'Kitchens can be locker rooms' restaurateur Jen Agg tells Andrew Coppolino

Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg talks with CBC Kitchener-Waterloo food columnist Andrew Coppolino about the "extremely macho" restaurant industry.

Restaurant industry 'an extremely macho' one, Agg says

Restaurateur Jen Agg opens up about being the boss in a male-dominated industry in her memoir. (Nick Koza/Doubleday)

Jen Agg has been successful in what is a very male-dominated industry.

The Toronto restaurateur has published a memoir – I Hear She's a Real Bitch – that chronicles her start in the restaurant business: She opened the famed The Black Hoof restaurant in Toronto.

The memoir traces her progress in the industry and addresses the issues of sexual harassment and the toxic environment in the food service business. 

In 2015, she organized a conference – "Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time" – inspired by the sexual harassment of Toronto chef Kate Burnham, settled at Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal.

Agg's responses here have been edited for brevity.

Why did you write the book?

Jen Agg: To be honest, I met Kristin Cochrane who runs Penguin Random House Canada and she said I should write a book. And I said, well if she thinks I should write a book, she might have something. It's not a very exciting story, but that's the truth.

Given the breaking Harvey Weinstein news, how does the narrative of the book and the "Kitchen Bitches" conference you organized in 2015 appear to you now?

Agg: It's pretty funny we keep having all of these watershed moments, but nothing ever seems to shed. These things keep happening. It's great that culture is doing a little bit of a shift, but I wouldn't say it is the complete overhaul that's needed. 

It's shifting a little bit so that women are feeling comfortable-ish coming forward. I still think it's a huge risk and I still think it's worth noting that some of these women are pretty strong and powerful in their own right, and they waited 20 years to tell this story. And then they have to deal with being criticized for not speaking up sooner? Are you kidding me? It's crazy.

Why don't more women own restaurants?

Agg: I can't think of too many industries that are as large as the restaurant industry that are so male-dominated. I mean, other than every other industry.

It's an extremely macho, male industry to begin with. To get through that, you have to be pretty tough. You have to be willing to be ostracized and alienated and criticized for speaking up about things you don't like about the industry, which has certainly been my experience.

There are going to be a lot of people standing in your way, often men. And they don't maybe even realize. Sometimes it's malicious, sometimes it isn't. I think sometimes they don't realize they are standing in your way by creating a culture that is built around with what they, men, are comfortable with.

Kitchens can be locker rooms to the extreme or they can be super-professional and welcoming and awesome and fun. It doesn't have to be the way it is.

Historically, kitchens have been hierarchical. Does that also mean they are, by default, patriarchal?

Agg: Certainly those things are connected. Where things get blurry and grey is that you've got hierarchies that help a restaurant run properly. You can't run a restaurant without leadership. You can't do much without leadership, so when you automatically have this hierarchy in place, I think there can be very blurred lines for young cooks who are maybe uncomfortable with what is happening around them in the restaurant and kitchen.

Can you give an example?

Agg: Let's say a dishwasher or a young cook is being made the butt of joke. They may not like that, but who are they going to complain to? Their direct supervisor who's laughing along? It's difficult. It becomes so normalized for these young cooks that they maybe don't even realize how ugly it is. This adds to the difficulty of changing the business and makes it this Wild West mentality.

And for women in particular?

Agg: It's like when men say, "You know, I've had three daughters now and I finally realize that women are people." You had to have a daughter to realize that? It's the same. You had to have women in your space, in your kitchen, to realize that you should treat women better? It's kind of basic.

In your experience in the industry, has the environment for women in restaurants and kitchens gotten better, worse, stayed the same?

Agg: I don't know. A bit from column A and a bit from column B. It gets better in some ways and shockingly worse. You think the world is becoming more progressive and then somebody like Trump gets in power, and you're like, "Oh, right. All of these people are horrible racists." 

Obviously, it's naïve to say the world isn't, in some ways, inching forward to a better place because there are major issues in human rights that are better than they were 50 years ago, but in terms of my experience in my life, I would say that I'm fighting the same things, the same ideas my entire life. So, it hasn't changed much for me.

Agg will be speaking at "Appetite for Words" at the Stratford Chefs School on Sunday, October 29. 

More columns from Andrew Coppolino


  • An earlier version of this story spelled Kristin Cochrane's name incorrectly.
    Oct 19, 2017 12:15 PM ET


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.


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