I Hear She’s a Real Bitch – Jen Agg

Uh oh. I just remembered how very much Jen Agg hates those amateur reviewers, those damned bloggers who can’t stop spouting their uninformed opinions.

Well. I’m sure she only meant obnoxious food bloggers who take bad photos of their plates and give her restaurants bad reviews. Right?

If not, she can blame her publisher for putting her book up on Netgalley and opening it up to us damned bloggers.

Jen Agg is a Toronto restaurateur – not a chef, but the owner of several very successful spots where her unique vision has been made reality. This memoir plunges right into what service at “The Black Hoof” is like – “exactly the type of service I want but so rarely get when dining out” – and that (along with a very early reference to Star Trek) is a big part of what sucked me in. Ms. Agg comes at service much the way I do, and for much the same reasons: I started out my working life in retail, and my first real office job was intensive trial-by-fire customer service, so I know how it’s supposed to be done. That can make me a hard customer, because I have little tolerance for apathy or stupidity. And Ms. Agg is the same. “You can’t teach someone to give a s***.” Oh – she has a list of phrases she never wants to hear a server say, and one of them is straight out of the training I had way back when: “No problem”. Well, yeah, if I’m calling customer service, there is a problem. And I don’t care if it’s a problem for you – if I’m the customer, that’s not my problem. It’s really interesting to see someone else echoing my pet peeves.

Oh, and the customer? NOT always right. Truly.

One point she makes, which is similar to something I’ve been saying forever, is that everyone – sorry, she used all caps (as she often does): EVERYONE should work in a restaurant for at least six months. I’ve been saying retail, but it comes to the same thing: “it changes your perspective”. Everyone. I’m looking at you, you giant Cheeto.

The book is chatty and colloquial, feeling like you the reader are sitting with Jen Agg over a cocktail or three. I can only think she talks exactly like she writes, and it’s fun to read (“especially stabby violence”; ” I don’t want to be all old-man-shakesfist-at-cloud”; “fundamentally it-getty”). She over-shares about her childhood and (compared with mine) wild teenage years, her sex life and political opinions (three guesses how she feels about the current administration). I loved when she – who embraced sex, drugs, rock and roll, smoking, and especially booze at a very early age and with all her heart – clucked softly over what kids today go through – after which she invariably acknowledged what she had just done. Oh, and she’s absolutely a Trekkie. It’s a hoot.

I’ve noted before how interesting it is to read something written by a person who is utterly and totally enveloped in a particular world; I’ve seen it mostly in Food People. They are so steeped in the ins and outs and intricacies of the food business, and maybe have never known any other world, never worked in any other field, that it’s startling to see their point of view on … well, people like me, outsiders. The attitude toward non-insiders is illuminating; being Other isn’t just a matter of race or class, what you drive or what you believe in or whether you prefer wine or beer – the food business seems to be an insular universe that looks upon the uninitiated with, often, distaste. The little passage about Saturday diners was … surprising to me.

I have a feeling I’m going to get myself in trouble with this, but here goes: Ms. Agg talks throughout her story about the extra difficulties she faces being a woman in charge, and about the caustic sexism of “the bro-chef way of life”. She’s a hero in her take-no-prisoners put-up-with-no-guff attitude toward life and work, breaking down barriers and glass ceilings and stereotypes. But … I have to note that at none of the restaurants she talks about opening in her career has she hired a woman chef. Let me hasten to add that I loathe the idea of someone being given a job or acceptance at a college or anything else solely because they’re male, female, black, white, Indian, Martian, or born with six toes – but I just found it surprising that she has evidently never found a female candidate for any open chef position.

So – yeah. I enjoyed this, very much. I like the author’s story – and I truly wish her well. I laughed, I cried, I learned the difference between salami and salumi, and how to say “better than yours” in Creole (Pan pi bon). And I learned to stop stacking my dishes when I go out to eat. I … always thought it was helpful. I’m a middle-class New Englander, and therefore uncomfortable with being waited on – I always wanted to clean up the table a bit under the illusion that it would save the server a bit of work – and apparently it does exactly the opposite. Damn. Sorry, all my past servers ever. I’ll stop.

Great quote:
“…My knowledge of art up to that major turning point was mostly based on ‘Do I like this?’ ‘Do I want it in my house?’ Which, as it turns out, is exactly how to care about art.”

While I’m mildly intrigued by the theme of The Black Hoof, no. Absolutely no amount of chili flakes could ever make me forget I was eating horse – I would never eat horse. And I’m disturbed by its inclusion on an upscale (or any) menu. Sourcing, please?

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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2 Responses to I Hear She’s a Real Bitch – Jen Agg

  1. I love your reviews so much.

  2. stewartry says:

    You just made my month.

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