Q&A: Jen Agg, Toronto’s most loved and loathed restaurateur

Q&A: Jen Agg, Toronto’s most loved and loathed restaurateur

(Image: Jenna Marie Wakani)

Since opening The Black Hoof in 2008, Jen Agg has established herself as one of the most influential—and divisive—restaurant owners in the city. She’s contributed plenty to Toronto’s food obsession (the city’s love for charcuterie, the cocktail movement, and even just making Dundas West a thing), but she’s also known for her opinionated swagger, which sometimes overshadows her culinary prescience (she often takes her beefs to Twitter, and in one memorable episode, used the social platform to complain about some of her “douchier” patrons). Earlier this month, news broke that she’s starting her biggest project yet: Agrikol, a Haitian restaurant she’s opening in Montreal with her husband, artist Roland Jean, plus Win Butler and Régine Chassagne from Arcade Fire. She’s also writing a memoir called I Hear She’s A Real Bitch that’s set to be published by Random House next year. We caught up with her to talk about her new restaurant, her book and why she thinks she’s got so many enemies.

So your upcoming new restaurant is getting attention everywhere. It’s even been mentioned in Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. It seems like that’s not really your style, to hype something up like that.
Well, it was a conscious choice. I knew the cat would get out of the bag, so I wanted to control the dissemination. I wanted to make sure that the story that got out was the story I wanted to tell. A lot of the time when you’re dealing with people who are extraordinarily famous—which, certainly, the Arcade Fire are—people will put words in your mouth.

Does that sort of intense media coverage make it feel like too many expectations are building up for you?
No, I don’t feel like that any more. I just feel like it’s going to be fun, and I’m really excited to do it—I’ve already proven that I can do this.

With four of you coming together on this project, you have some money to play around with.
Money is such an ugly topic. We certainly don’t have an endless budget. I really don’t understand why anyone would ever spend $500,000, for example, on a space. That’s crazy and I don’t get it—I think you can build something beautiful and it doesn’t have to cost a lot. But we are going to spend more than we’ve spent before, only because it’s a bigger renovation and it needs more work.

Is it going to be a Montreal version of Rhum Corner?
No, if it was Rhum Corner in Montreal we would have called it Le Rhum Corner. I’m thinking of it as a spin-off restaurant—like twins, but fraternal twins. It’s going to have a menu that kind of follows the same principles, but I’m so excited because there’s so much shit in Montreal, like djon-djon mushrooms, which are basically the greatest thing ever. They are so umami-packed. We can’t get them here in Toronto—we’ve tried. And having whelks all the time will be cool. There are two buildings and a courtyard, and I’m not sure what we’ll be doing with the second building, but definitely there will be art. It will be a hub.

The Globe article about Agrikol mentioned how you linked up with the Arcade Fire, but I’d like to know about how you and your husband met.
The Black Hoof used to be a bar called Cocktail Molotov. Roland and I had previous marriages that kind of went awry around the same time. We met at Cocktail Molotov when we were both single, and I don’t believe in love in first sight, but it was an instant something. We started drinking and talking and having the most amazing time. We were kissing at the bar and making out like teenagers, which was really not like either of us. It was crazy. I just adored him instantly. We’ve been together 10 years, and I can’t imagine life without him. He’s a perfect person.

And you guys have moved to Montreal.
We’re going to be coming back to Toronto every weekend—you won’t even know that I’m gone. We have a really cool Montreal apartment that I love.

Tell me about your upcoming book.
I’m writing a book and it’s fucking hard, but getting the book deal was so validating. My entire career, my entire life, I’ve been told, “No, you can’t act like this, you can’t talk like this, you can’t be like this.” And then finally someone said yes. Obviously my husband and my friends have said yes to the way that I am, but there’s this misconception that I’m this terrible, bitchy person, which is basically what sexism is. And one day it just popped into my head to call it “I Hear She’s a Real Bitch,” and it’s so perfect and appropriate. I’m so happy with it.

