“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.