Jen Agg’s success in the food world is undeniable. The 41-year-old restaurateur has made her own brand of casual, cool dining with five establishments in two cities, and helped position Toronto as a major player on the culinary map.
Her mini restaurant empire includes Toronto’s charcuterie-focused Black Hoof, the restaurant that made her a household name when she introduced the city to snout-to-tail eating in 2008; the adjacent speakeasy-inspired Cocktail Bar; Haitian-influenced Rhum Corner and Agrikol (Agrikol is in Montreal and co-owned by Arcade Fire front couple Win Butler and Régine Chassagne); and her newest gem, Grey Gardens, a wine bistro in Toronto’s Kensington Market.
True to Jen Agg form, Grey Gardens, which opened earlier this year, feels casual, elegant, and artful, with its bentwood chairs, gray-green botanical mural, and accents of marble, vintage glass, and brass. “I describe it as clean-lined modernity meets antiqued decay,” says Agg who’s a big stickler for décor details. “It drives me crazy when I go somewhere and on first glance the washroom seems lovely, but as you sit there, you notice the basic waste bin and ugly commercial door handles,” she says. “It’s not that hard to find beautiful things, and make them sturdy enough for commercial use.”
As for deciding on Grey Gardens’ concept, Agg ran with what she likes. “I just felt that a really great wine list full of all the kinds I want to drink, coupled with truly excellent food, hadn’t been done,” she explains.
For Agg, opening five properties as a woman in a notoriously competitive and male-dominated industry has been her greatest accomplishment. “It’s not an industry that makes it easy for women to rise to the top, especially if you have the gall to have any opinions about like, anything,” she replies with an enviable self-confidence.
With that same confidence and unrestrained bluntness, Agg never shies away from standing up to restaurant bro culture and calling out the misogyny women face in kitchens: In 2015, Agg organized a sold-out conference called “Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time” that addressed gender, sexism, and injustice in restaurants; and a month later, penned an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Sexism in the Kitchen” that passionately described the harassment women face all too often. These actions, among others, have established Agg as a leading feminist rebrand in the food industry. “Ultimately, my hope is that my attitude will inspire other women to feel comfortable speaking up,” she says. “Strength in numbers, baby!”
Agg’s feminist spirit, bold personality, and culinary accomplishments were the perfect ingredients for her sharp, candid, juicy memoir released this past spring. Titled I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, the book was the brainchild of president and publisher of Penguin Random House, Kristin Cochrane, who encouraged Agg to write the book the same evening the two met at Cocktail Bar. “You don’t say no to Kristin. She’s a force, and I love and admire her very much,” says Agg. The part personal narrative, part restaurant industry survival guide reclaims the b-word. “We underlying theme is that it’s okay to be a woman, and have an opinion, and be con dent, and enjoy sex, etc., etc.,” she discloses. “We contain multitudes!”
Between all the various restaurant projects on the go, what’s next for this culinary expert and now-published author? “Nothing, I need to see the world,” says Agg. “But I suspect I’m not quite done opening restaurants.”