Dreams come true in Aspen for Swiss pastry chef
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Walter Huber and his wife, Viola, owned and operated The Delice restaurant and bakery for 48 years, 21 in Aspen and 27 in Glenwood. Walter was born in Switzerland in 1924, the seventh of 10 children. When he was 11 his mother died, and when he was 12 his career was decided for him. It was then that he decided he wouldn’t grow old in Switzerland.
Huber: I grew up outside of Bern, Switzerland. We had our own house and plenty of rooms. The house had woods all around and we would mark out a field and play soccer all day long, whenever we weren’t in school. But when I was 10 my mother had a stroke. She was paralyzed on one side. I remember watching her try to get around the house. That was a terrible time.
I was 11 when she died. I remember we were all around her bed and I prayed and I prayed. I was a real believer then but after that I didn’t believe in anything anymore. She just died there right in front of us and I decided then, “That’s the end of my church.”
Gallacher: So what happened to the family after your mother died?
Huber: My four older sisters really had to take over. They cooked and did the laundry and all that. We were just lucky we had them. They were hard workers and they took care of us younger kids.
We made it. There were 10 kids and no money and none of us ever got in trouble with the law. That was quite something. I was always proud of that.
Gallacher: That must have been hard on your father.
Huber: Oh yeah, but luckily he had a good enough sense of humor. When one of us would complain he would say, “It’s no fun if it doesn’t hurt a bit.” He was a wonderful guy. He worked on the railroad so he got rail passes. He always took us to places when he could afford it and gave us a chance to see something else.
But it was about this time that I remember deciding that I was going to leave Switzerland and emigrate to another country. I wanted to go on to better schooling. The teacher even came home with me to plead with my dad and brothers to let me go on to advanced education.
She told them that I had good grades and could do well academically. But they said, “No way, there is no money.” They didn’t trust the government. The teacher tried to tell them that there were grants that could help with my secondary education. I always dreamed of being able to wear the white hat that those students wore.
No one in my family would agree to let me go. We couldn’t afford it. It hurt me very bad and I decided right then that I never would stay home. In Switzerland the government takes over for you. They decide what kind of profession you are going to have. I always wanted to be an electronics guy. I was fascinated with radios and TVs. But they wouldn’t let me do that. The government said, “No, you don’t have the hands to do that.” They decided for me that I was going to be a pastry cook, and they found me a job in Geneva to learn the trade.
I spent five years in Geneva learning the business. I got very good grades and passed the exam real easy. When I came home to Bern I wanted to have my own shop. I never wanted to just work for someone. But the bankers just looked at me. They practically felt my clothes to see what I could afford. “No way,” they said “not a penny.”
But things changed for me. I had a friend who was working as the chef for the Hotel Jerome in Aspen and he wrote and told me he needed a pastry chef. He said, “It is really a chance for you to get started here, but I can’t sponsor you. You will have to find a way to get here on your own.”
I found an ad in the newspaper in Basel, Switzerland, where I was working at the time. The ad was for a position at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. I applied for the job and got it and arrived in New York in January of 1956 on the Queen Mary. It was one of the last passages she made across before she was retired. It was the first time I was ever on the ocean and I spent most of my time on deck watching the waves.
Gallacher: Did you get seasick?
Huber: No, I didn’t, but it seemed like everybody else did. We had a very rough passage, and there were lots of sick people. Before too long, no one was showing up at the mess hall anymore and the whole Queen Mary began to smell terrible.
Years later my family wanted to take me to lunch on the Queen Mary out in Long Beach where she was retired and I told them I couldn’t. I still remembered that sweet, sour smell of vomit from years before.
When I got to Chicago I asked a bus driver to take me to the “Draakee” Hotel. I couldn’t pronounce it and he had no idea what I was talking about. Finally, three bus drivers later, a guy asked me, “Do you mean the Drake Hotel?” I understood that right away. I would still be standing there if it wasn’t for him.
The first day I was at work, the director of the Drake came into the kitchen and said, “You must be Walter. I am Ralph.” And I thought to myself, “This is quite a change. I already like it here.” In Switzerland hotel directors were always formal. It was always “mister,” never your first name.
I was only at the Drake for four months because they never used butter for their pastries, only margarine. I wasn’t used to that and I finally went to my boss and said, “I cannot work here. I am used to working with cream, butter and booze. I am losing my quality.”
I started as the pastry chef at the Hotel Jerome shortly after that. It was a good job, and I worked long hours to do my best. Every Sunday in the Jerome we had a display of pastries, cakes and breads. And one Sunday, the banker, Mr. Woodall, came to me and said, “We need a pastry shop in Aspen and I will finance you if you’re interested.”
And of course, I jumped on that chance right away. I was overjoyed to have a shop, and business was good from the start. The bank was very supportive. Mr. Woodall said that whenever I needed more money “we would talk about it.” After that, I wrote to every bank in Bern that turned me down to tell them that a banker in Aspen came to me and offered to loan me money. I didn’t even have to go to him.
I wasn’t in my shop too long when I broke my ankle skiing and ended up in the hospital where I met my wife, Viola. She was the nurse who took care of me and I almost married her there in the operating room.
Next week- Walter and Viola Huber
Immigrant Stories runs every week in the Post Independent.
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