Dreams of becoming a professional snowboarder brought Jay Gust to Colorado 20 years ago, and a developing career in the food industry kept him here. Gust, a 39-year-old native of Wisconsin, worked for Colorado Springs-based Concept Restaurants for 13 years before a short stint in the hotel business. In 2012, he went to work as general manager and executive chef at TAPAteria and Pizzeria Rustica for owner Dave Brackett, who offered Gust the opportunity to become his business partner. Gust spoke to the Business Journal this week about his westward journey, going to culinary school in Portland and his path to business ownership in Old Colorado City.
Can you begin by talking a bit about your background?
I was born and grew up in Oshkosh, Wis., and lived there until I was 19. Then I moved out here and wanted to become a professional snowboarder, but ended up becoming a dishwasher at the Ritz. I quickly climbed up the ranks there and, within a year, I was running the kitchen. Then I became sous chef … and Concept Restaurants, which owns the Ritz, decided to help me out … They sent me off to culinary school and I came back to oversee the Ritz and MacKenzie’s Chop House a little bit as a sort of chef de cuisine. Then … I took over the Ritz — a sort of natural progression — and I was there until 2008. Then I left and did the hotel circuit for a short bit. I was at the Antlers Hilton for a short stint and I was at the Doubletree for three years. I came on to TAPAteria and Pizzeria Rustica in 2012.
Originally it was because I really wanted to become a professional snowboarder. One of my really good friends and I drove out here in 1994 and decided we would save up money for six months and move out to the mountains — and we did.
I’ve always loved food. I was finicky as a kid and by the time I was a teenager we were driving to Madison to find something different (good Chinese food or whatever). Oshkosh has grown a lot since I’ve been there, but it’s still just not a mecca for cuisine.
Why did you decide to return to Colorado Springs after culinary school?
There was an obligation to Concept Restaurants to come back, but there was a thought in my mind to stay there.
So you like it here in the Springs?
I love it, and I don’t plan on ever leaving the Springs. These restaurants are a good start of what’s to come. I want to see the Springs really thrive and I want to be a part of helping turn this into a true food city. I think there is a lot of great energy going on right now.
How did you get started with Rustica and TAPAteria?
Dave [Brackett] — my business partner here at Rustica and TAPAteria — his daughter used to work at the Ritz with me. We always had a good relationship on the non-business side, and he started talking to me about his retirement strategy. It was a good fit, because I needed to start thinking about my ownership strategy. That came along after I had been here a year or two. The plan was always to have me become the owner, but it was more just a matter of making that work.
Tell me about that transition.
I’m majority owner at TAPAteria and at the beginning of next year I should be taking over Rustica. Dave doesn’t slow down. As much as he’d like to retire, I don’t know if he’ll ever completely retire.
Where would you like to see the companies grow from here?
I would love to see TAPAteria continue to grow and continue to produce beautiful Spanish food and really hone the craft. We have this beautiful Spanish deli and it is still just this hidden gem of cuisine. I’d love to see that expand more and to see people come here because they know they can get fine cheese and things on the Westside … At Rustica, we’ve updated the menu and it has been blowing up already. It was a good choice.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I’m not quite as active of an alpinist as I used to be, but in the wintertime I still snowboard and ice climb. On days like this I go rock climbing. I really just like to enjoy Colorado to its fullest — get out into the mountains and get some exposure.