A sharp and candid memoir from a star in the restaurant world, and an up-and-coming literary voice.
Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg, the woman behind the popular The Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar, Rhum Corner, and Agrikol restaurants, is known for her frank, crystal-sharp and often hilarious observations and ideas on the restaurant industry and the world around her. Agg's first book, I Hear She's a Real Bitch, is caustic yet intimate, and wryly observant; an unforgettable glimpse into the life of one of the most interesting, smart, trail-blazing voices of this moment.
About the author
- Short-listed, Toronto Book Award
JEN AGG is a restaurateur in Toronto, and owner of The Black Hoof, Grey Gardens, Rhum Corner, and Cocktail Bar in Toronto and Agrikol in Montreal. I Hear She's a Real Bitch is her first book.
Excerpt: I Hear She's a Real Bitch (by (author) Jen Agg)
CHAPTER 4: KID STUFF
The first time I could’ve gotten drunk but didn’t, I was eleven. We were at Greg Harper’s* house playing a make-believe game of Star Wars. Greg was a lanky ginger into sci-fi and British comedy and he was mildly funny so he coasted on that. He played the comedian so well that you almost forgot his nerdish leanings. The premise of our game was flimsy: Greg and Alan were Han and Luke, and Kristy was Leia because she had sprouted boobs and was really pretty, which of course meant all the girls whispered about what a slut she was while maintaining phony friendships with her.
There was nothing to suggest at that time that Kristy had ever even kissed a boy, though even if she had, it wouldn’t have made our slut-shaming any less awful. The way we interacted as eleven-year-old girls was a good introduction to female group dynamics, and I was definitely not just a casual observer. As an adult, I’ve noticed these childish patterns on a loop and can still shock myself with how callously dismissive I can be of women—men too, but I tend to be more generous with men’s shortcomings. I’m an admittedly bad feminist; I know that I have this horrendous, learned double standard. It’s just that I have a strong negative reaction to what I see as a wishy-washy need to please and I find that trait more often in women than in men. I wish I could be more patient, as a woman is expected to be. If I allowed myself to clearly and fully remember the awful things I whispered and gleefully took in back then about “Titsy” Edmunds (not our best work—it didn’t even rhyme) I know I would be horrified. What I do remember well is the feeling of belonging and the power of gossip: alliances constantly shifting, hopping back and forth between the two most popular girls, the hypocrisy of these relationships a baseline for how women exist in group friendships, especially as children. Two “friends” are always finding comfort in talking shit about their other “friend,” who may be prettier, or better dressed, or more popular with the boys, or none of those things. (But a judgment that a girl is “prettier” is often at the heart of it. The patriarchy’s culturally agreed-on baseline for prettiness in those days defaulted to skinny-yet-curvy white girls—thank christ that’s starting to change.) Kristy’s social status was confusing, both relying on and hindered by the power of new breasts, but it didn’t matter—she always got to play Leia, and I always got stuck with C-3PO.
After our game ended (once the Death Star had been destroyed, presumably) Greg casually sauntered into the basement with a six-pack of beer, like it was something he did all the time, and my first reaction was, “No! Drinking is bad and we aren’t supposed to do it!” My rebellious nature was still a couple years from maturation, but my fight-y nature wasn’t, and I argued with and shamed the boys, going so far as to dump at least one lukewarm beer down the toilet. It was Miller High Life, and it was 1987, when Miller High Life was pre-ironic, yet even with its third-banana (behind Pabst and Labatt 50) iconic hipster status just a decade away, the toilet still seems like an appropriate place for it. It got me thinking, though. If Greg and Alan were refusing to speak to me for weeks over this small thing, dumping a beer down the toilet, they must’ve been pretty mad about it. And if they were so mad, drinking had to be awesome. It was a primitive logic.
