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September 15, 2017
The Word On The Street Toronto will be hosting the authors and editors of all five finalists for the 2017 Toronto Book Awards at this year’s festival on Sunday, September 24, at Harbourfront Centre. As a special treat, we’ll be posting reviews of the nominated books in the weeks leading up to the festival from a panel of writers, reviewers, and editors working in Toronto today.
Our next review is of I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jen Agg, reviewed by Khashayar Mohammadi. Khashayar, the fourth of five 2017 Toronto Book Awards reviewers, works as a chef and as an editor for Inspiritus Press. Jen Agg will be reading at The Word On the Street at Harbourfront Centre on September 24, from 2:00pm – 2:30pm and again from 4:30pm – 5:00pm at the Toronto Book Awards Tent. This year’s Toronto Book Awards will be awarded on October 12, 2017.
Take a walk down Queen west, Yorkville, the Junction, or any other culinary hub of Toronto and notice all of the fashionable bars burgeoning onto the culinary scene. Certain trends tend to develop.
The word “casual” is scribed into live-edge wooden bars; candle-lit tables hold lukewarm water served in recycled liquor bottles; every other bar offers a minimalist single page menu featuring lesser known cuts of meat, prepared in absurdly innovative ways, and it has become an implicit requirement for reputable bars to offer charcuterie boards with seasonal preserves to help diners cut the sting of signature house cocktails. Sharply dressed servers professionally ease diners into this contemporary dining experience with warm smiles and inhibited eloquence, and all the while, the diner is oblivious to those operating behind the ever-swinging doors. Dining culture has changed rapidly.
That’s where Jen Agg’s I Hear She’s a Real Bitch comes in. A book that depicts the evolution of dining experience in the city of Toronto, exposing personal truths about its author as it does so.
Growing up as a rebellious girl in Scarborough, Agg never dreamed of the restaurant business. Although she made regular meals for her own household, it was mostly due to the fact that her parents were “dreadful cooks.” Even her early experiences as a bartender were just efforts to support herself. But through necessity, she developed a love for the craft of cocktail-making. Now, as an influential restaurateur, she has decided to share her insights on the industry in her book I Hear She’s A Real Bitch.
After a few chapters on the art of restaurant management, the narrative shifts towards her childhood and her rebellion against the mundane. From music to relationships and family, the reader is treated to the origin of the rebellion that eventually birthed The Black Hoof, where she displayed her “youthful, ridiculous disdain for the regular.” As Agg mentions at the time of its opening, The Black Hoof’s innovative menu was considered “weird food,” or “dare food for white people.” The Hoof’s no-reservation policy was new to Toronto, which made long wait-times on busy days and line-ups that led to the creation of an annexed cocktail bar, where customers could enjoy refreshing drinks while waiting for tables. The Hoof was also pivotal in introducing Toronto to charcuterie, an item that has slowly become intimately infused with the zeitgeist of Toronto bar culture.
As refreshing and illuminating as it is to acquaint oneself with Toronto’s culinary past, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch does not narrow its scope just to the industry it represents. Agg explores issues that follow us out of the restaurant and into the streets.
Agg tells tales of sexual harassment in the industry, bringing attention to struggles of women in the workplace.
“The men (and they are mostly men) who trained this generation’s chefs spent time in the kinds of European kitchens where the physical abuses would shock you– pots and pans being thrown at heads, hot tongs pressed onto forearms, and actual fistfights. I’ve heard stories about young cooks being taken into walk-in fridges and slapped, and a certain very famous chef is well known for his repetitive, hard chest pokes, exercised with all fingers pointed, bruising, whether intentional or not, being the obvious result. And if that’s how the young men are treated, just imagine what happens to women entering these testosterone-and-gas-fueled spaces, where the abuses often take on a sexual character.”
Taking examples from her youth, where close friends of hers blamed her for the abuse she was being subjected to in a past relationship, Agg states: “Given how we as a society react to women who come forward about abusive men, it seems little has changed in twenty years.”
I Hear She’s a Real Bitch will take you by surprise. Although it contains numerous local references that act as extra incentive for Torontonians, it’s a book with a complex, eclectic narrative that caters to a much wider audience. From gender roles, to cocktail trivia, it’s an engrossing book that holds interesting facts and bitter truths, stimulating you in the most unexpected ways.
Khashayar Mohammadi is an Iranian born Writer/Translator based in Toronto. He wears the chef hat during the day, following a passion for cooking. He currently works as an editor for the independent publishing company Inspiritus Press.
What is the name of Jen Agg’s successful restaurant in Toronto, as mentioned above?
Read the review above and send the answer to firstname.lastname@example.org to be entered into a draw to win a signed copy of I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jen Agg!
Keep an eye out for the rest of the Toronto Book Awards reviews, and more chances to enter.