photo: Paul Aiken
by: Jerd Smith
On a bright blue September morning, at the northwest corner of Folsom Street and Colorado Avenue, blaring construction alarms bleep relentlessly as bulldozers dodge cars, electricians, landscapers and drywallers.
Boulder restaurateur Jay Elowsky, founder of the venerable Pearl Street restaurant Pasta Jay’s, stands just outside CU’s newly constructed Champions Center, scanning the chaos, waiting for a visitor.
In a pale yellow Colorado Buffs polo shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, the man who has been feeding CU football players as a sideline for 26 years is almost ready to launch his most ambitious restaurant project to date, the cafe at CU’s new Champions Club.
It will operate from the third floor of the new center, and, in a first, will be open to the public, CU football players and other athletes, and on game day, season ticket holders.
The view from the dining room is a hallmark scene — the brilliant green football field below with the Flatirons etched above along the skyline.
Inside the new restaurant, chairs are still wrapped in plastic, espresso machines are being wired and tested, and then tested again. Massive dishwashers are installed and ready to go, but with just days before the Sept. 21 opening, there is plenty of work to be done before the new eatery is ready for action above the field.
Final menus are still in the works, but Elowsky, 56, has been providing sustenance for the young men who comprise the football team since 1989.
The average football player, he says, eats double the food a normal person would. Adding in the coaches and support staff brings the ratio down to about 1.7 times the amount of food he would plan to use in a normal restaurant.
Executive Chef Adam Merlino, a former cruise ship chef and director of nutrition for a K-12 school district, said he will prepare 100 pounds of eggs each morning for breakfast. For lunch, perhaps 160 pounds of apricot-bourbon chicken, and if roast beef is on the menu as well, he will order in 140 pounds of that for the midday meal.
Because the cafe will also serve visitors to the CU Sports Medicine Center, on the floor below, Merlino is working with medical pros to make sure nutritional needs of patients can be met.
That’s not unlike the work involved in helping individual players meet their goals. A running back needed to gain 25 pounds before the season started, Merlino said, “So we made him smoothies that were packed with peanut butter, avocado and olive oil,” which the player consumed throughout the day in addition to regularly scheduled meals.
Elowsky has won the university’s contract to cook the football team’s meals off and on since the early 1990s. But he first offered to feed the players one free meal in 1989 as thanks for all the business the team helped generate at his then-young downtown restaurant on game days.
The relationship blossomed over the years, and even when Elowsky lost a bid for a contract, he would eventually win a new round. The CU catering contract that he works under typically runs five years, with annual renewals.
This summer, when players were doing two-a-days, the grueling, super-intense morning and evening training sessions that occur each pre-season, Merlino and his crew were feeding 175 people four times a day. Another crew toiled through the night doing prep work.
“It was going all night,” he said.
At the new cafe, Elowsky said he expects to be feeding 300 to 350 athletes each day, with the public welcome to join them from 1 to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. He calls it “eat like the athletes.”
The opening of the CU cafe marks the first step in a 24-month period that will bring two additional restaurants into Elowsky’s empire. He’s planning a new steak restaurant in Moab, Utah, where he’s operated a second Pasta Jay’s since 1992. A ground-breaking date hasn’t been set.
In addition, in a partnership with long-time Boulder real estate developer Steve Tebow, Elowsky will open a third Pasta Jay’s in Hays, Kan. next May.
If Elowsky has immersed himself in the inner workings of CU football, he’s spent an equal amount of time cooking for the Fairview and Boulder high school football teams, and time as well out of the limelight feeding the hungry and donating food or providing subsidized meals to local charities.
Through it all, Elowsky has survived in what most would describe as a brutal, highly competitive restaurant scene. Pasta Jay’s is one of the oldest restaurants still operating on Pearl Street, where space is breathtakingly expensive, diners choosy and celebrity chefs troll daily for customers.
Sean Maher, executive director of Downtown Boulder Inc. and a columnist for the Daily Camera, said Elowsky’s staying power rivals that of Old Chicago, the West End Tavern and Sushi Zan Mai.
“I’ve had restaurateurs say that what might be the best restaurant in another town would just be average here, and you can’t be average and survive. You’ve got to be at the top of your game,” Maher said.
Elowsky has also crafted a powerful network of friends and colleagues, from former CU football coach Bill McCartney, to Boulder developer Tebo, to his ex-uncle Ernesto “Sonny” Genovese, who taught him how to make pizza sauce and run a restaurant in San Clemente, Calif., when Elowsky was 20.
Though Genovese and Elowsky’s aunt divorced long ago, the two men still talk three or four times a week, Elowsky said.
Carly Porter, of Mortenson Construction, makes a phone call from the kitchen of Jay Elowsky’s new restaurant the Champions Club Cafe in Folsom Field on Wednesday. Elowsky is the owner of Pasta Jay’s restaurant in Boulder. (Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer)
As electricians test light bulbs in the new dining room at the Champions Club Cafe, football players, administrators and coaches pass Elowsky in the hallway. Head coach Mike MacIntyre, in grey athletic shorts and athletic shoes, strolls past, flashes a smile and ribs the restaurateur about an ancient encounter with former coach McCartney.
Then its back to the serious business of food. The menu at the new cafe is to be peppered with dishes named for some of the famous athletes who’ve come through CU’s program. Alfredo Williams, the classic creamy pasta dish, is named after Alfred Williams, a star line backer who played for CU during its championship years and went on to play for the Denver Broncos.
“We try to give every dish we name after someone an Italian twist,” Elowsky said, grinning.
For the famous and unknown players alike, the most sought-after dish Elowsky serves is chicken parmesan, known by the student athletes as “chik parm.”
In the last minutes of an intense pre-game practice, as dinner is being prepared inside, Elowsky has a habit of standing on the balcony of the stadium and yelling his final words of encouragement to the exhausted players. The cheer — “Do it for the chik parm.”
Jerd Smith: 303-473-1332, firstname.lastname@example.org
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