How Cote Beat the Odds to Become a Top New York Restaurant
Victoria James recounts the opening of the acclaimed Korean steakhouse in her new book, “Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier.”
We opened Cote on June 8, 2017. The days before were spent poring over the nitty-gritty of making the restaurant functional. Tom spent hours on the phone with Con Edison, begging them to turn on our gas. Simon tried to stretch the funds from our dwindling bank account just a tiny bit further. Wesley trained the whole team on the difference between chojang and ssamjang and how to grill all of the different cuts of meat tableside. David taught his cooks all of the recipes and how to butcher whole animals. He filled the dry-aging room with meat we could not yet afford. Sidy, our dishwasher from Piora, now tutored all the porters at Cote in how to run the dish pit. With delays, my beverage budget had been cut almost in half. To fatten up the wine list, I got creative and worked with private clients on consignment. We all prayed we wouldn’t go out of business before we even opened.
Then a torrential downpour hit New York. The streets flooded with a rainstorm no one had seen coming. That morning, David noticed some water leaking into the kitchen in the basement. Trickles of drain water began to splash onto the brand-new appliances. Within a few hours, thousands of dollars of shiny equipment was drenched. Simon and I watched as waterfalls poured from the ceiling, unable to do anything.
“What’s that?!” Simon pointed to a floating brown piece of mush. It circled and then plopped onto the kitchen floor. I looked closer. David and Tom inspected the glob.
Could it be? No way. Yes way.
More turds squeezed from the tiles and into David’s brand-new kitchen. The four of us all watched in disbelief. The world was literally shitting on our dreams.
After a meticulous (and very expensive) sterilization of the kitchen, repairs began. The water damage set us back by a few days, if not weeks. I don’t know where Simon found the money, but he did. His calm disposition was only matched by his resourcefulness.
On our first night, we started slowly with eighty guests. Grills caught on fire, the air-conditioning barely functioned, guests spotted spelling mistakes on the menu, a sommelier served the wrong bottle of wine, we broke an entire rack of wine glasses, the kitchen vents stopped working, and every single one of us was drenched in sweat. It was pure chaos, and at the end of the night, management all sat down together. We were in the basement, gathered in a circle, and utterly defeated. It was the worst dinner service we had ever worked. What were we doing? We felt like a bunch of kids playing restaurant, instead of the group of trained, seasoned professionals we were.
But we talked it out, got our spirits up, and kept pushing through. Luckily, things got better. “To achieve the impossible, we need to give the impossible,” Simon said. All of us put in our whole selves.
As the beverage director and a sommelier, I worked two jobs. Imagine if the person who bought all of the dresses for Bloomingdale ’s also worked the floor to sell those clothes. I spent all morning and afternoon ordering wine, going through hundreds of emails, researching the market value of wines, studying recent producer and vintage reports, compiling the curriculum for staff education, organizing inventory, putting away towers of wine boxes, updating the wine list, etc. Then, at night, I worked service, selling wine, making guests happy, and managing staff. My days would start at six a.m. and creep well past midnight.
For the opening, I worked more than I had at Marea and Aureole, but there was a difference. I kept my humanity because I was working toward something with purpose. When I was tired, Tom told me to take a break. David fed me bowls of kimchi and rice. The sour pickle notes of the kimchi brought me back to my childhood, when, starving, I would survive for days on pickle juice. Look how far you have come, I thought. I was no longer facing starvation or surviving on “low-income” lunches. My dreams of dinner parties had now grown into something far beyond what I’d imagined. I now owned part of a restaurant!
As a team, we were there for one another. Simon boosted me with pep talks. Wesley continued to inspire me. “In Korea, we have a saying,” he told me one day. “If not with the teeth, then with the gums.”
Then the restaurant started to get fantastic buzz. Even in the midst of summer, when every other restaurant in New York slows, Cote was on fire.
Next came the big fear: reviews. I flashed back to my days at RM and how the one bad review from Pete Wells broke us. I was terrified the same thing would happen at Cote. We believed in this concept, but would others? Simon encouraged us all to acknowledge the reviewers who began to trickle in. “I am done pretending to play the game. They know we know. Let’s treat this like what it is—a business.” Simon added, “Reviewers see themselves as gardeners. They are here to pull out the weeds and water the good plants. We want to show them why we are not a weed. Show them why we love what we do and what this restaurant is all about; let’s not hide. Cote is not about hiding.”
I watched as Simon went right up to Ryan Sutton from Eater and Zachary Feldman from the Village Voice, shook their hands, and introduced himself. Thankfully, we received glowing reviews from both. (Sutton’s review was headlined “Korean Barbecue at Cote Stands Up Against Any Steakhouse in Town—Three Stars for the Flatiron Newcomer”; Feldman’s was headlined “Korean BBQ Meets Classic Chophouse at Cote,” and he noted, “It’s a knockout combination.”)
