Interesting restaurant experiences in the land of opportunity
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kurt Wigger was 22 when he came to Aspen in 1961. For the next 40 years, he and his wife, Elsbeth, served some of the valley’s finest food in the Red Onion, The Sopris, The Loft and the Buffalo Valley.
Wigger: I was born in Switzerland, and I grew up in my family’s hotel. My mom was a chef, and my dad was a pastry chef. I started working in the restaurant peeling onions and carrots when I was 2 or 3 years old. I always liked the work. Looking back, it seems like I lived in the kitchen all my life. When I was old enough, I went to chef school and got a diploma from the Swiss government to be an executive chef.
I was able to work in some of the best hotels in Switzerland. It was in one of those hotels that I got my chance to come to America. I was serving in the Swiss army and helping out in the kitchen in a hotel in Zurich. The owner of the hotel had gone to school with Arnold Senn, the executive chef of the Jerome Hotel in Aspen and the owner of the Red Onion.
One day, I had just finished serving lunch and I came out of the kitchen and my boss introduced me to his friend, Arnold Senn, from America. Arnold said, “That was the best Pot-au-feu [French beef stew] I have ever had. Do you want to come to America?”
I said, “Sure.” I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. Three weeks later, I was packed and on my way to America. My family didn’t have much and they couldn’t afford to send me, so Arnold agreed to pay my way. He took the money out of my paycheck each month until I worked it off.
I grew up in a small town in Switzerland, so when I came to New York and saw all those big buildings my neck hurt the next day from looking up. We stayed in New York one night and then drove home to Aspen the next day. The drive across America was unbelievable. It was just farms and flat, flat, flat. Colorado is seven times bigger than Switzerland. I couldn’t believe how big this country was.
Gallacher: Did you start to wish you were back home?
Wigger: No, I never did. When I got to Aspen and started working as a chef at the Red Onion I had so much fun. The people were great and Aspen was small. I think there were only about 300 people living in Aspen then. I got to know everybody in the other restaurants. We were like a big family. We worked our butts off in the winter and relaxed in the summer, because there was no business. I thank the day that I came to America, such a great country. I never had the urge to go back. This country gave me everything I wanted.
I met my wife, Elsbeth, in 1964, the first day she came to Aspen. She had a job as a waitress at Guido’s Restaurant, and I was baking bread over for him. I met her when she first walked in the door. Wow! She was beautiful. Three months later we got married at the courthouse. We worked through the winter, and then in the spring we went back home to Switzerland and got married in the church.
Aspen back then was like a family. We worked together and we cried together. All the people from the restaurants worked and worked, and then after work we hung out together. One night I would have a party, and then the next week somebody else would host a party. We partied all the time, but the parties were like family parties, like my brothers, my sisters, my good friends.
We stuck together and helped out one another. It was just like a big, big family. I helped out at Guido’s and the Golden Horn sometimes. If I ran out of something I could always go and borrow it from another restaurant.
Gallacher: How many hours a day were you working?
Wigger: Sixteen or 18 hours in the winter, but in the summer five or six hours. In the wintertime, we opened at 10 in the morning and served a late breakfast until three o’clock in the morning.
We worked, worked, worked. My daughters had to come to the Red Onion if they wanted to see me. But it all worked out and I would do it again. It was hard, but look how I ended up. I owned the most beautiful restaurants in the valley.
Gallacher: I understand that you served quite a few celebrities in your restaurants.
Wigger: Yes, and one of my favorites was John Wayne. I remember one of the times he was visiting Aspen, he had come in to the Red Onion for two or three meals. And then, one night, he walks in and says, “Kurt, do you mind if I eat with you in the kitchen? I just want to eat without being noticed.” I said, “The only thing I have in the kitchen is the employees’ table.” “That’ll be fine,” he said.
I called to Elsbeth in the kitchen and asked her to clean up around the employee table as quick as she could. All the time I was trying to think about what I could cook for him. That’s when he asks me, “Kurt, do you know how to make a great hamburger?” And I say, “Excuse me? A hamburger?”
So I went and got a 10-ounce New York strip and put it through the grinder and made him this hamburger, medium rare. When he finished, he gave me a $10 tip and told me, “Kurt, that was the best hamburger I’ve ever had.”
Gallacher: So you sat in the kitchen with John Wayne while he ate his hamburger? What did you talk about?
Wigger: Well, we talked about movies and what he was doing in Aspen. I asked him about skiing and all that. But I learned early in my career that when somebody is eating you need to let them eat.
Gallacher: Everybody who has worked in restaurants has a story of the time when everything that could go wrong in the kitchen did. What’s your nightmare kitchen story?
Wigger: I came to work at the Red Onion at four o’clock one afternoon. There were 30 or 40 boxes of food that should have been put away, and they were still in the kitchen. I asked Billy Joe what was going on. Billy Joe was just out of prison where he had served time for murdering a black person.
I asked him why the boxes were still there and he pointed to the guy washing dishes and said, “Because that S.O.B. didn’t help me.” I told them both to get busy and put the food away. As I was saying that, the dishwasher walked over to where Billy Joe and I were standing. He picked up a two-foot serrated knife and put it right through Billy Joe’s heart. I grabbed Billy Joe as he was falling over and I held him in my arms as he bled to death. By the time I laid him down he was dead. The other guy just walked away like nothing happened. He went upstairs to his room and waited for the police to come.
We had to close the restaurant for an hour and then we reopened and went back to work.
Gallacher: You had to go back to work after that trauma?
Wigger: Oh yeah, of course. I was a little shaky for a while but we cleaned up the blood and went back to work. They arrested the dishwasher and put him in jail. He died of a heart attack in prison, eight months later.
Gallacher: When I asked you for a nightmare kitchen story I didn’t expect it to be an actual nightmare.
Wigger: You were probably thinking more of a story like the time we hired a new chef and he was prepping for a busy night and he let something flame up on the stove. It was a big flame and it started the sprinkler system in the restaurant. By the time we got it shut off the whole restaurant was soaked.
We had to try and call the two or three hundred people who had reservations that night. But we didn’t have phones for most of them, so they all showed up and we had to turn them away.
Yes, there were some crazy times but most of the times were wonderful. When I look back on my life and think about all of the people I have met and the friends I have made, I think there are not many countries that give a person the kind of opportunities I have been able to have here in America.
Immigrant Stories runs Mondays in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado. blogspot.com.
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