It’s an autobiography?
It’s a memoir. It’s sprinkled with subtle feminism, and there’s a lot of restaurant stuff. Any time there’s an opportunity to talk about food and drink, I take the opportunity.

So when you talk about people hating you, is this something you’ve gathered from the online community reacting to certain things you’ve said?
No, that shit doesn’t bother me. Obviously I have tons of support and close friends, but there’s definitely an animosity around strong women. It’s hard to see it any other way. If you look at someone like David McMillan [of Montreal’s Joe Beef] or Martin Picard [of Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon], these people say whatever the fuck they want and they are lauded for it. I think the knee-jerk reaction to that is, “No, it’s because you’re a bitch,” but people who say that are kind of proving my argument. I have strong opinions that are off-putting to people.

I think the crux of it is that you’re very unwavering in your opinions, and you also get involved with bigger issues like racism and feminism, and those things galvanize people.
That’s the shit I care about. Why care about the small shit when you can care about the big shit? Did you see what David McMillan tweeted? It was about Omar Khadr. Do you think he’ll pay any price for that? I don’t think he should, but do you think he will?

Ezra Levant did call him out for that.
If Ezra Levant is disagreeing with me, I’m doing something right. But I don’t actually think everyone hates me. I’m just aware of the stacked deck, and I talk about it.

Do you think Raw Bar [the Hoof’s short-lived seafood sister spot] was something that people just didn’t get?
You know, that was such a good lesson for me. I don’t think it was something that people didn’t get. Ultimately, I think that good restaurants, generally speaking, don’t close. So we probably missed the mark somewhere. But I do think Chris Nuttall-Smith’s terrible review closed us down.

I was speaking to Buca’s Rob Gentile last year, and I asked him what some of his favourite restaurants were. He said Raw Bar right away. And if you look at what he’s done with Buca Yorkville, it’s very Raw Bar–inspired.
You know you’re breaking my heart right now, right? It was a really hard thing. It was after I parted ways with Grant [van Gameren, the Black Hoof chef who went on to open Bar Isabel and Bar Raval], and I wanted to show that I could do something on my own. I felt like I had built a beautiful, perfect room, exactly to my taste, and I loved that space. We started out really strong. A lot was invested in that restaurant, and it was really hard to close. But the next day I shook it off and started building Rhum. So yeah, maybe you’ll fail, but you don’t have to be a failure. And of course I’m aware of doing things before other people. Every single new restaurant in this country opened in the wave of the Hoof.

Have you been inspired by other Canadian restaurants recently?
Le Vin Papillon is the greatest thing ever. Every time I go there, I feel like I’m entering someone else’s world, and that’s how a good restaurant should feel. Farmer’s Apprentice and Bao Bei in Vancouver blew my mind. Raymonds in Newfoundland is a really good reason to go to St. John’s. I think Martin Picard is somehow underrated—there would be no Black Hoof if it wasn’t for Au Pied de Cochon. I’ll see things that I think are cool, but I never think, “Hey, I want to do that.” That doesn’t mean I don’t take inspiration from other people’s stuff—everything is inspired by everything. Sometimes people will rip something off, and they won’t tip their hat. That’s something that we should be better at as a culture.

Rhum Corner uses MSG. Do customers ever get weirded out when they find out?
No, because we have a pretty educated clientele. I think people are starting to understand that MSG is not the devil. Roland’s sister Monique makes this very basic spaghetti when she comes to stay with us. That’s a Haitian thing—they love spaghetti with red sauce for breakfast. Then I tried some of it, and it was so good. I couldn’t stop eating it, and I couldn’t understand why it was so good until I saw the package of MSG—that’s why it was so good. The traditional cooking techniques of Haiti involve MSG. It’s not a terrible thing and, used in small doses, it’s a wonderful thing. And it’s a movement in food: David Chang and Danny Bowien are championing it. Why do you think chips taste so good?

So what’s the next stigmatized ingredient that you’d like to see put in the spotlight?
I wish people would understand that heroin is not so bad. [Laughs] No, but we always do magic mushrooms at our staff parties.