When people meet Victoria James today, they see an accomplished sommelier (the youngest in the world, certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers at age 21) and partner and beverage director at New York’s Michelin-starred Cote restaurant. But, as her just-published memoir reveals, her journey has been anything but glamorous or easy. From a childhood plagued by poverty, neglect, and abuse to her coming of age in the hospitality industry, her story is rife with abusive bosses and toxic restaurant cultures.
SevenFifty Daily sat down with James to discuss her brave new memoir which recounts, in unsparing detail, her journey from powerless victim to empowered leader and outspoken voice for change in the restaurant and wine industries.
SevenFifty Daily: First of all, how is Cote coping during this challenging time?
Victoria James: We are racing to find ways to keep our staff afloat with pick up and delivery. The most heartbreaking part of all of this was having to temporarily lay many people off so they can collect unemployment. I spent all weekend crying over this.
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In your book, you advocate for more support, equity and justice for vulnerable restaurant workers—the exact population hardest hit by layoffs right now. Do you think this crisis will bring about systemic change?
I’ve always believed that often the more honest the work the more honest the person, but sadly our system has taken advantage of those who are most vulnerable. This pandemic has clearly illustrated that the restaurant industry relies on hourly employees who live paycheck to paycheck. What needs to change is more support from the government and assistance with health insurance and benefits.
We now have a rare opportunity to rebuild, to make the restaurant industry a better place for everyone. I hope to see real change that allows workers to take time off from work when sick without worrying about losing money and small businesses to apply for support from the government. I’m championing the Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants (ROAR) 8-point plan so restaurants can reopen and workers can have more support.
Some people might say writing a memoir before the age of 30 is presumptuous. Why did you choose to tell your story now?
That’s a very good point, and I struggled with that. But I felt so strongly that putting my story out into the world might help other women who are going through what I went through. If I waited 20 years to write this book it would be quite a different book—maybe a better book—but I think it was important to share it now considering where the world is.
What was the most difficult part about writing this memoir?
I began writing this book about five years ago as a form of therapy, and I saved the most traumatic parts—the childhood trauma, the sexual assaults in the restaurant industry—for the end. I was often crying and typing at the same time. Rereading my journals, particularly from my early days in the restaurant world, forced me to reflect on just how hopeless and helpless I had felt, which was very painful. But the more I talk about these experiences the less power they have.
How did you make the choice to share many of your traumatic experiences in such raw, sometimes excruciating, detail?
I don’t know if it was actually a conscious decision; I was writing this book more like a diary. After I reflected on my story, I realized how difficult it might be for the reader to absorb. In fact, my editors had me remove a few of the heavier experiences because they feared it was past the threshold of what the reader could handle. But I think many of those explicit details need to be there, in order for people to understand just how common the victimization of women is in this industry. At a certain point, I began to feel that although it is my story, it’s about more than just me: It’s about communicating my experience and my message to others in order to promote change.
What reaction are you most afraid of when this book goes out into the world?
I’m very vulnerable, and that’s quite scary. What I love most about the restaurant business is serving people, and I’m worried that might change because people might view me differently. The book is very opinionated and political in certain ways, and I fear that some people might not like what I wrote and won’t want me to serve them, but I feel that the hope I have for positive change that could occur outweighs my fears.
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You make some serious accusations (though names have been changed) and some strong critiques of a few revered New York restaurants. Are you nervous about the trade’s reaction?
Over the last few years I’ve really distanced myself from the trade intentionally. I don’t attend a lot of wine events, preferring to go directly to growers and producers. I no longer spend much time with the sommelier community because I find much of that culture to be toxic. Yes, many in the trade will not like parts of this book, particularly the parts that call out certain behaviors, but if I don’t do it, who will?
Do you predict that there will be some people who don’t believe your story?
This already happens to me, constantly. It’s so ingrained in our patriarchy not to believe women. I was finishing the manuscript for this book when the Brett Kavanaugh hearing was taking place and I stopped writing for four months. I just completely lost all faith that the world wants to hear women’s stories. But reading other women’s memoirs gave me hope; I was able to recognize that there are communities where people do believe and respect women. I’m confident that many women will open this book and relate to so much of what they read. The book is also not just a collection of my personal memories: I meticulously referenced journals, emails, public record, court transcripts. I also made sure that many former bosses, colleagues, friends, and family members read through the manuscript to see if their memories aligned with my own. But yes, I know there will be many people who don’t believe me or say I brought the abuse upon myself. That is just going to be there, unfortunately.
