Bonnie dies at 63
Everyone who has skied Aspen Mountain knew her, if not personally, then at least by her culinary creations. Bonnie Brucker Rayburn, who ran Bonnie’s restaurant on Aspen Mountain for 17 years, died Saturday at her Woody Creek home after a long struggle with cancer. She was 63 years old. Rayburn, who moved to Aspen more than 40 years ago “for skiing and adventure,” was well-known for her caring nature and passion for life, said her daughter, Missen Brucker. But it was her fondness for food, and the way her cooking brought people together, that many remember most clearly.”With Bonnie it was always about food,” said longtime friend and former co-worker Brice Maple, who remembers gondola rides during which Rayburn would talk about the latest recipes she’d found. And while bicycle touring through France in 1982 with two other close friends, Maple recalled, Rayburn had to get pastries at every stop. Missen recalls “brownies when we came home from school, and fierce badminton competitions in the back yard”; son Hans remembers gourmet family meals and staying overnight at his mother’s restaurant to get fresh tracks in the morning.Rayburn’s second husband Don Rayburn (her first husband, Hans Brucker, died in 1980) recalls the days before the two were married, in 1985. They had known each other as neighbors for a long time, and he remembers being attracted to her over the pies and cookies she baked for a local 4H Club event. Although he doesn’t recall their first official date, “it was undoubtedly a dinner date,” he said.
Together with family friends Peter and MaryAnn Greene, Rayburn won the contract to operate the Aspen Skiing Company’s on-mountain restaurant at Tourtelotte Park, then called Gretl’s, in 1980. That was shortly after the death Hans, and her friends thought she might need the income to raise her two children. “She had no restaurant experience, just her love for cooking,” according to Missen. “It was mother’s apple pie and her passion for food that took her to the larger stage – she became very successful because of her passion.”The Greenes, who had experience running chains of restaurants, provided the business acumen, while friend Barbara Guy, then co-owner of the Steak Pit, also coached her.Bonnie’s restaurant soon became a local and national institution, both because of the food and the atmosphere. Carrying on the tradition of Gretl Uhl’s famous apple strudel – and determined to match its lofty reputation – Rayburn developed her own signature dishes, such as pizza with homemade dough, and took pride in cooking nearly everything from scratch.During a time when most on-mountain restaurants offered little more than hamburgers and hot dogs, “we took it a step further,” said Peter Greene. “We made our own French bread and pizza dough, and the customers knew when it was coming out.”Locals and celebrities alike could expect to find their favorite dishes at Bonnie’s – she’d prepare chocolate cake for Aspen attorney Gideon Kaufman, and Jack Nicholson would come in for her chili verde and a couple of runs with the chef. One nonskier actually chartered a helicopter to dine at Bonnie’s.
The restaurant’s deck became known as Bonnie’s Beach Club, a “high energy” place to hang out and enjoy a meal, said Greene. An Aspen Mountain ski patroller by the name of Art Nerbonne was called “Artie near Bonnie” because he hung out there so often.Besides gaining a loyal customer following, Rayburn also engendered the loyalty of her employees, and many became friends. She had a particular fondness for guiding young kids – she was also a teacher – first by giving them a job that provided them with a ski pass.”Everyone loved working for her, and she seemed to be able to pick out ones that would be interested in what they were doing,” said Guy. “And everyone just really bent over backward for her.”Beyond the restaurant, Rayburn’s passion was the outdoors. She would hike and ski regularly with a group of women from the restaurant – they called themselves the A-Team. Bicycle touring was a favorite pursuit, something she enthusiastically drew her close friends and husband into. Friends and family also recall cross country ski outings, windsurfing on Ruedi Reservoir, horseback riding, hockey games and dancing. Rayburn was at the center of a tight-knit community that bucked the superficial reputation that Aspen had acquired, said longtime friend Helen Gloor.”We were all really close friends, everyone was always there for each other,” she said.
In 1997 the contract on Bonnie’s ran out, and the restaurant’s namesake chose to retire. She consulted with the Skico for three years afterward, though, carefully passing the restaurant’s legacy to new owner Brigitte Birrfelder.In April 1999, Rayburn was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which she successfully fought for a few years, continuing to hike, ski and enjoy the outdoors. Cared for by the Cancer Guide program at Aspen Valley Hospital, she made more close friends – and would spend plenty of time talking to her doctors about food.And when she finally succumbed to the disease on Saturday, surrounded by friends and family, “we had our shoes off so we could dance, that’s what she’d have wanted,” said close friend Laurie McBride.Family and friends celebrated Bonnie and Don Rayburn’s 20th wedding anniversary on Monday; they are planning a celebration of her life on Friday, March 11.
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