As girls of eleven or twelve-ish, we were at the age where our parents could leave us alone for an evening and didn’t have to worry about boys rapping on windows with cans of warm beer looking to “be boys”—that was still a couple of years off, despite Greg’s early adopting. In grade 7, I would shoot up a fast few inches, becoming very Skinny Legs and All, the book by Tom Robbins that I eventually read for its title and loved for its everything. When I see eleven-year-old girls today, sashaying around in crop tops and jean shorts cut so high that I’m discomfited, I wonder if I’m remembering “eleven” wrong. But I think it’s a pretty different “not-quite-a-girl-not-quite-a-woman” world now—something about the Internet.
I mean, obviously the unattainable beauty standards for women are rooted in the patriarchy, but now that most western kids can fall through Google’s looking glass and have total access to everything, girls are too quickly, within a pack mentality, making themselves into miniature versions of their sexy popstar heroes. I don’t want to be all old-man-shakes-fist-at-cloud, but though we still learned our roles—to be the prettiest, the sexiest, yet somehow demure—it just wasn’t as fast a slide into clothing as sexual display when I was a kid. We didn’t even grasp what was happening, even if, biologically, the approving looks from boys were a jolt we knew we liked. We are raised to compete with other women, but within a societal expectation of “sisterhood”—a challenging paradox that ends up supporting the patriarchal status quo.
Perhaps it was because I intuitively rejected the social cues I was picking up as a girl, but for whatever reason I had more fun playing with boys. They wanted to build forts and climb trees and play Capture the Flag. They were my people—a friendship preference I haven’t been able to shake. I’ve been on a constant search for equality-based female friendship, but it’s eluded me, especially as I age and my requirements become ever more specific. Where are the forty-something stepmoms who are fundamentally it-getty and can afford occasional elaborate dinners? Are they at bars? Is there a Tinder for cool stepmoms? Not that I don’t have close female friends, but I’ve always felt more at ease with boy-besties. And yes, I realize how “not like other girls” garbage this sounds.
Dwayne, my first boy-pal, lived at 10 Scarbelle Lane, the cul-de-sac that sprouted off the top of Scarboro Avenue (Scarboro, no “u-g-h”—how many times did I say that as a kid?). We bonded immediately. Not in a crush sort of way—I had no special feelings for him “down there.” (“Down there” was something I had discovered at nine or ten thanks to my love of shimmying up and then sliding down the poles that supported the swings in the school playground—a precursor to my mother’s as yet undiscovered “shoulder massager.”) Dwayne had a ramp for jumping his BMX bike. Either my parents wouldn’t buy me a BMX or I decided it veered too strongly into representing myself as not a girl (for all my tomboy leanings, I definitely wanted to be the kind of girl that boys liked). But that didn’t stop me from racing Dwayne’s bike up and down the street and sometimes finding the courage to go up the ramp, though never committing quite enough to really catch any air. One afternoon, I’d gotten up a lot of speed and was screeching toward him when, out of nowhere, he jammed a stick in the front wheel spokes. I flew over the handlebars and scraped myself up pretty badly. I was so upset and shocked, I grabbed my non-BMX bike, which I’d lazily dropped on Dwayne’s lawn, and limped home so he wouldn’t see me cry. I was so embarrassed and pissed off. Was this what boys did to each other? Stood there while you hobbled off muffling your tears? Laughed at skinned knees with little stones and pits of asphalt buried so deep it would take my mother hours to clean?
This was a first peek into a lifelong struggle with my joy at the company of men and my occasional wish for just a little more compassion (a quality so often attributed to women) from them. This is partly why I’m so happy to see gender lines starting to blur: for starters, women not being afraid of their confidence or assertiveness, and men embracing, well, other men in a non-sexual way. Men are trained not to cry. Women are trained not to demand things. These are ridiculous standards. I hardly ever cry, and I am constantly demanding things, yet I still catch myself falling prey to a standard societal expectation of what it means to “be a man.” I am always trying to upend gender roles, even deeply ingrained ones, like the ludicrous idea that “having balls” means being tough. To paraphrase comedian Sheng Wang (who apparently came up with this despite the Internet insisting it was Betty White, much to her chagrin): “It makes no sense. Balls are delicate little sacks that can’t take a hit. But vaginas? Vaginas can take a pounding.”
