Breaking News

Opinion: One of the first Black master sommeliers is on a mission

 

We asked McCoy to write a letter to the next generation of Black master sommeliers coming up behind him. The views expressed here are his own.

To the next generation of Black master sommeliers

I’d like to begin by congratulating you on such an enormous accomplishment. If your experience is anything like mine, you are perhaps drowning in a pool of disbelief, struggling to assess how you truly feel about it.

Achieving something that you have committed your life to for many years understandably can be overwhelming. Don’t put pressure on yourself to feel any particular way about it. Let it be what it is for you. This is your experience and allow yourself to digest it in your authentic way.

For me, it wasn’t until a year after becoming a master sommelier, that the significance of the achievement really sank in for me. I was frankly torn between being completely in shock and being afraid to accept what I had just done. A bit of impostor syndrome, something I still deal with to this day. My journey to that point was not a straight and easy road.

While the Black experience in the US is not a monolith, it is likely there were at least small aspects of our journeys that are likely to be similar. No one in my family drank wine. I don’t think I had a glass of wine until I was forced to take a wine course while at The Culinary Institute of America. I intentionally say forced because I really didn’t want to take the course, I was terrified to take the course. I had won a scholarship through a program called CCAP to attend culinary school.

Growing up in DC

I was raised in Washington, DC in the kitchen with my grandmother, an incredibly strong and loving Black woman who brought me up and showed me every recipe she knew along the way. My cultural inheritance. And as a two time high school dropout and the only kid in my family to ever go to college — by winning a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America — well, it was a big moment not just for me, but my entire family.

The requirements of the scholarship were rigorous. One semester below a 3.0 and I was going to be sent, bags packing, back to southeast DC. So, I knew I had to do well.

In my mind, once I left DC, I wasn’t going back. Not because I didn’t love my family or my neighborhood but because I needed to succeed for all of us. I am sure you, too, understand this unique dynamic; as a Black American, your successes and failures are not allowed to be simply your own because you represent the entire community.

So understandably, I couldn’t go home with my tail between my legs because of a wine class. I hunkered down and studied extremely hard and slept very little. I was surprised to find I actually loved studying wine. I went from being truly terrified to being hungry for more. Luckily, I did pass the course. Studying wine, it turns out, wasn’t just about the liquid. It was about culture, history, geography and art.

I continued my education and returned my focus to the kitchen where I would remain for a few years. To this day, my time cooking in great kitchens truly prepared me to be able to engage with wine at a high level and to understand how the food and wine culture are the same. One cannot exist without the other.

After graduating in 2006, I moved to New York City, like all good and dedicated cooks at the time. I worked at Restaurant Daniel, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, Aquavit and Jean Georges. But New York City is not an easy place for chefs starting their career. Shortly after moving to the city, I was hit with the depressing realization I couldn’t afford to be a cook and live there, so I reluctantly took a role in the dining room. The front of house paid much more than the culinary positions.

Giving up wasn’t an option. I could not return home. Still, I was completely ashamed at the time, because the switch from “back of house” to “front of house” felt like I had failed. I had studied so hard to graduate from culinary school and now here I was, not even cooking professionally.

It took me months before I told my family and most of my friends what I was doing. But the reality was I enjoyed being on the floor and interacting with guests. I loved sharing my passions about food with diners.

Discovering a career in wine

After spending some time at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, I moved back to DC to help support my family. There I met Andy Myers who introduced me to wine as a potential career option.

Andy was an old punk rock kid turned sommelier. He made me comfortable rekindling my relationship with wine. After getting back in the saddle and being embraced by the local sommelier community, I allowed wine completely to take over my life. Every opportunity to taste something new or an opportunity to study a new region took me on a journey of understanding how geology, agriculture, food culture, politics and pure passion had created the traditions behind this humble beverage. Whether you’re studying California wines or French wines, you really do learn the history, geology and politics of a region and how these factors impacted the winemaking.

Soon after I would start to take sommelier exams through the Court of Master Sommeliers. This gave me a bit of structure and direction and I passed three of the four exams in 18 months.

Wake up at 8 a.m., shower and shave and head to the coffee shop across from the restaurant. I would sit there and study wine and pace around chain-smoking cigarettes for four hours. I headed to work and until I got off, typically around 1 a.m. That’s when blind tasting practice started — the process of tasting, evaluating and describing wines based only on what you perceive through your senses, which is a big portion of the sommelier exams.

Then back home for a cold beer and a cigarette on the patio and the bed. The next day: rinse, repeat. On nights without tastings, I’d go home and study more until I fell asleep in my book. There was no returning to Southeast and I had a family to help support. Failure was not an option.

Now as much as I loved what I was doing, one thing was very clear, there was no one like me in these rooms. No one was from where I was from, let alone my skin color. I don’t ever remember anyone saying anything or treating me poorly, but to never find a single other person in your work that you can relate to culturally was tough. No one who grew up with the same food or music or fashion. It taught me very quickly how to live in other people’s worlds. For over a decade, I would keep my story a secret and play the role I needed to get into the rooms I needed to be in to be successful.

At times, it was smothering. How long could I hide this and keep up this act? I never really revealed much to anyone about my actual upbringing or about my family. The act was to adapt the people and rooms I was in, and I knew for many, it was this act that helped me to progress. Would they accept me if they knew where I was from? I was aware of a couple Black sommeliers, most notably Andre Mack and Nadine Brown, but that was it. And while Andy knew my story and had spent time with my family, to the rest of the wine world, they knew the person that I showed them, the person I wanted them to see.

Becoming the second Black master sommelier

So when I moved to Aspen and took the Master Sommelier Exam for the first time, I was in full panic mode. Standing outside the first exam room, I looked around and there was no one that was like me. None that would make me felt like I belonged.

That year I would pass two parts of the three exams needed to become a master sommelier, both the verbal theory exam and the blind tasting. The next year I would pass the Master Sommelier Exam at the age of 28, only the second person of African American heritage to ever achieve this honor.

You’d think that I would be overjoyed, ready to celebrate with friends and colleagues, I felt the opposite. I really actually felt scared as hell. It took me many years and a lot of therapy to understand why. See, when you come from a place where society has decided that you and your community have no value, well then succeeding at something as almost as impossible as becoming a master sommelier is scary as hell. You end up downplaying it the achievement because you’re afraid it will all come tumbling down.

My hope for you is that you won’t do that. Instead, my advice to you is: Go and look yourself in the mirror and say out loud — not in your head, but out loud — “I did that, and I deserve this.” You have achieved something truly exceptional, and you deserve everything that comes your way.

And remember while this accomplishment is your and yours alone, there is a great responsibility that you take on when you represent a community that is greatly underrepresented. Though it may feel like an unfair burden to you, your achievement comes with the obligation to create opportunities for our community in this incredible industry, so there is more diversity. I co-founded The Roots Fund years ago, and we have created opportunities for thousands of people of color in this industry. It is your duty to do the same.

Live and lead by example. As Black Americans, we are truly blessed to be born with the cultural inheritance we have received. I look forward to watching you continue to evolve and to grow into being your true self.

Remember, we are a culmination of our life experiences. Don’t ever allow someone to define your identity. You are the person that you are.

Congratulations on your achievement. When we meet in person, the first beer is on you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *