Sunday, July 2, 2017

Caroline & Gerald Buster: The Cottage Restaurant

It was quite a risk to open a French-inspired restaurant in Calumet City in 1974, but Carolyn Buster Welbon and her then-husband, Gerald (Jerry) Buster, created a phenomenon. For about 20 years, The Cottage restaurant was the premier fine-dining restaurant in the south suburbs. It was so good that the one-story stucco building -- inspired by a French inn the couple had visited -- became a destination for Chicago residents.

"Calumet City was in the middle of nowhere," said Nancy Harris, Caroline's friend and colleague. "About half-way there, you wondered why you were going but when you arrived you knew why. The food was so good."

Caroline, 66, died Thursday, June 12, in an assisted living facility in Albuquerque.  She had been in a coma since April 4 when she hit her head after apparently falling down the stairs at her home in Santa Fe, said police, who have ruled out foul play. She had moved into the house just a couple days before the fall, said her sister, Gladys Baker of Munster, Ind.

Caroline first received attention in the Chicago area when she worked at The Bakery in Chicago, under the legendary chef Louis Szathmary. She had no formal culinary training, save a 10-week gourmet cooking course offered by Sears, Roebuck and Co., before she started at the Bakery. Her previous job was in the office of a steel plant in Hammond. At The Bakery, she ran the test kitchen to assist with Szathmary's cookbook. She also worked in the dining room and the kitchen to learn the intricacies of the restaurant business -- always with the intention of opening her own place, colleagues said.

"Jerry" Buster
"She was like a sponge," said Gerald Buster, Caroline's ex-husband. "When you get a mentor like this guy, it was phenomenal for her."

The couple met while working at the Hammond steel plant. They married in 1965 and opened the Cottage Restaurant in 1974. They had planned a low-key opening, but the buzz about a Szathmary apprentice drew 103 patrons on the first day. "There was no way we were prepared for that," Gerald said. "People thought we were a spin-off of The Bakery. It wasn't at all. We didn't copy any of his recipes at all; she had her own ideas of what she wanted to do."

The Cottage became well-known for its schnitzel, tasty soups, full-flavored game and autumnal setting. In a 1992 Tribune restaurant review, the touted dishes included smoked quail and wild mushrooms, venison with a stone-ground mustard sauce, roasted duck and swordfish with pomegranate-pistachio sauce.

When the couple divorced in 1993, Gerald Buster brought in another chef. The restaurant closed in 1996. Caroline Buster never worked in restaurants again. She lived in Rhode Island and southern Indiana briefly and married Paul Welbon. The couple moved to New Mexico, where Paul died in 1999.  Gerald, born in 1936, is still living.