Eventually Dwayne apologized, after, I suspect, his mother made him, but it was never the same between us. I didn’t trust him any more and I just stopped going around to his house and his BMX ramp. Two years later, by the time we were taking the bus to different high schools, it was like we’d never met.
That awful bike spill was around the time I started crushing on Greg—Star Wars, beer-toting Greg—who somehow, between grades 7 and 8, became (to me) the most handsome thing ever, even more handsome than crowd favourites Rob and Julius. But Greg liked Christine (they all liked Christine), a cute-as-a-button fashionista (seriously, this kid knew what was up) who was the unofficial group leader at school, and was constantly rich with choice re: boys to like. Mine was an awful, all-consuming crush—a theme for crushes all my life. I’d find any excuse to be around him, and his likes were suddenly my likes. We did legitimately have one thing in common, though: Inspector Gadget. Despite the torture of not having my feelings for him reciprocated, I was grateful to have someone to discuss that morning’s episode with. There was no fake-liking the brilliance of Penny always cleaning up after the bungling Inspector. I thought it was gold, and I’d wake up extra early to eat breakfast before it was on, because there was no eating in front of the TV in my house—ever. For some reason my parents never counted this morning cartoon indulgence against my half hour of evening television (an hour on Sundays).
Every morning my dad would make orange juice from frozen concentrate, and every morning I’d want to drink it right away, before all the ice crystals had melted. He’d butter toast, slice grapefruit, and my mom would stir up some instant oatmeal, while my much younger brother, Jonathan, would ride around the kitchen on a plastic cow on wheels with an air pump that made it moo—the only place in the house, aside from the bathroom, that wasn’t carpeted—getting underfoot. If I could manage to scarf all that breakfast down, only then could I watch Inspector Gadget.
My parents’ parenting of me always felt like a combination of the tight grip of paranoia and an irresistible urge to just let me do as I pleased, so they seemed incredibly grateful my brother was so much less defiant. Although, once I cut off the air pump on that awful cow in a fit of annoyance, with the intention of rendering it silent forever, he figured out he could just blow into the hole to make it moo, so that was pretty defiant.
I very clearly remember the first time I did get drunk, at thirteen, just as the school year was kicking off my final year before high school, as trees were turning from bright green to deep gold and red, a visual ode to Boy George and Jamaican flags. We’d planned the night for weeks, knowing that eventually my parents would be out some Friday night to attend the ballet or the symphony. That night finally came, and I huddled in the living room with my three closest friends, Kathleen, Christine, and Caroline. My parents didn’t even ask why we seemed giddier than usual, though I doubt they even noticed—the four of us together always ended up in fits of giggles and whispers.
The moment we heard the garage door shut behind my parents, we raced to the liquor cabinet, which was, because of the lack of reverence my parents had for liquor, more like an ordinary cupboard beside the fridge than a cabinet. (Naturally, I’d prefer a more dedicated display if I were to keep liquor in the house. I don’t—with three spots all with great cocktails mere steps away, there’s simply no need.) My parents didn’t drink much while I was growing up, although I eventually learned my dad kept a bottle of sherry in his desk drawer, which sparked in me a lifelong love of the stuff. I imagine he’d sit there punching numbers into his adding machine—a pre-computer, large-scale calculator whose gears you could hear grinding away even from the kitchen, a floor away—and sipping sherry, just a little bit.
