Café Panache, an award-winning bistro serving eclectic New American cuisine for over 35 years, has long been an institution in Ramsey's downtown.
However, in January of 2021, chef/owner Kevin Kohler suddenly passed away at the age of 63. "He was healthy and athletic," says his daughter Kristie Messano (née Kohler). "He hiked and went to the gym regularly--my siblings and I were all left in a state of shock.”
The Kohler family has since taken on the responsibility of managing the restaurant to continue their father's legacy. We spoke with Kristie to learn more about a family that stopped in their tracks, picked up the pieces, and kept the business running.
What was it like to deal with this unexpected loss while managing the responsibilities of a renowned local restaurant?
Losing our father was an unimaginable pain--one we could have never imagined. My dad was a vibrant soul with an outstanding ability to care for everyone in his life. His culinary prowess was second to none, so deciding to reopen the doors of Café Panache was very difficult. The idea that the institution he built would never again open its doors was a painful concept because he had poured all his energy and time into creating it. We had many employees that had been with us for decades, and the thought of leaving them unemployed in the blink of an eye did not feel right. My brother Jason works full time, my sister Lindsay (Masi) is a stay-at-home mom, and my youngest brother, Max, is in college. I was the one that had to step into the day-to-day operations. We felt pressured and were wondering if we could do this.
Understandably, you and your siblings had big shoes to fill.
My dad was a great chef. He was a student of his craft and had hundreds of cookbooks filled with notations. He cared so much about the art of cooking and was constantly learning. He was also an amazing businessman, which led to his success as a restauranteur. It was rewarding to keep our loyal staff employed and get such support from our wonderful customers. This is a passion project—that's what's driving us. This place was the center point of our lives and the lives of so many others. We held many family celebrations within these walls and are doing our best to honor his memory.
How do you divide up all the duties involved in managing Café Panache?
My dad always encouraged us to learn a work ethic within the business, so we took on various responsibilities akin to our strengths.
Upon hearing of my dad's passing, Michael Matonti, one of my father's past employees and proteges, reached out in sympathy. He had worked for my dad years ago, eventually moving on to attend the French Culinary Institute. We were lucky to be able to hire him back as our head chef. He is a great spirit in the kitchen, with the ability to innovate new dishes while successfully recreating the old favorites.
What was your dad's vision for the restaurant, and are you taking it in the same direction?
Our father's vision for the restaurant was simple; Use the freshest ingredients handpicked from local resources and purveyors and avoid being distracted by culinary trends—food is simply food, and you want it to be delicious.
Our direction for the restaurant is the same, and we firmly stand behind that decision. The wonderful people that come to our restaurant will continue to enjoy the Panache classics and also delight in the specials of the evening, crafted to highlight the most seasonal ingredients.
What are some of the most popular dishes at Panache?
It's impossible to choose the most popular of our father's library of thousands of recipes, but people return again and again for the filet mignon ravioli in truffle butter, calves liver in port wine and raisins, crispy duck confit with wild rice and a passion fruit sauce, and the panko encrusted halibut with wasabi sake sauce.
What else do you want people to know about Café Panache? What makes you different?
Cafe Panache has always been a business built on an extreme devotion to the culinary arts and fine dining, one that our father spent most of his life perfecting. It has now become a family business—and a passion. Our goals are to preserve our father's legacy while sharing the individual ardor for fine dining that he instilled into us.