Werner F. Kuster
Werner F. Kuster was born in St. Gallen, Switzerland, on July 30, 1925. His father owned the small Hotel Krone on Lake Constance. He attended the local school where French and German were mandatory, helped in the hotel and skied on barrel staves. At fourteen, he was sent by his father to serve a three-year chef’s apprenticeship in Lucerne… After working in Swiss hotels, he went to Holland to cook on the cruise ship New Amsterdam, which took him around the world.
In 1949, at the age of twenty-four, he migrated to the United States, where he’s been recommended for a job at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. That same year, Arnold Senn, chef at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen (the “Swiss Hotel and Chef’s Network” is mysterious and far-reaching), located him and asked him to come west and work for him. Still speaking only broken English, and having driven very little, he bought his first car and set off across a country that seemed as vast as the moon. The Korean War was on, and in Aspen, Mrs. Louse Berg, head of the local draft board, advised him that if he served his army stint immediately he would be granted immediate citizenship.
During basic training at Fort Ord, no Army issue boots could be found to fit his small feet and for the first few months he drilled in his own brown and white wingtips. Finally in Army issue boots, he was sent to Camp Hale where he taught skiing and mountain climbing to new recruits. The other G.I’s, mistaking his accent, called him “Kraut.”
He was discharged in October of 1952 and returned to Aspen and the Jerome. In 1953, Werner and Arnold Senn bought the Red Onion. To obtain a liquor license, both men had to be citizens. Somehow Werner’s discharge-and his citizenship-had been lost in the government shuffle. All was untangled in the nick of time, and Judge Darraow granted him citizenship with a glowing commendation.
From 1953 through 1979 Werner became a renowned restaurateur and a leader in his community. He was one of the organizers of the famed Hospital Benefit Dinner for which he donated, butchered and cooked all the meat (game was donated by citizen-hunters) and threw wide the Onion’s doors. In addition, he donated lucullan benefit meals for almost everyone who asked: the Aspen Community School. The Ski Club, Ducks Unlimited, the U.S. Ski Team and for many years the St. Patrick’s Day dinner at the Catholic Church. He even provided food for the sheriff’s jail when they were short of funds.
Werner also provided gratis breakfast, lunch and dinner for the U.S. Ski team and the American World Cup Team any time they were in town. His dinner was highlight of the Danny Kaye Benefit which raised $100,000 for the Music Associates. The World Cup and Pro Skiing Calcuttas in the Red Onion raised thousands more to support skiing. He was always available to fly his plane on mission of mercy. His wallet, his heart and his larder were open to any request for help. There is of course a door donated by him at the Aspen Valley Hospital.
The year 1966 marked his first election to the Aspen City Council. Over the next four years his group paved the first one hundred blocks of city streets, embarked on building a much-needed new water system, and finally wrote a charter for Aspen. During this period he also served on the Mall Commission, working actively on design and engineering. In 1968, he acted as Mayor Pro Term. In the 1970’s he was a member of the County Planning & Zoning Board and in 1973 of the State Land Commission, for which services he received the Distinguished Coloradan Award from Governor Love.
In 1968, James Perry bought Arnold Senn’s share of the Onion and became Werner’s silent partner.
Over the years Werner built two additions to the Red Onion, meanwhile playing host to old miners, visiting royalty, movie stars, writers, business tycoons, musicians, and down-on-their luck ski racers. The Onion was the first to bring big name entertainment to Aspen… Local favorites included a parrot, a monkey and the Eric Lawrence Trio with Dick Murphy and Dean Billings (and English Bulldog “Lord)… and “drop-ins” such as Freddie Fisher and Dr. Whitcomb. Werner was a nonpareil raconteur and became famous for his stories of early Aspenites and mishaps in his restaurant.
Werner passed away in Tucson AZ. on Jan. 21, 2019 at 93-1/2 years old. A memorial service is being planned in Aspen in the fall.
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