Jen Agg on feminism and gender inequality in Torontos food scene

https://youtu.be/70vSlILLHKg As a woman, you start to pick up on cues at a very young age, says Jen Agg, the restaurateur.


As a woman, you start to pick up on cues at a very young age, says Jen Agg, the restaurateur behind such Toronto sensations as The Black Hoof, Grey Gardens and Rhum Corner. You don’t just wake up and go, Wow, that was really sexist.

Agg is known not only for trailblazing culinary experiences, but also for being outspoken about gender inequity in the service industry.

Her approach to running these businesses intertwines with her perspective on anti-female practices that pervade the bar and restaurant world, which can range from seemingly innocuous gendered accolades (e.g., “Best Female Chef”) to sexual harassment. Agg hires women as much as possible while also calling out discriminatory practices from men.

One thing she finds problematic is the difficulty some women might experience with finding professional mentors in more experienced male chefs. “Men in the industry who look up to a famous chef don’t have to wonder if he’s going to try and sleep with them, for the most part.”

Whether its a lack of opportunity or actions that discourage women, the gender imbalance in restaurant kitchens is indicative of a deeper societal problem that takes root in youth.

The moment youre given a Barbie and your brother is given a G.I. Joe, you’re being very clearly sold a message that ‘this is your role in this world,’ she says. And then it gets even more insidious as you get older.

I Hear Shes a Real Bitch, Aggs new book from Doubleday Canada (read an excerpt here), recounts some of the formative moments in her life and career, offering readers authentic access to how her perspectives on feminism were formed.

Chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain calls it terrific, beautifully written, frank and funny. Bourdains own career skyrocketed following the publication of his book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, which revealed to a mainstream audience a self-destructive, after-hours culture of cooks and front-of-house staff in New York City during his early years in the industry.

Aggs book and public persona as demonstrated by her social media presence reflects a different set of concerns from Bourdain, and they broadly reflect and critique a culture that’s still disproportionately dominated by men and male interests.

In her view, any potential redress for these issues would need large-scale application: Our entire approach to parenting to teaching and educating, it needs to be completely up-ended. I dont know. It doesnt look good.

Agg’s activism (a word she dislikes) has included launching community dialogue events and lending her voice to stories in the media. With the publication of her new memoir, she has managed to both welcome the spotlight and maintain her participation in the struggle for more equality in the industry and mainstream culture.

As dire as these problems may seem, she acknowledges that the effort is worth it. “Having women and men working together, I always love that in a kitchen. I think it really brings balance,” she says. “We need each other.”

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