W5 profile: Jen Agg built an epicurean empire in a male-dominated industry
Published Friday, March 9, 2018 7:00AM EST
At 42, Jen Agg is the woman behind five of Canada’s top restaurants.
In Toronto, she created The Black Hoof, Rhum Corner, Cocktail Bar, Grey Gardens, and in Montreal, Agrikol, a place she opened with the Grammy-winning indie rock band, Arcade Fire.
It’s actually quite remarkable Agg was able to build an epicurean empire in an overwhelmingly male industry; a so-called macho culture, which she’s been fearlessly taking on.
It’s made her tough.
Agg has as many enemies as allies. To some, she’s a bully who feeds off her devoted Twitter following. To others, she’s leading the charge for change.
She’s in your face, says it the way she sees it and doesn’t back down from a confrontation. In fact, she thrives in combative situations. Few critics are bold enough to publically criticize her.
Agg may be a tastemaker, but she also has a reputation for being unforgiving, with a take-no-prisoners attitude.
Needless to say, I was curious about what this trendsetter would be like when we sat down to chat for CTV’s W5. I anticipated Agg would be a lively interview and she didn’t disappoint. After all, behind her back, she’s described as picky, volatile, sarcastic, stubborn and opinionated.
Her response. “What are you going to do? You know, ultimately I don’t care. (But) I mean it. You know, (there are) some things I’m going to take personally. I’m not made of stone.” And she adds: “But I do think I wouldn’t be as polarizing as a man. And I think that’s where the kind of crux comes to all the time.”
We certainly got a sense very quickly of how polarizing this ambitious and strong-willed woman can be, but her candor and determination were disarming.
It’s easy to see why she’s the go-to restaurateur for commentary, especially in the era of #metoo.
Agg says sexual misconduct is rife in the restaurant business.
“I had a cook (who showed), what do you call it, a boy part’s pic? A d—k pic.? (He showed) that to a server and you know I’ve never screamed at someone the way I screamed at him.”
As to whether sexual harassment is epidemic in her industry, Agg says: “Yes, absolutely. It’s systemic. It’s an epidemic. It’s endemic. It’s all of these things.”
It has driven Agg to write editorials and essays in The Globe and Mail and The New Yorker. She’s also been tweeting about restaurant industry harassment for years. In 2015, she even staged a conference around the issue – “Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time.”
Recently Agg released her memoir, aptly titled. “I Hear She’s a Real Bitch”, a tongue-in-cheek nod to her reputation.
Of course, I had to ask: “So are you a bitch?”
Agg’s uncompromising answer: “Well, twist ending … no! That’s kind of the point. [Because] when you say things that you think, or you live the way I do, or you live an uncompromising life, or however you want put it, as a woman, you get branded a bitch, and as a man you don’t, and it’s not fair.”
Watch “5 Star Jen” Saturday at 7pm, on CTV’s W5.