Setting the Table with Victoria James
For New York’s Cote Beverage Director Victoria James, the most important thing she needs to set her table is her team. And a bottle of wine, of course. When Cote started its rapid shift from indoor dining to takeout due to the pandemic, the first question that came to proprietor Simon Kim, Chef David Shim, Victoria, and the rest of the team at Cote was “How do we want to make people feel?” With the sudden 180 barreling down, Cote, with the help of Caviar, installed one of the more intricate and experience-based takeout programs that aimed to maintain the quality and integrity of their menu, cocktail list, and wine options. She gives props to Caviar for helping them pull it off in a way that brought the dining experience home but also calls out her team.
We chatted with Victoria about the seismic shift in restaurant life over the past year, the qualities she looks for in curating a wine list, and what a more inclusive wine education might mean for the culture.
You’re ordering takeout from your favorite place—what is something that you need to make it feel special?
Victoria: I think an essential is a great bottle of wine. A lot of restaurants now in New York are offering wine to go, so you can support them, but you can also pull something from your collection. During these times, I think you want to do what brings you comfort and joy, and wine is a great way to sort of travel to the bottle without actually going to these wine regions
How did your love of wine start?
Victoria: Well, I’ve been working in restaurants since I was a kid. I started at 13 at a greasy spoon diner in New Jersey and then, from there, worked my way up to bartending in college and quickly realized I knew nothing about, not only the spirits, but also the wine behind the bar, so I started studying, and I was surprised that it was a subject that actually really drew me in, and it combined a lot of my loves for hospitality and serving others—but also travel and writing and reading and history. I really went down the rabbit hole and started reading books about wine and taking wine classes and soon I became a sommelier when I was 21.
How do you curate the wine selection for Cote?
Victoria: So now we have Cote New York and we also have Cote Miami that’s opening, so I’m building a whole wine program there as well, and what is really top of mind is how to craft programs with intention. First and foremost, we choose wines that are delicious and speak to a sense of place and have purpose. We support mostly small growers that focus on sustainability in the vineyards, as well as organic and biodynamics as bare minimum requirements. We want people to treat their land with respect. We try and support marginalized groups whenever possible in wine, so women, Black, indigenous people, and all persons of color who are winemakers and winery owners.
And, of course, Cote is a Korean steakhouse, so we try to choose wine that is sort of the fat cat New York steakhouse meets Korean barbecue, and there’s really a wide range of flavors to play with there that’s really fun. So while I’m putting together the Miami wine list now, at Cote New York, and focusing on corporate expansion projects, I’ve passed along the program to Mia Van de Water who’s a master sommelier, most recently from Eleven Madison Park, and she’s spearheading a lot of the buying and following in the same footsteps and I’m really proud of what she’s added to the list.
What was the feeling that Cote wanted to convey with their takeout options?
Victoria: This is something our proprietor Simon Kim, Chef David Shim and our service director, Wesley Sohn often talk about called 정성; jung-sung, which means “intention”—is how it kind of translates—and we wanted our guests to feel that sense of intention when getting their food, wine or beverages, even in the packaging.
We took care in really making sure every package was beautiful, that the quality of the steak was still impeccable by the time it got to you and the wine was still at cellar temperature, and, it’s something that seems like such a little thing, every guest also got a personalized note from Simon, and Chef David about how to cook the meats and, if they ordered beverages, they got a note from me.
Tell us how you and why you began Wine Empowered and what you saw in the industry that called you to create it?
Victoria: The three co-founders are myself, as well as Cynthia Cheng and Amy Zhou and we also work together at Cote. Cynthia started as a sommelier and worked her way up and now is the Director of HR and Amy is the General Manager and a partner in the restaurant. We’re all three sommeliers and, as females, we really didn’t see ourselves represented in these positions of power. Further, Cynthia and Amy are Chinese, and they didn’t really see anyone that looks like them as wine buyers and sommeliers.
We started a free wine class called Cote College, which is not an accredited university by any means.
We really firmly believed that the more diverse voices that are brought to the table, the more innovation that can occur and so, at Cote’s, we started a free wine class called Cote College, which is not an accredited university by any means, but more an opportunity for free wine education to anyone on the staff—dishwashers, bussers, runners, hosts, servers.