I dragged a plush chair from the kitchen table to reach the cupboard. Everything inside looked weird and foreign, and as I gingerly pulled out bottles and passed them down, anticipation grew. I hopped off the chair and we struggled to open the stuck-on caps. Eventually, through sheer force of will, we twisted them off, immediately noticing that what was inside the bottles smelled even more foreign than they looked. Up until that point, while I’d had a thousand sips of my dad’s beer foam, I’d never smelled anything like gin. I put it to my nose, and was almost immediately knocked back by its aggressive astringency. It smelled like something I imagined would be better suited for polishing silverware than sipping in cocktails. At thirteen I couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever want to drink something that smelled like it would tear a hole in your gut. Now, of course, I can’t imagine a more mundane life than one without gin-and-tonics.
After sniffing a few of the spirits and not really knowing the differences between them—they all smelled like they’d kill you—we narrowed it down to the options with “chocolate” or “fruit” on the labels, eventually settling on crème de menthe and some Swiss chocolate almond liqueur. Both smelled sweet and delicious, so I bravely sipped them. But the flavours were distracting to my mouth, the tweaks of alcohol off. Still, that didn’t stop me—or Kathleen, Christine, and Caroline—from gulping directly from the bottles. In that moment, we were convinced that if we used glasses my parents would know we’d been using them for liquor. It never occurred to us that we could wash and put them away before my mother and father got home.
We passed the bottles around for a while, getting louder and more giggly as the night went on. On first pass we couldn’t have had much more than the equivalent of one proper adult drink. But man, either we were wasted, or we just believed we should be so hard that we became so. We spent the evening stair-diving—a not entirely smart thing to do sober, let alone drunk, but then we weren’t entirely smart. We scurried to the top of a carpeted stairwell (which, at that time, in the suburbs, meant any staircase) and I positioned myself, banana-style—an arched missile perched on the top step—legs flailing behind with my pals gamely holding on to them. I was face first, splayed out on a pathetic-looking towel I’d plucked from the linen closet, positive that if I used a fluffy white one my mother, a woman with “display” tea towels, would surely know what we’d been up to. We counted down—“Three! Two! One! Geronimo!”—they released my legs, and I zoomed down the stairs at lightning speed, somehow not chipping a tooth. Screaming with laughter, we took turns, and as experience and liqueur emboldened us, simply releasing legs was exaggerated to the point of actively shoving each other down the fourteen steps, rewarding our survival with sips of crème de menthe between rounds.
We drank enough sickly sweet liqueur that, in conjunction with the stair-diving, it was all just too much for my stomach, and at some point during the night it rejected its contents. Somehow I managed to puke into my metal garbage can in the middle of the night and sneak it to the toilet in the morning without my mom noticing anything was amiss. And no one else was busted—everyone’s parents had picked up their daughters around 10:30 and either didn’t smell the booze or didn’t bring it up. The perfect crime.
After that night I don’t think I touched alcohol much until high school. I went to a huge school with a great academic program, which is why my mother insisted I go there instead of the high school my elementary school streamed into, and where all of my friends, except for Greg, were going. Like me, he was going to Woburn Collegiate, a 2,000-student school a bus ride away from my house, and while I was excited that we’d be going to the same school, once we arrived there, I realized that something had happened—rather, something hadn’t happened to him—during that strange summer full of paralyzing fears of the unknown between primary and high school. By the time I noticed what hadn’t happened to Greg, our lockers were in the same corridor and I towered over him, skinny legs and all. Surrounded by new boys, most of them tall and unknown, Miller High Life–drinking Greg Harper no longer had my attention.
