Major: Culinary Arts
Hometown: Washington, DC
The Value of Mentorship
When you grow up in a neighborhood where it may not even be safe to go outside, you learn to appreciate family and the mentors in your life. Carlton McCoy was raised in a rough area known as the murder capital of Washington, DC, so he turned his focus to family, school, and work. “Grandma was the pastor at our church so I spent a lot of time there. A good work ethic was very important to my family. That and education.”
Carlton always knew the culinary arts would be part of his professional life. “I learned the kitchen basics working at my family’s catering business,” says Carlton. “My grandma was an amazing cook known for her pecan pie and peach cobbler and by far the driving influence behind my career in the restaurant business.”
Food was certainly a focus of family life, but wine, not so much. “No one in my family drank wine,” says Carlton. Little did he know that wine would play a big part in his future—today he is sommelier at The Little Nell, the only five-star, five-diamond hotel and resort in Aspen, CO.
The path to his current job was sprinkled with supportive mentors every step of the way. While attending Anacostia Senior High School, Carlton joined the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), whose mission is to break the cycle of poverty through the culinary arts, donate supplies, offer mentorships, and connect kids to internships and jobs. Carlton counts C-CAP founder and chairman Richard Grausman and chef-instructor Ian Barthley ’90 as early mentors. Through the program Carlton was awarded a full scholarship to the CIA. “C-CAP made all the difference in my life. There is absolutely no way I would be where I am now without the mentorship and support of C-CAP.”
To prepare for culinary school, Carlton got a job at the Four Seasons in Washington, DC while still in high school. “I worked as a prep cook and garde manger using ingredients I had never seen before,” Carlton says. “Executive Chef Doug Anderson was awesome. He helped prepare me for culinary exams and said I could learn a lot by reading cookbooks. I had a big library before I went to the CIA.”
With plenty of experience Carlton felt at ease in his culinary classes, but one experience really stood out for him. “The wine class with Steven Kolpan was a revelation to me,” he explains. “It opened my eyes to a completely new world. I went to all the tutoring sessions to learn as much as I could about wine and I was fortunate to get a scholarship to accompany Professor Kolpan to Italy, specifically Piedmont, Tuscany, and Emilia Romagna.”
It was while working as a teaching assistant with Chef Xavier Le Roux at the Escoffier Restaurant that Carlton came to realize he enjoyed the front of the house more than the kitchen. “I think it takes a certain kind of personality to be out front. You have to be willing to give of yourself for the betterment of your colleagues and the restaurant, be passionate about and understand the service side of the industry, and take pleasure in serving others.”
With diploma in hand, Carlton embarked on a journey that would take him through a variety of experiences, gaining morsels of knowledge from mentors along the way. He worked with Marcus Samuelson at Aquavit, opened Craft Steak with Tom Colicchio, and served as an expediter at Per Se with Thomas Keller and Jonathan Benno. The sommeliers at Per Se were kind enough to share their knowledge, answer Carlton’s many questions and allowing him to sample a great array of wines.
Heading back to his hometown Carlton landed at CityZen at The Mandarin Hotel with Eric Ziebold, a protégé of Thomas Keller and “the most influential chef in my career. It’s also where I met Sommelier Andrew Myers. He really got me interested in wine again, taught me how to blind-taste wine, and gave me books to read. Within three to four months I signed up for the introductory level sommelier exam and passed.”
Carlton would continue his studies while being part of the opening crew of Ziebold’s Sou’Wester restaurant, where he designed the wine, beer, and cocktail menu, and served as sommelier and assistant manager. He passed The Court of Master Sommelier’s Advanced Sommelier exam in 2009, and in 2010 was named a Rising Star from StarChefs.com and received the Stevan Porter Emerging Hospitality Leader of the Year Award from the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
When given the opportunity to move to Colorado and work at The Little Nell, Carlton jumped at the chance with the full blessing and support of Chef Ziebold. “I’ve spent all my life in DC except for college and I wanted to live in another part of the country. The quality of life in Aspen is amazing.”
The Little Nell has had more masters come through its wine program than any other establishment in the country and has received awards from Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazines. The hotel hosted the Master Sommelier Exam, dubbed the hardest test in the world, in May 2012. The overall examination consists of a verbal theory test, a service test, and a blind tasting of six wines in less than 25 minutes, during which the candidate must successfully determine the wine’s origin, grape, and vintage. Fifty candidates sat for the exam with just four passing. Carlton passed both the tasting and verbal theory portions of the exam on his first try. He will take the service portion of the exam next May.
In the meantime Carlton continues to study and explore the vast world of wine under current mentor Jay Fletcher, executive director of fine wine and Master Sommelier for Southern Wine and Spirits of Colorado. “In a way, you’re always playing catch-up, constantly trying to stay current. There is always something new to learn and it becomes a lifestyle,” says Carlton. “It brings back memories of the CIA where the focus was on technique and professionalism. You learn how to operate under pressure.” When asked what advice he’d give to students, Carlton says, “Stay focused and humble, work hard and absorb as much as possible, seek out mentors, and keep your options open. You never know where you’ll end up.”