Kitchen bitchin’ with Jen Agg

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Agg, Jen

I Hear She’s a Real Bitch is a powerful new memoir that combines a South Ontarian bildungsroman with the gruelling experiences of bar and restaurant ownership. Written in conversational prose, it’s coupled with journalistic detail and insight into sexism in the industry. 

It’s at once the story Jen Agg, up to the opening of her latest restaurant Grey Gardens in February, and — empathically— the story of so many others. Agg, a restaurateur with four operations in Toronto along with Agrikol here in Montreal, has been consistently and refreshingly outspoken on this subject, from social media platforms to the 2015 conference Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time.

J.P. Karwacki: At what point did you begin to question sexism in the restaurant business?

Jen Agg: It’s something I’ve been aware of my entire life. As a young woman in my early teens, I was forming ideas about what my place was in our culture, and I started to recognize little cues: not being able to get away with the same stuff dudes could get away with, whether it’s sex or jokes or whatever. So by the time I was in leadership positions in the restaurant business, it wasn’t a leap for me to connect those dots. It was always part of my worldview.

JP: Has there been much backlash?

JA: There are weird comments and people say shitty things, but generally the backlash is quiet. People in the business who don’t agree with what I’m saying don’t want to debate me, they don’t want to be on the wrong side of this publicly.

I’ve heard some criticism that it’s not my ideas that people take issue with, it’s my bombast, which is utter bullshit — I’m not screaming these things, I’m saying them rationally. It’s definitely isolating, the lack of the support in the industry.

JP: You’re commonly told by white male chefs that they “don’t notice” sexism in restaurants.

JA: Oh my God, it happens all the time. Women say it, too, that’s the extra worrying part. It’s very challenging because the industry is hierarchical to begin with. It’s up to the leaders of the industry to draw boundaries. We don’t want to make it not a fun place to be — Grey Gardens is laughs all day long, we just don’t want people to feel shitty — that’s the line I try to talk about. I know where that line is for me, but it’s different for different people. You can have the basics covered where you’re not using racial slurs and you’re not shaming people for their sexuality. But if you get into a workplace where you see these things are happening, do you have the courage to question the higher-ups? Can you imagine, as a 20-year-old cook, how difficult that would be? Like somebody’s grabbing your nuts as part of a game, and there’s points and stuff and you say, “I’m not comfortable with this” — who do you tell?

JP: That’s one of the points in the book I really engaged with, having witnessed and experienced it myself from owners and chefs while cooking.

JA: Yeah, it’s rampant. And what did you do about it when it happened to you?

JP: That’s the thing, you just take it. I’ve been touched in a way I didn’t feel appropriate before in the kitchen, alongside everyone else, but everybody just laughs it off.

JA: Yeah, and you’re a “pussy” if you don’t take it, and that’s fucked up.

JP: It’s funny how often people feel defensive once you ask them to change even their language. To imagine a world where they can’t engage with people on that level implies they would be disarmed, that they may not even have a sense of identity anymore.

JA: Right. People that have power don’t want to give it up. Ultimately, if you have the power to behave like a jackass, why would you want to give that up?

JP: Exactly. Any advice you’d give to people in the industry?

JA: Speak up! Everyone is general just needs to speak up more. 

I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jen Agg, Doubleday, 355pp, $32.95

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