The Empress Has No Clothes: a Book Review of I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jen Agg
I like Jen Agg. I don’t actually know her but, like anyone even remotely connected to the restaurant business in Toronto, I certainly know of her. Agg’s spectacular restaurant successes (and lesser failures), her delicious and no doubt revitalized feud and rivalry with one-time partner Grant van Gameren, and her often ill-advised Twitter tirades, are all well-known to Toronto’s industry insiders and restaurant-going public. And I really want to like Agg – and her restaurants and her book, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch – because I like it when women succeed. Full disclosure here: like Agg, I am also (or so I like to think) a smart, capable, successful, entertaining, feminist, female restaurateur of a certain age who smokes, drinks and swears, and has fond memories of a bucolic Scarborough youth. Agg and I have a lot in common, and I suspect that we would either get along like a house on fire, or that one of us would burn the house down with the other inside it.
By turns breezy, chatty, instructive, and amusing, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch is often an entertaining read. But it’s also didactic, cringe worthy, slipshod and infuriating. Like her book, I imagine that Agg is all those things too, and that’s what makes her likeable, or at least relatable. I suspect that Agg would rage against my use of a “likeability” factor in judging her book (something about the patriarchy no doubt), but that’s what happens when you write a memoir, as opposed to a novel or a cookbook. When you reveal yourself, candidly, openly – some might say pornographically – as Agg does in her book, well, you have to expect judgement, both personally and professionally. Haters gonna hate.
Agg is at her best in those chapters describing restaurant life: from the conception of the business, through the design, the build, and the ultimate operation. Here is where Agg details the hustle of service, the ballet in the kitchen, and what it actually feels like to be in the middle of a bustling restaurant. In the chapters devoted to her restaurants Agg is blunt and unpretentious. She offers useful explanation and advice about: charging for extras, being good at just one thing, having and expressing your vision, the importance of teamwork and working with people you like, having defined rules for service (no octopus hands!), and the importance of incorporating a business, negotiating leases, and inspecting premises. There are also useful throwaway lines about renting dishwashers, and buying new rather than refurbished refrigerators. As a restaurateur who is not a chef, I particularly appreciate the passages where Agg stresses the equal importance of the front of house in ensuring a restaurant’s success. In our chef-centric culture I agree with Agg that the restaurant-going public, and those tatted bro chefs, don’t have enough appreciation and respect for the contributions of the FOH. And speaking of tatted bro chefs, Agg’s side of her split with van Gameren was welcome, instructive and long overdue.
In a book that tells all (and shows all), it is commendable that Agg never drops the names of the many celebrities who have frequented her establishments. Agg is sympathetic when frankly considering the humbling mistakes, failures, and early inexperience in both her business and personal lives. While Agg is admirably generous in her praise of co-workers, and in her defence of her staff against rude customers, she does not cede her superiority in anything: even in describing the talents of one of her chefs she still maintains that she has a “better palate”. She is clearly fiercely competitive, not that that’s a bad thing. She is also game to be ridiculed: her 1990s-era vodka menu is a scream in our post-oldtimey cocktail era, and the recycled Vodka is Stupid article still resonates.
In her acknowledgements, Agg thanks her editor and I’m not sure why. Either Agg ran roughshod in the editing process or her editor was just plain sloppy. There are many grammatical mistakes here, including: misspelled words, missing articles, misuse of words, repetitive use of words and expressions, sentences ending with prepositions, and mix-ups of who and whom. There are also factual errors, made up words, unnecessary explications and incorrect legal advice. There is a glossary at the back of the book defining words and phrases that are never used in the book itself. Someone should have reined in all the parentheses too (several per page, every page), as well as the excessive italicization. In my view, the use of capital letters should be limited to the beginning word of a sentence and proper nouns. As anyone with a cell phone knows, texting in capital letters is akin to shouting. THERE IS SO MUCH SHOUTING IN THIS BOOK! I know that capitalization is kind of Agg’s Twitter shtick, but it’s too conversational for a book. I dislike it almost as much as I dislike one word sentences. Which. Is. A. Lot. Oh, and someone should have explained paragraph structure to Agg, or at least her editor.
