Meet the Woman on a Mission to Smash Sexism in the Restaurant Industry

By Ivy Knight

If Mario Batali made charcuterie de rigeur on the American culinary scene, then Jen Agg made it cool in Canada. Her Toronto restaurant The Black Hoof, with its bison pepperoni and horse felino, hit big when it opened in 2008 and she’s since gone on to open Cocktail Bar, Rhum Corner and Grey Gardens, as well as Agrikol in Montreal (in partnership with two members from Canadian alt music darlings Arcade Fire). In the culinary world, chefs get all the attention—but here in Canada we have an insatiable appetite for restaurateur Agg, because she has a lot to say about more than just food.

Agg is a force of nature on Twitter—whip-smart and cutthroat at the same time—where she’s been dishing out hard truths and diatribes against the patriarchy for years. A prime example: “Very insecure men are the most dangerous.”

Her first book, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, was recently released in the States. In it, Agg literally bares her vagina (in a line drawing by her artist husband Roland Jean) and opines on everything from teenage masturbation to her complete disdain of vodka (which is a worthwhile read itself), all while laying down a line of strong feminist thinking from the restaurant trenches.

If you’ve ever dreamed of opening a restaurant on a dime, here is the official guide. If you’ve ever wondered if passive-aggressive bro chefs are the worst, wonder no more. And if you’re still holding onto that old chestnut, “the customer is always right,” you better back the fuck up.

What has the reaction been to the book thus far in your home base of Toronto, and in Canada, where it came out in the spring?
I did just get my favourite Goodreads (the Yelp of books) review, maybe ever: “I did not need to see her vagina.” ONE STAR! It’s like she gave my vag one star. But otherwise, it’s had very positive reviews, which I wasn’t really expecting. We tend to gleefully munch on the heads of tall poppies here in Canada, so I was expecting more of a “who does she think she is” vibe. And the nicest thing is the lovely DMs I’ve been getting. Sometimes they are so beautiful it makes me well up a bit

Did you set out to fill a gap in the world of books by writing about the front-of-house perspective and how to build a restaurant from scratch?
There’s a gap in women in restaurant leadership (and the world, obviously) but really, I just wanted to tell my story and sprinkle it with examples of sexism from my own life, that, ideally, are relatable in a universal way. And, you know, tell the truth.

Jenna Marie Wakani
Jenna Marie Wakani

It was refreshing to read a woman’s perspective on the inner workings of the restaurant world, where the POV is so often dominated by male chefs. In the book you don’t shy away from revealing the bad side of your restaurant partnership with your former Black Hoof chef and business partner. Was it tough to write or was it more of a relief to get your thoughts out there?
Very, very cathartic. It was tough only in that I left out some of the really nasty stuff for legal reasons. I mean, I’ve got stories. And to be frank, it was difficult dwelling on such an unpleasant, ugly time in my professional life—writing those chapters was extra exhausting and heavy. My whole body and brain would ache on those days. Wine helped.

Is there a passage from the book that best sums up what you’re trying to say?
The penultimate chapter basically sums up what I’m getting at:

“There is an insane double standard applied to men and women in life and in work. It is the root cause of every business frustration, outside of pesky financial ones, I’ve ever had. It envelops relationships I’ve had with employees, contractors, and customers. At least once a day I’m given the opportunity to imagine how anyone, in any of those groups and more, would be communicating differently with me if I were a man. And why should I ever have to think about that?”

You once famously tweeted at your dining room, “Dear almost everyone in here right now… please, please stop being such a douche.” So my final question is, what are your thoughts on that old maxim of the service industry “the customer is always right”?
When I dine out, I like to put myself in the (ideally) capable hands of the (fingers crossed!) talented people who’ve made the restaurant. I don’t want to think too much; I just want an intuitive server to intuit my needs, obviously within a framework of me outlining what those might be. Which is to say, I want to trust the people in whose hands I’ll be. As a restaurateur, I very much like it when diners put that trust in me, and my staff. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to accommodate requests or be hospitable—of course we do! But if someone is being unreasonable or rude or abusive, I don’t care who they are. That doesn’t make them right.