* Name changed
Finalist for the 2017 Toronto Book Awards
A Globe and Mail Best Book of 2017
A National Post Best Book of 2017
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2017
A Chatelaine Best Book of 2017
"Whatever Jen Agg says is worth listening to. As owner of Toronto's excellent The Black Hoof, she's one of the most vocal and interesting observers of the peculiar subculture of the restaurant business. I Hear She's a Real Bitch is the book a lot of us have been waiting for. A terrific, beautifully written, frank, and funny memoir, and a compelling argument for pulling down the long outdated system of 'bro' culture that has dominated the industry since what feels like the beginning of time." —Anthony Bourdain
"Jen Agg's I Hear She's A Real Bitch could help change restaurant culture. . . . Call her a bitch? She'll take the word and redefine it for you as an empowering adjective. Don't think workplace sexism is a real thing in restaurants? She'll organize a whole conference around the issue, as she did in the fall of 2015 after a Toronto pastry chef launched a human rights complaint over sexual harassment allegations at a King Street restaurant, and call it Kitchen Bitches. . . . If a generation of cooks followed Kitchen Confidential into the industry on the promised glory of good times and hard living, for largely different reasons—because restaurant ownership is so desperately lacking in diversity and because kitchen culture could sure use a change—with hope, I Hear She's a Real Bitch will do the same." —The Globe and Mail
"Jen Agg insists on being heard. Her plainspoken yet breathlessly disclosing memoir is compulsively readable, highlighting her natural gift for not just telling it like it is, but remembering with heart and with humor. Much like dining at one of her perfectly-lit restaurants, reading Agg is a full-blown experience of the senses. I am grateful for her voice and for how generously she storytells. I read I Hear She's a Bitch all the way through, in one sitting, only putting it down once near the end, so as to delay reaching its final pages." —Durga Chew-Bose, author of Too Much and Not the Mood
"Jen Agg has produced a memoir every bit as distinctive as her extraordinary restaurants. It is equal parts steel, grit, sass, TMI and analytic brilliance. Nobody is better at creating the modern bistro, a joint that's someplace, yet also relaxed; meticulous, but utterly without pretension. Agg, it turns out, has an ear to match her eye; she is a dismayingly good writer, and her book is a double how-to: how to be a garishly successful restauranteur; and how to be a semi-completed human being. She has brought every bit of her unique verve to I Hear She's a Real Bitch. (PS: She can be, but she really isn’t.)" —Stephen Metcalf, critic-at-large at Slate and host of the Culture Gabfest podcast
"The culinary world needs more Jen Aggs. . . . If you don't know the name Jen Agg, consider this your notice: It's time to meet her and hear her out." —Eater
"With equal parts feminist swagger and den-mother softness, Agg's compellingly conversational writing breaks new ground in the (typically macho) canon of restaurant memoirs by exploring the often-dysfunctional relationship between the front and the back of the house." —Maclean's
"Warning: Do not start Agg's memoir before attempting to go out / make dinner / do any chores. You won't be able to stop reading." —Elle Canada
"Agg wills her cunningly designed restaurants almost out of thin air. I say almost because this book is also an homage to her parents, who gave their electric daughter, through a brilliant, hands-off supportiveness, the mental freedom to somehow invent her own life pattern without a map for where to drill down. The message they sent her, which she in turn sends us through this full-bodied, generous book, is, as they say in Canada: 'Just go for it, eh.'" —Elle
"I Hear She's a Real Bitch tells the story of how Jen Agg fought her way through the patriarchal service industry and made it happen, from getting her first job pouring drinks all the way to starting Toronto's culinary revival and running some of Canada's most famous restaurants. Agg's frank and often hilarious observations on an industry in which sexism has been normalized, her memoir is more than just a story about starting a restaurant: it is a rallying cry for a feminist revolution in the culinary world." —Bustle
"Acerbic, beautifully written and deeply thoughtful, Agg's memoir is about not just making it in a man's world, but making it into a woman's world, too." —Refinery29
"Even if you've never eaten in one of Agg's restaurants, you've likely felt her influence on contemporary Canadian restaurant culture. . . . Agg's experience as both a key player and a ferocious critic of the bro-dominated restaurant world is the focus of her new memoir, a mash-up of personal narrative, female-empowerment tome and survival guide for women in hospitality." —Chatelaine
"A personal and motivating memoir. However you feel about her, Agg proves she's a force to be reckoned with (and aspire to)." —National Post
Praise for Jen Agg:
• "[Agg] has wit and confidence and clout in an industry where most women don't speak out. . . . She recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that eloquently and passionately described the misogynistic miasma of kitchens." —Toronto Life