There is a lot of repetition too, from rehashing in a different form what was said in the immediately preceding paragraph or in previously published work, to repeated advice and reheated themes. How many times do I have to read about the importance of lighting when designing a restaurant? Apparently, about twenty times. For a restaurateur, it concerns me that she appears to be more concerned with inspiration, design, cocktails, music soundtracks and staffing than with the actual food that she serves. To the extent that Agg writes about food, which she does very well, she writes about other people’s food. As a diner, it matters very little to me how well the lighting flatters me if the food isn’t good.
Agg is less successful in those chapters detailing her childhood; there are huge tracts that can be skimmed or avoided entirely. A rather long paragraph devoted to her cats? Ho hum. Page upon page of teenage drinking and sexual exploits? Snore. Several long passages relate Scarberian cartography and transit routes, going so far as to name actual bus lines and intersecting transfer points. I don’t know for sure, but it seems Agg lifted huge swaths of her grade school journals what with passages as jejune as the one detailing her intense childhood connection to trees and the travails of obtaining a driver’s licence. Childhoods are interesting when they are eventful. Agg’s youth was as mundane and banal as mine. And those mind-numbing and endless lists! Agg admits she’s a list maker, but the frequent recitation of cool bands, friends and co-workers, teenage crushes, hip movies and books, junk food, dive bars, and lame TV shows, adds only to her word count. Similarly, the reader can manage without the twee illustrations which seemingly serve merely to pad the page tally.
Despite Agg’s complaints about bro-tastic chef and kitchen culture, Agg is only too happy to assume a try-hard, bro-ish, bad boy, literary mantle. I can’t remember the last book I read that so liberally used the word “fuck” and its variations. I’ve been in the restaurant business long enough to know that the idiom “swears like a sailor” is not remotely adequate to describe the language of restaurant industry veterans. I probably say “fuck” at least twenty times a day myself. But I have enough restraint and discretion to swear off swearing when talking with my family or my customers. I get it. Agg is cool. But saying “fuck” all the time in a supposedly literary memoir gets a little thin a lot fast. Talk about fucking flogging a dead fucking horse.
I also have a problem with Agg’s oversharing. I respect that Agg’s stories are hers to tell, and that she requires the permission of no man (or no woman, but especially no man) to relate her life’s narrative. But her stories connect to other people’s stories too, and perhaps ones they might have preferred remained private. Do we really need to know that Agg’s mother had a vibrator and that her parents had loud sex at the family cottage? Leaving aside the question of whether that vibrator story constitutes child pornography (I’m no expert, but did anyone consult an expert?), it’s just plain ugh. Now let’s never speak of that vibrator story again, the one that should never have been published in the first place.
It’s very weird that in a book one might reasonably expect to be about the restaurant industry, one finds the author to be so lengthily consumed with discussions of sex. Agg is admonishing and prescriptive about everyone’s sexuality, except her own of course, which appears to be the only sexuality that isn’t repressed or plain old vanilla. As for Agg’s “many-cocked sex” fantasies, I really didn’t need or want to know about them. And such cheek to use the trademark symbol following Agg’s assertion that she wants to “have my cock and eat it too”; I can virtually guarantee that outside of Penthouse letters and Cosmo quizzes, no one will ever want to use that expression. Finally, at least with respect to oversharing, how did no one manage to talk Agg out of including the “portrait of the author” drawing? I imagine Agg thought her nude drawing would be edgy. It’s not. It’s embarrassing. To be clear, I mean embarrassing for her, not me. If I don’t want to see Agg’s cooter (or tits, dicks and asses on her restaurant’s wallpaper), that doesn’t make me “fucked up culturally about sex” or “ashamed” as Agg would have it. I expect that Agg would call me a prude. Nope. Just not prurient.
