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Renowned Chef, Owner Of Bergen's Cafe Panache, Kevin Kohler Dies At 63

Kevin Kohler
Kevin Kohler Photo Credit: Kohler Family

TRIBUTE: “Smart, sassy, funny, kind, talented and much, much more” is only the beginning of how people spoke of beloved chef Kevin Kohler following his sudden death.

The body of Kohler, 63, was found Wednesday at Café Panache, the Ramsey bistro that the father of four turned into a culinary landmark and go-to destination for diners from miles around.

"It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the loss of our beloved father," his family posted soon after. "Our dad touched the lives of so many with his charm, keen sense of humor and culinary prowess. 

"He was a friend to everyone he met, and made a lasting impression on each of us, creating memories we will cherish always."

The posting unleashed a flood of heartfelt tributes, many of which exceed the usual.

“He was a fun-spirited, kind, caring and generous person,” wrote Marge D'Anna. “Our family will always be grateful to him for our many memories of impeccable celebrations, intimate dinners with delicious cuisine, eloquence and ambiance.”

“Kevin was one of the good guys, always with a warm smile, empathetic to those around him and kind to everyone,” Laurie Sargenti added.

“What an incredibly talented, sweet, fun and amazing human being. Nothing short of a devastating loss for everyone who knew (and automatically) loved this man,” Dave Kopec wrote.

Kohler, who lived in Mahwah's Rio Vista, grew up in Cedar Grove and, according to friends, played baseball just about every day. He wasn’t a scholar – he had a different kind of intelligence. Many called him a genius.

Kohler learned about good cooking and hard work, among other lessons, from his mom.

By 22, he was the executive chef for the Four Seasons in Manhattan. Within two years he was running kitchens at four different restaurants and was known by countless celebrities and other notables.

Kohler even made his way into the Guinness Book of World Records when the kitchen at the Palace Restaurant produced a dinner for a Middle Eastern oil baron that included a gold-wrapped quail in a birdcage of spaghetti.

The tab? More than $10,000.

By 25, the self-proclaimed “Jersey Boy” simply wanted to come home.

Kohler converted a former Long John Silver’s across from the Ramsey Theater on Main Street into his own joint. In no time, Café Panache had a 4-star rating.

It was only the beginning of decades of fine BYOB dining in a cozy atmosphere, as fitting for an intimate night for two as it was for a celebration of many.

"Nothing really scares me," he once told an interviewer. "It’s like playing music: If you play long enough, you can play everything after a while. Nothing is harder than anything else."

Kohler supported local farmers and grocers, including Abma’s Farm in Wyckoff and Steve’s Market in Ramsey, using farm-fresh fruits and vegetables and free-range grass-fed animals.

He also garnered glowing reviews, maintained a Zagat rating and achieved the rare feat of amassing more friends than acquaintances.

“From the pheasant he cooked in our tiny apt all those years ago to eating at Café Panache just a week ago, his food was always divine,” wrote Deborah Graske.

“Kevin was a true culinary master,” added Patrick Fay. “His passion for food purity, coupled with his artisanal styling, was in league with most Michelin restaurants.

“More importantly, Kevin had an effortless ability to make a stranger feel as if they were simply a friend he had not yet met. Too many nights we lingered late with old and new friends - and as many more nights we overindulged in laughter that we were never charged for -- a debt that can never be repaid.”

Arrangements hadn’t yet been announced.

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