Since arriving in Colorado Springs in 2015, Eric Brenner has done more than transform his Red Gravy Italian Bistro into a downtown destination; the chef has initiated projects that have made him known for his strong commitment to the community.
But first, a little history. By the time he came to Colorado Springs, he had honed his skills working at restaurants in a neighborhood of St. Louis known as The Hill, an Italian immigrant neighborhood dating back to the 1890s. He also had amassed awards for his cuisine, including âUp and Coming New Chefâ, âMeilleur Chefâ and several accolades for âBest French Restaurantâ while he was chef at Leon.
On top of that, he had won the Food Network’s 2014 season of âGuy’s Grocery Gamesâ, was a professional musician with a touring band, and was a consultant for new food and restaurant businesses throughout Missouri and for the 15 casinos on the island of Capri. properties across the country.
Brenner credits his mother for his work ethic. He was born in St. Louis, the youngest of four children, and raised by a hardworking single mother.
âMy brothers and I were left with babysitters when we were young and then as we all went to school we took care of each other,â Brenner said. âWe grew up as city children in freedom. “
Brenner started watching cooking shows at an early age, which sparked an interest in cooking.
âNo one in our family really knew how to cook,â he said. âAs we were on our own and with little knowledge, I watched cooking shows on PBS. My sister bought me a wok and took me to the Asian market when I was about 10 years old. It opened my mind to all types of ingredients and flavors.
Luckily, music would play a huge role in the boy’s life.
âWe all started playing musical instruments and spent our time learning, practicing and ultimately forming a band,â he said. âOne brother played guitar, another was on bass and I played drums. Believe it or not, this saved us a lot of trouble. All we wanted to do was get together and jam. Our mom loved all the action and enjoyed the music. In fact, she admits, she liked knowing where we were always and what we were doing. “
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Her mother was still working.
âI have so much respect and love for my mom,â Brenner said. âShe raised her four children on her own at a time when working women did not have many opportunities. She was a full-time accountant for the St. Louis Country Club and did all kinds of other after-hours and weekend work to keep us from feeling poor. Tupperware, Avon, Mary Kay, Amway – she worked them all after hours.
As soon as the children could work, they were there too.
âWe went there, wanting to help our mother, who was still exhausted,â he said.
At 14, Brenner started washing dishes at the Favazza restaurant, and at 16, he learned to make pizza there, before moving to other stations on the line.
“My approach was to do my job if it was to wash the dishes, then if the cook didn’t show up, I would offer to do both tasks until they found a new dishwasher,” did he declare. “I worked after school, on weekends, on holidays, and every minute I could earn and learn.”
In 1989 he attended Webster University in St. Louis where he majored in liberal arts. He was the first of his siblings and cousins ââto attend college and graduate.
He continued to work in the restaurant industry at various restaurants in St. Louis for 10 years. Then his interests began to turn to gastronomy and become a chef after seeing a license plate.
“I remember dropping my mom off and picking her up at the St. Louis Country Club where she worked, and there was a Porsche and later a red Corvette with the ‘Chef’ license plate,” he said. he declares. âI would see this magnificent building, the incredible grounds of the golf course and polo stables, and the chef’s car, and I thought being a chef could be my way in the world.â
He asked his mother to help him get an apprenticeship with club boss Gerald Schaller.
âIt made me quit playing music, start cooking school, and put all of my energy into reading books and immersing myself in the culinary world,â he said.
He trained with Schaller from 1997 to 1999 and attended St. Louis Community College in Forest Park where he obtained an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science in Culinary Arts and Restaurant Management in 2001.
Now, with Red Gravy Italian Bistro, he tries to run a small business as he learned from his roots in Saint-Louis.
âIt’s like Favazza’s,â he said. âI think of Tony (Favazza) and Chef Schaller almost daily,â Brenner said. âI’m still in touch with all of them.
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Become a member of the community
Brenner doesn’t just get started in his job, he becomes part of the community.
For example, he became a member of the Greater Downtown Colorado Springs Business Improvement District, one of four separate but related councils that serve the downtown area.
Last year, during the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown, he helped pair local restaurants in a meal delivery system he organized for healthcare providers at multiple hospitals to help s ‘ensuring staff were fed while taking care of the multitude of patients. It has also helped restaurateurs keep their employees on staff and at work. It was called healing meals. He also led a project to have downtown restaurants enjoy eating out when restaurants were allowed to start serving customers. He lobbied city directors to shut down part of Rue Tejon to allow street meals on weekends. Eventually, the city built parklets for restaurants to expand outdoor seating.
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All of this led to Brenner having an unofficial fan club.
âFrom the very moment that restaurants were forced to close during the pandemic, Eric was innovating – designing in-house delivery methods, creating family meals, supporting efforts to expand outdoor dining and more,â said Susan Edmondson, President and CEO of Partenariat center-ville. âEric also has a big heart and a sense of community. Even in the darker days of the pandemic and concern for the future of his own restaurant, he started providing meals to hospital workers and continued all those months later. His commitment and care are genuine.
Bob and Terri Jack were so impressed with Brenner that they became silent partners of Red Gravy in January 2019 after learning that the majority partner was stepping down.
âWhile the food and ambiance of Red Gravy impressed us, it was Eric’s energy, creativity and social conscience that inspired us to join the partnership,â the couple said in an e- mail. âHis concern for his staff and his team philosophy, treating the kitchen and restaurant people with the same care and recognition, reminded us of a captain who ran a ship. â¦ When indoor meals were tight and first responders and hospital teams were under pressure, Eric quickly came up with a plan to feed those teams and keep staff employed as much as possible. All this while being a personal helper for his beautiful wife who is battling MS. “
Yvette Maher is a regular Red Gravy customer and another Brenner’s fan.
â2020 has had its share of devastating losses, but it has also brought out the best of many of our community leaders,â she said. âThe quote ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ comes to mind, and Chef Eric Brenner is leading the pack on this concept. â¦ To describe Chef Eric, you must use words like tireless, generous, innovative, selfless and hopeful.
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