At This Acclaimed Korean-American Steakhouse, Great Service Begins at Pre-Shift
Cote's expert blurring of the line between front-of-house and back-of-house duties—unheard of in the fine-dining establishments of yore—makes way for a new kind of service.
When you think of chic people in dark, hip spaces, if you do at all, you may not think of warmth. But at Cote, the elegant, always-busy Korean steakhouse in New York City's Flatiron neighborhood, the vibe contains multitudes. It's comfortable and warm, but also dim and "lit" (as owner Simon Kim likes to put it); it's fancy and elevated, but also casual and raucous. Yet no amount of scene (and there is some) can distract from the high-level of cooking and the service that sustains it. In both its organization and ethos, the restaurant blurs the age-old division between front-of-house and back-of-house staff, mapping a blueprint for a workplace that confronts many of the issues plaguing restaurants today, including poor staff retention, communication, and morale.
Cote's servers, trained to cook each piece of beef on tabletop grills with a precision that flirts with seconds, must master high-level food preparation (including the ambitious nine-course steak omakase menu) and smooth service as they periodically bounce to other tables to flip meat in need of flipping, even if not in their section. The phrase “team effort" doesn’t quite do the operation justice. Monthly grilling seminars teach new employees, and refresh old ones, on proper grilling technique, as many of the skills traditionally confined to back-of-house seep frontward into the dining room. Executive chef David Shim teaches servers what cooked steak looks like, what overcooked steak looks like, and how to troubleshoot the many problems that might arise, ultimately entrusting his vision to servers who typically have no prior culinary training.
"As a chef there was always this unspoken tension between the front of the house and the back of the house. I was brought up with that mentality because of my old-school training," said Shim. "But here I have to work very closely with the servers—with the grilling classes, and everything else. I'm very proud to have such a family-like team."
When it opened in June 2017, Cote appeared on several of the city's best-of lists and earned a Michelin star, and the buzz continues to reverberate almost two years later. In New York, that’s something. Kim, the restaurateur who brought the concept to life, has a fine-dining background that glimmers in many of Cote's details: the simple-yet-sophisticated style of the staff, the wine list, the polish of service. And yet we're also in a restaurant where the signature tasting menu—the confusingly reasonable $54 Butcher's Feast, which offers four premium dry-aged cuts and a slew of Korean-inflected accoutrements—ends in paper cups of melty, caramel-topped soft-serve. We're in a restaurant without a dress code, at least for the diners—a restaurant where you can assemble your bites as you please, scooping up wagyu ribeye with lettuce and zippy scallion salad.
At 4:30 p.m. before every service and after staff meal (the restaurant opens its doors at 5:00 p.m. for the first seating and is almost always booked, sometimes with lines out the door), the staff gathers around the bar: dish washers, runners, cooks, bar managers, everyone. At a recent meeting, there was a joyful energy, as general manger Amy Zhou ran through the agenda, covering new cuts of beef, wine and cocktail specials, VIP diners, staffing schedules, and a new system for taking breaks. Every pre-shift begins with a call and response that should seem corny or strained, but doesn't. "How's everybody doing today?" she asked. The response: "Great!"
Zhou began with a note about section communication, announcing a new system for helping servers whose tables have diners with a food allergy.
"Where there’s a griller or a section server, you want to be able to help out your buddies, but you might not necessarily know what's going on with allergies, so we decided on a great new system," she said. "We have little round stickers coming, so for every table that has an allergy, you’ll put a sticker on the grill where the guest can't see it. And that way you know that table has an allergy, and if you don’t know what it is, you can check with the section server.“
Cheers and applause broke out around the bar. "Sasha likes it!" a voice shouted.
Indeed, the staff meeting is as much a place for celebration as it is for staffing logistics and reminders to help the runners. In April, the restaurant was announced as a James Beard Award semi-finalist for Outstanding Wine Program. At pre-shift, after an elaborate family meal of DIY beef tacos and shoefly pie that a server brought in for the team even though she wasn't working that day, Kim took a moment to explain the nomination's significance.
"It's a big fucking deal," he said. "I could not be more proud or more grateful to have [wine director] Victoria James and our beverage team nominated, so I wanted to give them a round of applause." Kim continued, "So, the award is not given to a wine list; the award is given to the team. Without the support and the beautifully polished, awesomely organized wine glasses that we all participate in, and without the taste that the servers pour to the guests—you are the ones that actually execute this." He looked around the bar in appreciation. There were more cheers.
Indeed, the markings of a successful wine program are the same as those of a successful culinary one—communication between staff and staff, between staff and customer, and between customer and customer. After it all, diners are there to celebrate with their people; the staff, merely to facilitate.
When people talk about great service, they "generally mean Michelin three star restaurants or super fine dining," Kim told me after the meating. "At Cote, we think we can get lit and have a super fun, nonpretentious experience, yet still have elements of true, genuine hospitality. We do training, we do wine service, we know how to bus tables and what have you, but most importantly, we genuinely care about how we make you feel better as a diner. The most important connection is not between operator and diner. It’s the connection between the diners."
For Shim, who has worked at Gramercy Tavern and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, the staff experience at Cote has been distinct.
"Everybody is watching out for each other to make the product great, the service great, and the overall guest happiness at its best—because the staff is happy," said Shim. "Cote is what we created through the touch and dedication of every member."