Next came the big guns. Adam Platt was hard to miss, as he towered above everyone else at almost seven feet tall. Those in the industry had told me that he was notoriously grouchy and to be careful. As I walked over to his table to offer beverages, I shook with fear. What if he didn’t like me? What if he didn’t like our wine or cocktail list? Will I have let everyone down? His guest complained that there was nothing he wanted by the glass.
Adam Platt butted in. “Careful. She is not one to be trifled with.” I was entirely caught off guard. She? Adam Platt knew who I was? What’s more, he thought it best not to mess with me? I had made it.
Adam Platt gave us a singing three-star review in New York magazine, a rarity. He even applauded the wine list. His review was headlined, “Cote Offers Korean Barbecue with the Soul of a Fat-Cat American Steakhouse,” and in it, he said, “They’ve created a steakhouse disguised as a Korean barbecue joint (or vice versa), a satisfying hybrid that instead of feeling like gimmickry or an exploitation of these two familiar genres, is an improvement on both…Beverage director Victoria James has compiled an impressive list of trophy bottles.”
Then came the biggest gun of all. We all kept our eyes peeled for Pete Wells. I knew that if Pete Wells gave us a bad review, Cote was finished. Finally, one day we caught him in the middle of his meal. He had snuck in as a late joiner. I had studied the photo we had of him and tried to remember what he’d looked like when I’d spotted him at RM. He looked completely different! A master of disguise, Wells had gained weight, had shorn his beard, and sported a thick set of glasses.
I noticed that Wells was looking at the wine list. I felt my insides start to tighten. I walked over and asked if he needed any assistance. He pointed to an affordable bottle of Bordeaux. Of course, he had to pick a wine that we had just sold the last bottle of the night before. I was furious at our printer, which had decided to stop working right before the dinner service, making our wine list obsolete. I was angry with myself. Here was our one opportunity and I might blow it. I tried to lead him to another wine effortlessly. I channeled Franky, Enzo, Marianne, Mimi, George, Jane, Richard, and everyone I have ever admired. Luckily, he agreed.
When I returned to his table with the wine, I found myself clutching his arm, almost as if to say, I am human, we are human, please be kind to us. As Simon advised, I didn’t hide. I introduced myself and highlighted what our wine list at Cote was all about—small producers and big bottles.
Cote wasn’t another jewel in some far-off owner’s crown, another concept with big margins and low pay for the staff. Cote was Simon’s baby—our baby—that we had all poured our hearts and souls into. We couldn’t get a bad review. We just couldn’t.
When our New York Times review came out, the whole team burst into tears. Cote had received two stars and a Critic’s Pick (“This May Be the Best Beef at Any Korean BBQ”). What was more, Wells mentioned me by name, something he almost never does with sommeliers. But Victoria James, who wrote the list, found some pockets of affordability in Beaujolais, Southern France, Corsica, and Switzerland, and she makes a small adventure out of the wines by the glass, all poured from magnums.
Then something even more magical occurred. We had barely been open for longer than a few months and had no idea our little restaurant stood a chance. But it happened. Cote received a Michelin star!
When the announcement was made, I burst into tears yet again. My whole body began to shake, and in the early morning, we popped a bottle of Champagne.
That night at the awards ceremony, I saw the GM from Aureole and the DOP from the Altamarea Group. The following year, Aureole quietly lost its star.
Since my tenure at Marea, all of the four managers had been let go and the GM had been shipped off to work on a new project. George, the beloved maître d’, had been pushed out.
At the Michelin ceremony, the Aureole and Marea leaders kept looking at their watches and seemed bored. They were also there to collect Michelin stars. And here I was, with the Cote team, receiving our first Michelin star together.
We were elated. Somehow, we had done it. Cote had not only managed to survive review season; we’d come out on top.
Cote’s dining room is currently closed, but gift cards for the restaurant are available for purchase. Guests who buy a gift card will be invited to a re-opening party. A to-go Steak Care Package ($180), which includes four cryovaced one-pound ribeyes from Cote’s dry-aging room and four pints (one pint each) of fermented vegetables, is also on sale. Place an order by calling (212-401-7986) or emailing (email@example.com) the restaurant. Sommelier Victoria James is also offering a selection of wines from Cote’s cellar that each come with her personal tasting notes. In addition, Cote’s food and wine is on the Caviar app, including Chef Shim’s signature Korean bacon.
From the book WINE GIRL by Victoria James. Copyright © 2020 by Victoria James. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.