I thought that people would walk away with maybe a deeper understanding of wine and be able to bring that to our guests, but it wasn’t just that, they also left with a certain confidence and just someone believing in them and the opportunity and access to education really helped them build their careers. We saw bussers become servers and servers become managers and servers become sommeliers, and it was just really incredible to see this growth. That’s when Cynthia, Amy, and I realized that it was sort of the key to diversifying the wine industry and being more inclusive and so we launched Wine Empowered—which was established as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2018, and we held our first inaugural class this year, temporarily suspended due to COVID, but we hope to begin it again shortly.
Don’t limit yourself. The world of wine is endless.
What’s a wine and food pairing that you swear by that others might find strange?
Victoria: I guess this isn’t so eccentric or unheard of, but Cote is a steakhouse, and so a lot of people are confused as to why we have a huge selection of, not only red wine, but white, rosé, and sparkling. I think people often assume red wine goes with steak and that’s the end-all, be-all. Of course, it does pair well and it can be delicious, but rosé, white and sparkling wine, can also be fantastic pairings. I suggest champagne or rosé with steak sometimes, and people are thrown off.
The beauty of wine and the thing I love so much about it, is that the options are endless. Imagine if you only were listening to one genre of music or looking at one type of art your whole life. Don’t limit yourself. The world of wine is endless. There are so many options and possibilities.
How did you find that the wine and beverage part of dining had to evolve during this last year?
Victoria: I will say that the last seven months have been the hardest in my restaurant career. We had to pivot quickly. We’re one of the only restaurants that stayed open throughout the entire pandemic. Simon Kim, the proprietor of Cote, kept his management staff on and found ways for the first month to continue to pay his line-level employees, and, as a result, we really had to hustle to make that possible. We quickly pivoted to delivery. We signed up with Caviar a week after closing—we’re so lucky that the whole management team is full of creative and hardworking individuals that poured their all into this. I realized that there was an opportunity here for the beverage program since we were now allowed to, for the first time ever, do cocktails and wine to go, which was not possible before.
We did bottled wine flights for people in these beautiful little glass bottles which I dipped in wax to seal and wine tasting kits. We sold these wine tasting grids, wines by the glass—offering special bottles of wine from our cellar at retail price and offering sommelier tasting notes. To be able to still connect with the guests was really special. I sent videos of myself explaining the wine selections to guests so there was still that interaction, and our principal bartender, Sondre Kasin, also did the same with bespoke cocktails for guests.
Now, we’re outdoor, 25% indoor dining and doing takeout and delivery with Caviar. But this has really challenged us in ways we never thought, but it’s also helped us grow and appreciate.
Every guest also got a personalized note.
How is the appreciation for a cut of meat and a bottle of wine similar?
Victoria: Both have a sense of origin story and quality matters quite a bit. Food and wine are one of the few things that really can evoke all of the senses. At Cote we’re one of the few places in which you can get something like a steak tasting menu, our Butcher’s Feast, where you receive four different cuts of steak side by side so one understands the nuances in each.
I think the beauty of both meat and wine is that there’s such a range of flavors, it really makes dinner an experience.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about wine or wine pairings?
Victoria: I think people often associate wine with being something elite or snobby. I know that I certainly did when I first got into wine. It seemed like I was too young, too poor and the wrong gender and that I wouldn’t ever be able to understand wine properly but discounting wine and wine pairings is a disservice to yourself because it’s an ingredient in a good meal, and it doesn’t have to be fussy.
You have a long long evening and you sit down and Chef says, “You can have whatever you want.” What are you ordering and what are you drinking with it?
Victoria: One thing I love is Chef David’s Galbi. Marinated short ribs, that he slices in a unique way I’ve never seen before, it’s one of the signatures at Cote, this diamond-cut. If you pull it out, it looks like an accordion, and what that does is, it allows the marinade to really seep in. It’s sweet and it’s delicious over rice with a side of fermented kimchi and it’s just like the best thing to have at the end of a long day.
To drink, I would say a great glass of Champagne, especially rosé Champagne.
A lot of the flavors of Korean food, especially the kimchi, go well with Champagne. You want something a little bit more oxidative in style and with some great acidity and freshness. At the end of a long day, it’s nice to kind of toast yourself.
All-time favorite cocktail?
Victoria: I love the Negroni. It’s easy to make. It’s the best after a long day—also Italian so it kind of takes me back to my roots.
(Cote, offers a lovely take on the classic Negroni.)
Anything else we should know?
The most illuminating thing for me has been that we could not have done what we did at Cote alone. I think that the sense of family and this team is incredible, and so I really wanted to give a shout out to every single member of the Cote team that made it possible. It was such a challenge and there’s been no other team I would have rather been in the trenches with than these guys, so it’s certainly not about me. It’s about all of them.