September 23, 2019

Alumni spotlight: Amy Zhou, General Manager at Cote

Amy Zhou graduated in 2014 with a BS in Hotel and Tourism Management. She turned her passion for restaurants into her profession, and is now a general manager at Michelin-starred restaurant Cote. She tells us more about her stellar rise in the culinary world.

How did your career journey lead you to working at a Michelin-star restaurant, Cote? 

I always knew I wanted to work in the restaurant industry. My dad was a first generation Chinese immigrant who came to America for a doctorate program, but his first job in the United States was at a restaurant as a wok cook. In high school, I was inspired by this, so I started working in a restaurant as a host, moving into maitre d’, busser, polisher, server, and eventually sommelier. Being a child of first generation immigrants, my parents weren’t necessarily thrilled about me wanting to work in this industry. However, I came across NYU’s hospitality program. My mom was initially opposed to it, but once she found out that I could go to college and get a degree in it, she decided this was a legitimate career. I ended up going to NYU while working and interning at several restaurants and hotels during my undergraduate years. After I finished school in 2014, my first management job was at Strip House, a steak restaurant then owned by BR Guest. I worked with some very talented people there, and became the youngest general manager in the company. My current director of operations Tom Brown, who hired me at Cote, was also the first to hire me at Strip House.

What is it like working at Cote?

Cote is a very dynamic workplace, and I consider myself very lucky to work with the people that I do. If you’ve ever read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, there’s a reputation to working in restaurants. It’s hard, fast-paced work with people who like to play as hard as they work. At Cote, I work with many professionals, whether it’s professional bartenders, servers, runners, or cooks, and everyone who works here is in it to win it. From a management perspective, it makes my job very easy. I come into work everyday and the people I’m proud to call colleagues are people who want to take ownership and genuinely do their best. Simon, the owner, has also instilled a very inspiring culture of taking care of his people. Many restaurants are cut-throat but he’s really created a very special place. As GM, it’s my job to protect this culture. It’s been a great pleasure for me to do that. 

What experience and skills do you think are necessary to be able to succeed in the restaurant industry?

Like any other industry, you really have to love it. And I’ll be the first to admit that love is sometimes hard. Love brings happiness but also requires compromise. My relationship with the restaurant means working late hours, holidays, missing out on a lot of stuff outside the restaurant, within your family and friendship circles. It’s physically exhausting and you have to be patient with your 100 plus employees and daily 500 plus guests. But at the end of the day, we do it because we love taking care of people, our employees and our guests. When we have guests come into Cote for the first time, many have no idea what any of this is going to be. Maybe they’ve never seen tabletop grilling, experienced korean barbeque, or ever been to a steakhouse before. For them to come in and have their lives changed after one experience, I think that makes it worth it at the end of the day.

Can you share advice for undergraduate students looking to get into the industry? 

I definitely recommend getting your hands dirty. What's great about the NYU program and any college education is that you learn about business, legal, and structural aspects, which are all very important, however, practical experience you can only get by working in a restaurant. So if you've never done this before, I recommend that you research restaurants and restaurant groups you admire and see what their culture is about and try your best to get a job at any one of them starting at the bottom. And it’s really important to start at the bottom. Part of being a good leader is to have empathy for the people who work for you. If you can't share their perspective, it becomes very hard to empathize and find the right solution when things get challenging.

How has your NYU experience shaped and impacted your career? 

The culture at NYU has always been a high level of attention to professionalism, quality of education, and quality of instructors. The educational piece is obviously very important but I think being in a community of professors and students who have a high level of determination really motivates you. And, if you surround yourself with people who push you and inspire you to be your best self, it really makes you want to do the same. 

How do you spend your days outside of work?

The running joke in this restaurant is that my spirit animal is a 90-year-old human woman and my nickname here is actually Grandma Zhou. Outside of the restaurant, I spend a lot of time with my dog and my fiancé when I can catch him. Every Sunday, I go to the farmer’s market and catch up on reading. Outside of work, I try to find time for wellness. We’re working anywhere between 60-70 hours a week, and I tell my staff that if you don't take care of yourself outside of work, you’re not going to be able to take care of guests. I also co-founded an educational non-profit called Wine Empowered this year with two other women at Cote: Victoria James and Cynthia Cheng. Wine Empowered will provide tuition free wine education to women and minorities in the hospitality industry. This takes a lot of focus on my days off lately as we are pushing to launch our inaugural class by February 2020.

What are your future plans and where do you see your career moving from this point? 

I feel very lucky. The reality is that a lot of people don’t end up in restaurants out of choice, but out of necessity. I got to work in restaurants because I genuinely wanted to, and I’ve had a lot of great people in my career who have helped me get to where I am today. It’s not very common to find a 26-year-old GM and I don’t think that would have been possible if there were not constantly people advocating on my behalf. What’s exciting to me is that once you reach this point, you realize you do have so many options. I can stay in restaurants, perhaps open a restaurant someday, or I could work in an auxiliary field. I've always been interested in the wine industry. Maybe one day, I’ll just run a bed & breakfast and make wine and live out my grandma dreams. As far as short-term, there are a lot of forward things happening at Cote in the next five to ten years. Again, it’s very hard to find such a great group of people that are not only talented and smart but also so caring and so committed to everyone’s mutual success. So as far as I see it, I see myself being a part of that right now. We are opening Cote Miami next year, and we also have other exciting projects underway. Cote is going to be a major player in this industry within the next few years and I’m definitely excited to be a part of this growing legacy. 

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