there?
We like to go to Larry’s for breakfast – it’s so good. We have a few restaurants we go around to if we’re not at Agrikol. Walking around Mile End is still fun, especially in the summer. There’s a park near our house called Parc La Fontaine. It’s gorgeous. We go to Nora Gray a lot, we go to Le Bremner. Vin Papillon is certainly a wonderful bar. They really have dining down. They know how to make casual, fine dining restaurants that are very, very good.
What about in Toronto?
I have my spots.
This article was originally published May 23, 2017.