June 6, 2015
By Tamara Khandaker
As Jen Agg’s 10,500-plus Twitter followers already know, the Toronto restaurateur is unapologetic about having a lot to say. Her unrestrained feminism, biting wit, and remarkable success story are the perfect ingredients for what’s sure to be a great memoir, scheduled to come out in the fall of 2016, titled I Hear She’s a Real Bitch. But besides a larger-than-life personality, she’s known mostly as one of the key players responsible for bringing Toronto’s food scene out of obscurity back in 2008, with the opening of her charcuterie restaurant The Black Hoof followed by the opening of Cocktail Bar and the Rhum Corner.
Now collaborating with Win Butler and Régine Chassagne of Arcade Fire on the Haitian-inspired Agrikol in Montreal, Agg says opening a restaurant feels like a piece of cake. She chatted with the Star about being a woman in a male-dominated industry, the most challenging aspects of writing her book, and what it’s really like to work for her.
Did you always know you wanted to be a restaurateur?
No. It came about as a way to be self-employed, something I knew I wanted from almost the moment I started working for other people. I like to make decisions, always have. I owned a bar in my 20s and realized fast that I liked being my own boss. A restaurant was a natural progression.
Can you describe your leadership style?
I’ve always learned the hard way how to be a better boss and how to rely more on the expertise of my staff. When I first opened the Hoof, I wanted to do everything and tended bar five nights a week, full services, on top of running the restaurant and opening the Hoof Cafe. It was stupid and crazy to not focus on just being a manager. On the plus side, I built an incredibly strong team with my micro-managing, and because of that, I now have the freedom to do other stuff through a long-built trust. There is no greater resource than people you trust. Teach and treat them well.
If I asked your employees what it’s like to work for you, what do you think they’d say?
Probably the opposite of what anyone who’s never worked for me would imagine they’d say. I look to them for guidance now more than ever and can’t believe how great they all are. It’s truly a team effort and I adore them. They’re my family, and I both hope and trust they feel similarly.
What have been the most fun and most challenging aspects of the writing process?
The most fun was writing a good chunk of it in a hut on the beach in Samana, Dominican Republic. The most challenging is that writing is f—ing hard. You fall into a self-obsessed hole and futz with the smallest details, and you’re so inside the words that eventually a thing you thought was hilarious doesn’t even make you smile anymore. It’s very think-y, and I can hardly ever escape from it. Wine helps.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“Check your blind spots. Check them again,” from my dad. And “don’t read the comments!” from everyone who cares about me.
As a woman in a business predominantly run by men, what’s the most overtly sexist thing you’ve had to deal with?
How much time do you have? (Laughs.) But seriously, I know I’ve beaten this horse to death, and yet it still isn’t dead — I can’t get over the insane double standard by which men and women are judged in our culture. It galls, appalls, and boggles me every single day. And sadly, I have so many stories that run the whole gamut, from every-day sexism — my contractor recently told me to “calm down and just relax” when I was very calmly explaining dissatisfaction with a washroom detail (he apologized, which I appreciated) — to extreme ugliness, like being heckled on the streets or in the comments, and everything in between. But I do feel something happening. More and more, women are saying no and standing up for themselves. Obviously, I’m speaking from my experiences as a white, middle-class woman and understand there are far worse indignities in the world suffered by women, of any colour.
What are the biggest challenges of running restaurants in Toronto?
The constant, churning influx of “hot, new must-try restaurants,” which are only very occasionally worthy of a visit — a side effect of an exploding, young culture. That and the really s—ty winters.
How do you manage to stay healthy, and balance your work and personal life?
I’m almost too embarrassed to say, but it’s mostly a repeated mantra of “bacon doesn’t make you fat, bread makes you fat,” the scientific merits of which I can only support anecdotally. Also, I do a lot of pilates and work out regularly — a new, fun thing I was forced to discover in my late 30s. (Husband) Roland and I never seem to tire of each other and spend a lot of time together. Despite sometimes feeling like I’m drowning in work, I love it, and it feels normal and balanced for me. I sleep well and wake up refreshed. And I don’t get hangovers. My friends hate me.