Jen Agg’s I Hear She’s a Real Bitch (2017)

“Everything about the restaurant business is made harder by being in it as a woman. And speaking out about that only makes it worse.”

And, yet, she is doing just that. Speaking out and putting herself out there, in I Hear She’s a Real Bitch.

Readers meet Jen Agg on the page at “The Hoof”, one of her successful Toronto restaurants, which rests its reputation on the charcuterie board.

As a vegetarian reader, this did not immediately draw me into her story, but it introduces readers to her business philosophy (focus, linear vision), sets the scene and introduces some industry-specific vocabulary.

Agg appears intelligent and thoughtful, opting to follow Fergus Henderson’s theory (chef at St. John in London) of “whole animal eating”. She is sensitive to waste in other ways as well, opting, for instance, to stop serving sides of pickles on the charcuterie board and reducing the cost of the board and listing pickles as a side dish instead, rather than throw out countless pickles every night. (The pickles sound amazing, actually. Says the vegetarian.)

Beyond what is plated at her restaurants, she also aims to change patterns of relating in the industry. She prefers to lead on the basis of respect, rather than follow the traditional militaristic master-servant roles which are characteristic of restaurant kitchens, and she aims to blur the lines between front-of-house and back-of-house (i.e. kitchen) staff, so that staff members feel part of a unified whole, a real team.

Even so, beyond the walls of her businesses, it’s a world filled with bro chefs and internalized misogyny. The double-standard in life and work affects every relationship and she feels she has become “the restaurant industry’s unofficial mascot for feminism”.

She addresses this on the professional and personal level. After a brief introduction in the “now”, readers shift back to “then”, when Jen Agg was a tomboy growing up in Scarborough.

She lived a 20-minute ride on the suburb’s Rapid Transit system from the city’s subway system (a long way from the bustling downtown she inhabits now). Readers peek at her dad’s Alzheimers and her mom’s “personal massager”; we learn about her first kiss and bummed cigarettes, against a backdrop of “Three’s Company” and “Heathers”. When she begins working in the restaurant industry, the talk of personal and intimate details continues with dating and growing professional concerns.

Consistently, she calls out the double standard, observing that “the patriarchy says to take it slow when you like a dude so he won’t think you’e a slut (it’s baked in and we all eat the brownies)”. Agg does not hesitate to share intimate detatils: readers also learn about her philsophy of separate bedrooms for married couples and PMS, while she’s skewering maraschino cherries at work and drinking rye-and-gingers at play. Marriage, divorce, evolving ideas about sexuality and solitude and step-parenting: she discloses a lot of detail alongside the professional chatter about bad reviews and broken relationships with key personnel, requirements for washroom construction and the debate over whether to have staff meals mid-shift (an idea which just seems to make sense).

Ultimately, the take-away is that owning a restaurant is a “fuck-ton of work…never, ever stops being that”.

Between chapters there are illustrations or text boxes, sometimes instructive (e.g. Ten Commandments of Restaurant Service) and sometimes humourous (e.g. the “No idea why we use pussy as slang for weak; balls are weak. Pussies can take a pounding” cartoon).

There is also a glossary at the back which outlines some terms, although the criteria for inclusion makes it seem like an afterthought.

For instance, “roll-ups” are defined (although the tidy napkin-wrapped cutlery packets don’t play a major role in the narrative) but “first push” is not (although it warrants quotation marks when it’s referred to in the narrative (but isn’t technically defined there, just described).

Meanwhile, “octopus hands” are defined in the glossary and in the text – the artless habit of picking up a glass from above at the rim with your fingers – perhaps because it is one of the author’s pet peeves, as defined and described in the narrative:

“Who knows where your grubby little fingers have been? I know where mine have been (basically, if it’s a hole, I’ve been poking around there in the recent past, and that’s enough to make me not want to place my mouth on the lip of a glass you’ve smeared with finger group.”

Jen Agg’s grubby little fingers are all over this book. Some readers might lament that it is not immediately categorizable as either business or memoir, but for readers who do not have a specialized interest in reading her story, her casual tone and tendency to overshare makes for entertaining reading.

