Kevin Kohler, one of Bergen’s most revered chefs, who for 35 years ran Cafe Panache in Ramsey, one of New Jersey’s best high-end restaurants, has died. He was 63.
Friends report that Kohler was found in the dining room of his restaurant Wednesday morning by his employees.
“It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the loss of our beloved father, Kevin Kohler,” his family said in a statement. “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.” He had four children.
“It is more than shocking,” said Chuck Russo, former owner of Carlo Russo Wine & Spirit World in Ho-Ho-Kus. Russo said he had spoken with Kohler the day before and was planning to celebrate his 65th birthday at Cafe Panache Thursday night.
“Cafe Panache catered my wedding,” Russo said. “We have had many family celebrations in the past 30-plus years at Cafe Panache.”
He held many wine-tasting dinners with Kohler at the restaurant as well as a Valentine’s Day wine dinner every year, the proceeds of which went to Table to Table, a nonprofit that helps feed the hungry in North Jersey.
When Kohler opened his charming, 88-seat bistro in Ramsey, there were very few restaurants in New Jersey that were of Cafe Panache’s ilk: an elegant, chef-driven and seasonal spot where he used French techniques to make what at heart were modern American dishes. His best-known dish was house-made filet mignon ravioli, which he said he could never take off his menu.
Long before people started using the term “farm-to-table,” Kohler was picking produce every morning at nearby Abma’s Farm. “I had to get a leg up on my competitors,” he told The Record when his restaurant celebrated its 30th anniversary. “Besides, I was always product-driven.”
He worked tirelessly to ensure that his food was consistently good, not complicated, froufrou or trendy. Or, for that matter, traditional.
“You wouldn’t find a coq au vin or cassoulet on his menu,” said Michael Latour, chef-owner of Latour restaurant in Ridgewood. “But you’d get a great Bordelaise sauce or something cooked sous-vide. He never took the easy way. He did everything right.”
“He was always consistent,” said Arthur Toufayan, chef and owner of Cafe Amici in Wyckoff, who knew Kohler for at least 30 years. “He never faltered. He just kept doing his stellar, top-notch food.”
Kohler always seemed to be at his restaurants, either cooking in his kitchen or greeting guests in the dining room. In fact, he liked to talk so much to his guests that the practice led to a 2½-star review from The Record, the reviewer complaining that Kohler spent too much time talking to patrons and not enough in the kitchen. He nevertheless received a four-star review from The Record soon after the restaurant opened and 3½ stars three years ago; three stars from The New York Times; and three-star reviews twice from New Jersey Monthly, which has named Cafe Panache several years in a row one of the state’s top 25 restaurants.
“He had a passion for cooking,” Latour said. “It was obvious.”
Kohler credited his success not to talent or skill but to working hard, often 12-hour days. A jock in high school — who also happened to be the first boy at Cedar Grove High School to enroll in a cooking class (“Fifteen girls, only boy — fun for me,” he said) — Kohler likened cooking to sports.
“Cooking is very much a sport,” he told The Record. “It’s how physically strong you are and how much work you can do at the end of the day that counts.”
“He could have done so many things,” Toufayan said. “He could have opened other restaurants, gone into some business. But he kept it to Cafe Panache, his quaint, beautiful little restaurant.”
Funeral arrangements have not been set.
Esther Davidowitz is the food editor for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.
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