At one point in Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s turn-of-the-millennium memoir on the lows (and sometimes literal) heights of a male cook’s life, he spies a chef having sex with a stranger on her wedding day behind the seafood joint where he washes dishes. He decides, then and there, that he wants to be a part of the restaurant industry for good. It’s worked out for him: Almost 20 years later, he’s written many more books, hosted several wildly popular TV shows, and unwittingly inspired a generation of young chefs to pursue a life of hard kitchen living.
Early on in Black Hoof restaurateur Jen Agg’s new memoir, I Hear She’s A Real Bitch, a man also pulls his pants down. In this case, however, it’s to secretly masturbate on the other side of the bar where Agg worked as a teenager, her first job in the business. That man went to jail, while Agg went on to open a series of cocktail bars and restaurants that have influenced the way Canadian dining looks and feels ever since. Unlike Bourdain’s origin story, Agg’s memory isn’t a confession so much as a straightforward anecdote of a woman working in hospitality.
The difference between these early-career experiences probably comes as little surprise to many women who’ve poured pints at a sports bar or worked years of dinner services in tiny, overheated kitchens staffed mostly by men. That Agg’s memoir spends a great deal of time pointing out the double standards and harassment women in restaurants often face will also come as little surprise to anyone who has followed her career, or her Twitter missives on sexism, Via Rail’s customer service and good wine.
The book’s title, for example, highlights the way peers have tended to react to her personality – and what a personality like hers does when called “angry” or a “mean girl” in one too many restaurant reviews, often for running her businesses precisely as she likes, or refusing to be patronized by old-school construction contractors.
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. (A whole chapter in the book is dedicated to the event.)
Through the book’s 20 chapters, Agg details different iterations of herself: A skinny tween who jumps out of trees and discovers a far more comforting use for her mother’s back massager; an ambling teenager who sleeps with her best friend’s boyfriend and moves out at 16; a twentysomething who finds all-consuming love after a failed first marriage; and a determined woman who, arguably, falls equally hard for something else: the thrill of opening restaurants.
For a book that details a vibrant sex life and includes a nude portrait of the author herself, some of Agg’s more revealing writing comes when she describes the thought process behind the creation of a space, and how she occupies them. Entire chapters are dedicated to the rhythm of a dinner service that bring to life the deeply ingrained muscle memory earned from years of swiftly moving between tables without bumping a shoulder, passing plates among cooks in impossibly small kitchens and describing the same dish to diners a thousand times over.
Watch her as an earnest 22-year-old who keeps a guest book for Cobalt, her first business venture; who insists on grouting and polishing her own stained-glass tables and tinkers with a preserved-cherry recipe until it is perfect for cocktails. Or 10 years later, on the cusp of the Black Hoof’s massive success, listing rules on how servers should pick up glasses (never from the top) what they can or can’t say to diners (always amp up bar stool seating; “Are you still working on that?” is verboten) and obsessing over every last light bulb and candle in the dining room. While they may start as a napkin drawing or rum-soaked conversation, the ambitiously casual environment of Agg’s restaurants aren’t at all whims – and when bankrolled on personal budgets far smaller than your average big-name restaurant chain, they can’t afford to be.
There are moments when this exacting approach spills into the writing itself, and while at times this is cleverly winked at as intentional – the book’s jacket introduction is punctuated with edits and objections from Agg herself – there are other occasions when it stops the reader short. More than a few times, Agg will follow a story or observation with a bracketed hedge. “(OKAY, I’LL STOP WHITESPLAINING BLACK CULTURE),” she concedes at one point after diving into the aesthetic and ethos of Rhum Corner, her and husband Roland Jean’s Haitian-Caribbean restaurant. “(I am fully expecting a dissection of this line as evidence of my admitted bourgeois, white-girl feminism),” she quips in another, following a description of the relative freedom of her childhood in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.
Agg has described these asides as “conversations I have with myself when I think or say a horrible thing.” In a one-on-one conversation, which is much of the feel in Agg’s writing, these brackets function as raised hands that cut off critique before it’s even articulated as a question. “I know what you’re thinking,” they seem to say, “And I’ll explain to you why this is problematic before you can do it for me.” This may work for the title, but when discussing issues of power and privilege in restaurants beyond sexism alone, it’s a lost opportunity. There are times, for example, when she touches on the gentrification the Hoof’s success ushered in for the Toronto neighbourhood of Trinty-Bellwoods that three of her restaurants reside in, but distances herself from the effects.
Some of the most valuable takeaways are Agg’s observations of the less obvious, but equally pervasive ways that sexism weaves its way into this minutia of restaurant life. Take the concept of emotional labour – the idea that smiling for every guest who walks through the door or nurturing tightly knit back– and front-of-house staff who actually get along with each other is, in fact, hard work. It’s a concept easily glossed over in an environment where 10-plus hours of frying, crouching, reaching and lifting in oppressively hot kitchens are celebrated as the only real (and, frankly, often underpaid) type of hospitality labour.
Equally instructive: Agg proves the value of that labour by weaving knowledge throughout the book that initially comes off as flip comments about the business, but for the reader looking for it, are really schematic instructions to how to open a restaurant: Always rent your dishwashing machine, IKEA lighting is never worth the money it saves, and never buy a fridge secondhand unless you’re keen on having it break down in the middle of a Saturday night service.
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.
Chantal Braganza is a digital editor at TVO and a writer in Toronto.Report Typo/Error
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