Agg’s cultural tone deafness is problematic for me too. Here are a few examples: saying that New Orleans was fun “other than the racism”, being insulted that she doesn’t get enough “rapey death threats”, claiming “as much as I want to fuck the patriarchy, it seems I still want to know it’s at least a little interested in fucking me back”, stating that her Vodka is Stupid diatribe “did NOT endear me to the Slavic people of the restaurant industry”, declaring that she understands depression because she menstruates followed up by “NO OFFENCE TO CLINICALLY DEPRESSED PEOPLE”, and excusing her whitesplaining of black culture simply by promising to “STOP WHITESPLAINING BLACK CULTURE”. Here’s a heads up: apologizing before or after insulting someone doesn’t excuse the insult. No offence, but that’s offensive. See what I mean?
As a feminist, I am loathe to criticize another’s concept or practice of feminism. As far as I’m concerned, we need a big and inclusive tent that aims to be even bigger and more inclusive, particularly as so many young women and men today do not identify as feminist. But for someone who claims to be “AGGRESSIVELY FEMINIST”, Agg says some really dumb things. Agg’s feminism comes across as very convenient, and time and place specific. For example, it’s not okay to call me “sweetie” unless I really need you to do something for me. Or, “never underestimate the power of short-shorts; we might as well game the system anywhere we can”. When you slut shame your childhood friends, that’s not feminist. When you have sex with your best friend’s boyfriend, it’s not the patriarchy that’s to blame. When your friends are concerned about you having reckless teenage sex with a rando, their alarm is not a function of the patriarchy. Screwing a married man and then going to the shiva when he dies isn’t very sisterly. Calling someone a “starter” husband is as dismissive as calling someone else a “trophy wife”. Getting wrinkly, saggy and soft isn’t the patriarchy’s fault; it’s called aging and gravity, and probably also has something to do with nachos and rose. And a one-off adulterous fling with another woman is not feminism either. But most importantly, admitting to be being a “bad feminist” or a “terrible feminist”, admitting to being dismissive of other women, and putting dicks before chicks, is definitely not feminist. For someone who argues strenuously for her feminism, Agg’s words speak louder than her actions. Where are her female partners? Where are her female chefs?
Sometimes Agg is just plain mean, like when she describes security guards as “aggressive mouth-breathers just into their twenties [who] play out all their ‘why wouldn’t you date me?’ revenge fantasies on the cool girls who pocket Bonne Bell lipsticks”. Or when she characterizes bankruptcy officers as “unsympathetic men in awful suits…vermin, trained to make people feel small, irresponsible, and corrupt…and I think they enjoy it”. Agg’s view of men and women is hugely reductive and seriously stuck in second wave feminism. Women are compassionate and men aren’t. Men are trained not to cry and women are trained not to demand. Marriage and feminism are incompatible. Wanting your partner to see you as beautiful is not feminist. “Men bond with bosses who treat them like dogs”. Men “place no value on the on the thinking and creative process that goes into making a restaurant special”. Someone please tell Agg about third-wave feminism, fourth-wave feminism, intersectionality, and post-feminism.
One of my biggest issues with Agg is her refusal to acknowledge the component that luck has played in her success: “I heard that all the time – how ‘lucky’ I was, as though it had just happened, an indignity that I’m sure Grant [van Gameren] didn’t have to suffer”. Sure she’s inspired, intrepid, hard-working, smart, tough as nails, take no prisoners gutsy, and finger on the pulse savvy. But it doesn’t mean you’re not a feminist if you acknowledge your luck. It’s just bad karma, major privilege and some serious chip on the shoulder talking to believe you truly and solely create your own success. That’s just wanting your luck buttered. I like Jen Agg. Really I do. But I Hear She’s a Real Bitch isn’t so much a complaint as a confession.