It’s timely that your book is being released in the wake of the highly publicized conviction of Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault. His accusers were confronted with a fair amount of victim-blaming. What do you say to the people who ask why you put yourself in certain situations to be victimized?
People do ask this. I was trusting and naive, but I was also powerless. People wonder why I didn’t say anything at the time, but if I had I would have been fired from some of my first jobs in the wine industry—so the stakes were very real. Today I have a unique platform; I have an established career and a secure job. Not everyone could write this book and I am very aware of that.
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I was surprised by just how much unprofessional and abusive behavior you say is tolerated at so many glamorous restaurants. Why is this toxic culture so prevalent?
Many people wanted me to place blame on a specific individual, but unfortunately in restaurants it is usually never one person, it’s the whole culture. Especially in the fine dining environment where there is this immense pressure to keep Michelin stars, to keep elite diners happy, to stay relevant and collect awards: There is tremendous stress on people at the top who often are not thinking about one’s humanity and the culture they are propagating.
Readers should know that your story is also full of love and inspiration, as you discover the world of wine, travel to vineyards around the world, and miraculously never lose your passion for the restaurant industry.
It’s true, I just love restaurants. I have always felt compelled to be part of this world. After I was let go from the restaurant Marea, I took the summer off to forage in Upstate New York and reconnect with the natural world. This helped me realize that wine is part of a much larger world, and time away from fine dining gave me the opportunity to consider not only what my place was in the restaurant community but how I could make it a better place. What gives me purpose is bringing joy to others through hospitality, through a bottle of wine. Over time I’ve found that making others happy has brought me happiness and I am forever grateful to be able to do what I do at Cote, with an amazing team of loving professionals.
Your turning point occurs when you meet the restaurateur Simon Kim, and go to work for him at Piora restaurant, and then Cote.
When I met Simon, I couldn’t even recognize a healthy culture. For so long, I’d been obsessed with being part of this community of snobby, older (often white) men that just didn’t want me to join. Simon showed me another way, and I began to connect with other women, male allies, and people of color in the wine business and now I have this healthy community of friends and colleagues in the industry. It was really freeing to stop caring about the small, insular boys club; he gave me an entirely different perspective.
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What do you see as the fundamental ingredient of a healthy restaurant culture?
Empathy. Simon has worked at some of the best restaurants in the world, and when he created his own culture he decided the most important question was: “How would I want to be treated?” It’s hard to follow through on that when you also have a big staff and high standards and have to run a business in an industry with so much pressure. Simon chooses investors who value quality of life for employees, and understand why it’s critical to offer health insurance, for example. Most importantly, he listens, and he encourages all of the partners and management team to listen to our employees.
After the Mario Batali and Ken Friedman scandals, many people believe that the working environment conditions for women in the restaurant industry have improved. You don’t agree.
Some change for sure is happening—people are listening for the first time, which is huge. But since those scandals, I don’t believe that any real structural change has occurred. Women are still afraid to speak out. I hope my book will encourage more people to do so. Women are still grossly underrepresented in fine dining: In New York, women represent only 14 percent of beverage directors at Wine Spectator award–winning restaurants.
Wine Empowered, the nonprofit education program you recently co-founded, aims to bring more diversity into the industry by eliminating the financial barrier to obtaining wine knowledge. How is it going so far?
It’s been so exciting. Wine Empowered is a tuition-free 12-week program of wine education led by industry professionals and educators that is available to women and persons of color in the hospitality industry. The application process was really rigorous and our first group of 23 students began the class in February, and they are whip smart, curious, and dedicated. These are the people that will change the industry.
How do you create work-life balance that you were never able to achieve earlier in your career?
I’ve learned that as soon as I walk into Cote there is so much that needs to be done and so many people who need me. Now I wake up and do things for myself—go to the gym, spend time with my husband, try to get my inbox under 100 emails. Then, when I arrive at the restaurant I’m ready to support my staff in everything we need before setting up for service at 4 pm.
Advice to your younger self?
I feel like this whole book is written as advice to my younger self and maybe to other young women as well. It’s so important to learn to stand up for yourself and find allies. I don’t know if things would have been different for me if I stood up for myself, but perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so isolated or helpless. Women: Use your voice! It’s the most powerful defense weapon you’ve always had.
Kristen Bieler is the executive editor of SevenFifty Daily and the editor in chief of Beverage Media Group publications. Based in New York City, she has been writing about wine, spirits and food for nearly two decades, and her work has appeared in GQ, TASTE, and Food & Wine Magazine’s Annual Wine Guide, among others. She is also a judge at the Ultimate Wine Challenge. Follow her on Instagram: @bielerkristen.