Food & Wine Classic: Brotherhood born in wine built at Aspen’s Little Nell
Special to The Aspen Times
Sit with Csaba (Chubby) Oveges and Carlton McCoy of The Little Nell hotel for any period of time and you will quickly understand the “brothers from another mother” concept.
The pair ping-pong off each other, sharing thoughts on their pasts, their passions and aspirations with a kinetic energy that defines their mutual spirit. Regularly, they finish each other’s sentences, as if they were spoken by the same being. At times, one will interrupt the other to explain, in their own terms, what the other is really trying to say.
Getting a word or a question in edgewise can be difficult, to say the least.
These two alpha males have fed off each other’s energy for seven years as they have become, first, co-workers, then best friends and now partners in a new wine business that will help support Aspen-based charities.
This week, Oveges, the director of food and beverage at The Little Nell, and McCoy, the hotel’s wine director, will be Aspen’s defacto hosts as the wine and culinary community descend on the mountain town for the 36th annual Food & Wine Classic.
Because of its stellar reputation (this year the Nell’s wine program was nominated for a third time for a James Beard Award) and the hospitality of the staff, the Nell has become the go-to location for Classic elites and for events and parties.
“Over the past couple of years we have made a concerted effort to integrate the Classic and the hotel,” Oveges said. “This year we have 37 different events, tastings and parties over the weekend.”
These include epic wine dinners featuring Bordeaux’s Chateau Palmer, Harlan Estate and private parties for top tequila and rum brands. Today, a Champagne party at 11 p.m. at Chair 9, presented by Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot, is open to the public.
Pretty heady stuff for the pair who came from very different beginnings to Aspen, where they have forged a bond.
McCoy, who is just the second African-American to ever pass the master sommelier exam, grew up in the southeast section of Washington, D.C., where he was first exposed to cooking and food in his grandmother’s church.
“It was such a pleasant experience. I loved to cook and I have never had a job outside the hospitality industry,” McCoy said.
Cooking led to a scholarship at the Culinary Institute of America, where he studied and learned — that he didn’t want to be a chef.
“It was different,” he remembered. “It was regimented and not as fun as the stuff I did as a kid.”
He went on to be a “front of the house” guy, working the floor first as a busser and then a server, at such stellar locations as Craft Steak and Per Se in New York before returning to Washington and a prime job at the celebrated CityZen.
It was there where he discovered wine.
“I had a mentor there, Andrew Meyers. He was into death metal and wine, he kind of helped me turn towards wine,” he said. “I passed my Advanced (sommeliers exam) in 2010 and was invited to Denver for a Wines of New Zealand event. I met a bunch of guys, like Dustin Wilson and Brian McClintic, who worked in Montagna (now Element 47), so I knew something about the Nell, but I had never been here.”
For his part, Csaba’s early days were spent in the Balaton, a bistro which his parents owned and still operate in Budapest, Hungary, almost 6,000 miles from Aspen.
“I always knew, always knew, that I wanted to be in hospitality,” said the erudite and congenial Oveges with just a hint of an accent from his native country. He matriculated to hospitality school before taking his first job with the five-star Kempinski hotel in Budapest.
His first job? A room-service server.
“I think one of the advantages I have today is that I know every job in the hotel and restaurant, because I have had it. I know exactly how a server feels in Element 47 when they have a difficult guest, or how the dishwashers are when they get too busy,” he said about his path at the Nell.
After a brief stint at the Marriott Hotel in Denver, Oveges was forced to return to Europe when his visa expired in 2003.
“But I fell in love with America and all I wanted to do was come back,” he said
It was while he was sitting in an internet cafe outside of Dublin, Ireland, where he was working in a restaurant, that magic struck.
“You remember back in 2004 when you had to pay like 2 euros an hour to use the internet? Well, I’ll never forget, I came across this job opening from The Little Nell Hotel in Aspen, Colorado,” Oveges said. “I have always been a skier so I thought ‘that looks good,’ but I had no idea just how great the property was.”
He was hired in November 2004 by Aspen Skiing Co. and has treasured his ascendency to his current position ever since.
McCoy was offered a spot as a sommelier at the hotel in 2010, a job that Oveges had applied for and wanted.
“I did not like Carlton at all when he first came here,” Oveges said.
“I had to prove myself,” McCoy replied, “and it took me like two years before I really felt like I belonged.”
Both bust out in laughter as they recall, in unison, what is now a legendary bonding event.
“It was just before midnight on New Year’s Eve (during) Carlton’s first year and we were slammed,” Oveges said.
McCoy concurred it was crazy and they “sold like four times as much wine as I had ever seen sold in a restaurant.”
“I was totally in the weeds and this nice Australian family, I think they were at table 46, wanted a bottle of our least expensive Champagne for a midnight toast,” McCoy recalled. “I had like four tables going off so I asked Csaba if he would get me the bottle. He said sure, so I thought, ‘Hmmm, that was easy.’”
Oveges came back about five minutes later and gave McCoy the bottle and they went out front to watch the celebration.
“Have you ever seen that photo of Kim Kardashian where the spray of Champagne flies over her head into the glass?” McCoy asked. “That was exactly what happened when I popped the bottle, like half of it sprayed the place.”
“We had all taken our turns shaking it as hard as we could in the back before we gave it to Carlton,” Oveges laughed.
The incident helped break the ice and McCoy and Oveges began to spend time together working on making the restaurant the best it could be.
“We would have these late-night dinners after everything was closed and we would taste wines and talk about how to improve the restaurant,” Oveges said. “We treated it as if it were our own.”
They discovered that they were both born with the same gene: the hospitality gene.
“Have you ever been in a space where you would rather be at work than anyplace else because it feeds you on so many levels? That’s what we were like,” McCoy explained.
They also began to adopt the Aspen lifestyle, beginning an odyssey of fitness.
“I smoked cigarettes for 14 years,” said McCoy with a shake of the head. “I had never exercised before I came here.”
Oveges said he also was a smoker and overweight.
“In this business we eat and drink all of the time and you have to be careful,” Oveges added.
The pair, first Oveges and then McCoy, began to cycle in Aspen under the tutelage of coach Moi Wertz. The result is that both McCoy and Oveges are in the best shape of their lives.
McCoy has a pair of New York City marathons under his belt and Oveges is an ardent rider, having reshaped his entire fitness regime.
The collaboration between them has led to the creation of a new venture, called La Carafe, a wine label that features wines of France the pair has sourced personally and imported. They have pledged to provide 100 percent of the proceeds to three Aspen charities (the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, Shining Stars and the Buddy Program) as their way of giving back to the community.
In addition to their duties at the Nell, Oveges is enrolled in an MBA program through Duke University and McCoy travels as an examiner for the Court of Master Sommeliers. With their success at the Nell and the accomplishments they have on their resumes, they would both be hot commodities in the nation’s tight hospitality marketplace.
“I don’t want to speak for Csaba,” said McCoy in complete contradiction of what he regularly does. “But I’m not going anywhere. I’m here for life.”
Oveges echoes his friend and colleague.
“Where else are you going to go that is like this, where you have a direct personal relationship with the owners (the Crown family), where you have a great property and you pour vintages of DRC (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti) back to back?” Oveges said. “Nobody does that.”
Nobody except Csaba and Carlton.
Kelly J. Hayes writes the WineInk column, which appears every Thursday in the Aspen Times Weekly.
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