Toronto Book Award 2017

One of five books nominated by this year's jury

I Hear She's a Real Bitch

“This book crackles with heart, smarts, passion, and verve.”

Read the rest of the jury’s comments by clicking on the image above.

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2017-10-06T14:55:38+00:00

10 Comments

  1. Wendy October 11, 2017 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    Your reviews sure cover a wide range of books which is a reflection likely of your love for reading! Your review reminded me that I should check out the Saskatchewan Book Awards! I was also reminded that the only time I’ve read about a character who is a vegetarian was in Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”. One of the characters had been living in Vancouver and was a vegetarian and was considered “odd” which of course made me smile because I eat a vegan diet. And some additional commentary on the separate beds, it worked for my husband and I to get some quality sleep which is important. Although I never liked to tell other people about this arrangement. 🙂 Happy Reading….

    • Buried In Print October 12, 2017 at 12:27 pm - Reply

      Whenever I see another region’s book awards, I think I’d like to read them too. I’ll enjoy hearing what you think of the Saskatchewan Book Award nominees; I think they’re still accepting submissions for the 2017 categories, so you have time to prepare your TBR stack to be inundated with new arrivals!

      It always makes me smile to come across vegetarian characters too. I didn’t remember about the Smiley, but I’d have been tickled, as I read it shortly after making the change myself. Our household is vegan, but I occasionally order something when I am in a cafe, so I don’t use the term out of respect for those who are as strict about their vegan choices as I am about being vegetarian. I imagine that it must be more challenging to live vegan in Saskatchewan than in Toronto?

      • wendy October 16, 2017 at 10:44 am - Reply

        Eating out can be a challenge but it’s changing (slowly)….I read an article on KD Lang and how difficult it was in the 80’s to be a vegetarian ( a lot of bananas and almonds for her while touring Canada in winter when there was no almond milk in the stores) and of course the backlash growing up in Calgary. Last month was the first veggie festival in Calgary and the turn out exceeded expectations and they ran out of food.

  2. Naomi October 10, 2017 at 11:56 am - Reply

    Food waste bothers me. I’d love to hear more about what she does at her restaurant to avoid it. Or maybe it’s just a quick mention?

    This might not be a must read for me, but it definitely sounds like an entertaining one. I’d like to hear more about the separate beds idea, too… sometimes I wonder about it. 😉

    • Rebecca Foster October 10, 2017 at 12:14 pm - Reply

      Food waste is one of my pet issues too. I feel like it must be rampant in the restaurant industry. Baskets of untouched bread, a big butter pat with just a tiny bit used, plate scrapings, burned portions…

      I feel like I’d sleep better solo, though that would also apply to the cat, who is accustomed to sleeping on the bed.

      • Naomi October 10, 2017 at 1:53 pm - Reply

        Yes, the pets! Sometimes I have a dog (a big dog) on one side of my legs and a cat on the other, and I can’t even roll over (I wouldn’t want to disturb their sleep!). Not to mention a husband in there somewhere. 🙂

        • Buried In Print October 12, 2017 at 12:17 pm - Reply

          Haha. She doesn’t have a lot to say about either issue. Just a few sentences. It feels like a very “full” book, and I’m sure another reader could easily have picked completely different matters to highlight.

  3. Rebecca Foster October 10, 2017 at 11:51 am - Reply

    I like restaurateur memoirs. Gabrielle Hamilton’s and Molly Wizenberg’s are two that spring to mind. I didn’t know Agg was from Toronto. I’m a “flexitarian,” but I appreciate her commitment to reducing waste and using a whole animal.

    • Buried In Print October 12, 2017 at 12:15 pm - Reply

      I’m curious to know how this would compare with other industry memoirs, whether the balance of personal/business is different. But I’m not curious enough to read on in the genre. Not at this time anyhow…

  4. Caroline October 9, 2017 at 7:25 am - Reply

    Ha. Finally someone with the same separate bedroom philosophy. This sounds like a really interesting biography. Like you, being a vegetarian, I’m not immediately drawn to chefs who cook with a lot of meat.

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