Like we’ve said before, every day is International Women’s Day so we’re continuing our celebration with another Q&A with a woman we equally admire. This time, not only will you feel motivated to pursue your dreams, but maybe a little thirsty and hungry for some of New York City’s finest wining and dining. Reach for the MICHELIN stars!
Meet Victoria James! She is the Beverage Director and Partner of Cote, a Michelin Star restaurant and NYC’s first Korean steakhouse. With a long history of working in the food and beverage industry (beginning at the young age of 13), she eventually discovered how much she loved wine. Thus, when she turned 21, she became a certified wine sommelier and since then, she has worked at several of NYC’s hottest restaurants such as Marea and Aureole. She has received numerous accolades including Forbes “30 Under 30,” Food & Wine’s “2018 Sommelier of the Year,” Zagat’s “30 under 30,” Wine Enthusiast’s “40 Under 40,” Wine & Spirits’ “Best New Sommeliers,” and The Back Label proclaimed her as “New York’s Youngest Sommelier.”
Victoria has also pursued various passion projects as a result from all of her hard work in the restaurant industry. She authored Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé (2017) and is writing another book, Wine Girl, scheduled to be released in 2020. She co-founded Wine Empowered, a nonprofit that offers free wine classes to women and minorities with the mission of diversifying the hospitality industry, alongside Cote’s General Manger, Amy Zhou, and Events Director, Cynthia Cheng. We had a little wine tasting of our own with Victoria at Cote located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. Happy hour at Cote!
Darley Newman: You’re currently the Beverage Director at Michelin Star restaurant, Cote in NYC. How did you begin working in this position and how would you describe your role there?
Victoria James: We opened Cote in June of 2017, I had previously worked with Simon Kim, our owner, at Piora in the West Village. He was the proprietor of this since-shuttered Michelin-starred restaurant in the West Village and I was his Wine Director. As a Korean-American, his dream was to always open an elevated NYC Steakhouse meets Korean BBQ concept. So when he told me about the project, I was incredibly inspired to join in! He made me a partner in the company as well as the corporate beverage director, so I oversee everything liquid in the restaurant! From the water, tea, coffee, soda, juices, spirits, beer, and of course…. wine! I spend the day (9-5pm) purchasing, doing inventory management, costing, managing a whole team, etc. then spend most evenings (5pm-late!) selling wine to guests on the floor along with my badass team of sommeliers!
Darley: What was your first job working as a sommelier? What was your biggest challenge?
Victoria: I started as a sommelier when I was 21 at Aureole, Charlie Palmer’s then-Michelin-starred restaurant on Bryant Park. My biggest challenge was overcoming three major insecurities of mine at the time—the fact that I was young, poor, and a female. I thought that these were hindrances in the luxury world dominated by older white men. Slowly, I began to realize that these three things were not actually weaknesses but what set me apart from my peers. I was able to interact with guests in a way that my colleagues couldn’t, and I genuinely made a lot of people very happy. Neon ambience inside Cote.
Darley: How do you see the representation of women within your industry? Have you noticed any changes to this over the years?
Victoria: I have to preface this by saying it is definitely getting much, much better. When I first became a sommelier eight years ago, I was often the only woman in the room (and certainly t he youngest). Now, I am starting to see a lot more women in entry-level jobs as sommeliers and servers. However, there are still very few women at the top, actually holding the power. I am one of the few partners and corporate beverage directors in my field. There aren’t many female restaurant owners, buyers, etc. I know this is common in many fields, but it needs to change. The only way to further women’s initiatives is to get women to hold those positions of power. Right now, there are few women that wield influence as buyers and change-makers. We need more women on top!!!
Darley: What specific challenges have you encountered throughout your career?
Victoria: I don’t think there is enough space here to list them all! Again, when I entered the industry, I was incredibly young, naive, and vulnerable. I didn’t have any money or support, and this led to a lot of people taking advantage of me. I worked in a lot of toxic environments that led to abuses of power. My goal is to ensure that no women in our company ever go through what I went through. And hopefully, women everywhere in the hospitality world will be inspired to speak up when injustices occur.
Darley: Do you have any advice for women looking to start careers in the wine and hospitality industry?
Victoria: Find a female mentor!! I wish I would have had someone to give me advice when I was first starting my career, someone to bounce ideas off of, and to confide in. I think that if I had this person I wouldn’t have fallen prey to a lot of abuse. Even if the mentor can only give you a couple of hours a month, it is still something. This is a very tough industry and we all need a good, solid friend. Ladies, we need to support one another more! Victoria in what appears to be heaven on earth (at least for wine lovers)!
Make sure to check out all of our International Women’s Day Q&As below: Interview with Peggy Murphy, Executive Vice President of the USTOA Interview with Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, Co-Owner & Co-President of Valerie Wilson Travel