The Value of Mentorship
He’s a master sommelier and respected wine professional who made Forbes magazine’s prestigious “30 Under 30” list in the Food category and was named Best New Sommelier in 2013 by Wine & Spirits magazine. Clearly, Carlton McCoy has found success in the food and beverage world, and credits his many mentors along the way for his accomplishments—starting from the very beginning.
“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 she was by far the leading influence behind my career in the restaurant business.”
Food, not wine, was certainly a focus of family life. “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 master sommelier and wine director 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), where he met early mentors C-CAP founder and chairman Richard Grausman and chef-instructor Ian Barthley ’90. 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. “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 even went to the CIA.”
With plenty of experience under his belt, Carlton felt at ease in his culinary classes. However, 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.”
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 allow 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 was there that I also met Sommelier Andrew Myers.” Myers invited Carlton to join a group of Washington sommeliers working towards Master Sommelier certification under the tutelage of Kathryn Morgan.
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.
When given the opportunity to move to Colorado and work at The Little Nell, Carlton jumped at the chance. “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 master sommeliers come through its wine program than any other establishment in the country and has received awards from Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazines. There, Carlton continued to study and explore the vast world of wine under mentor Jay Fletcher, executive director of fine wine and Master Sommelier for Southern Wine and Spirits of Colorado. He sat for the Master Sommelier exam, dubbed the hardest test in the world, in May 2013. Out of the 63 candidates, Carlton was one of four who passed. He joins an elite group. In North America there are 133 who have earned the title and Carlton is only the second master sommelier of African-American descent.
“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.”