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Chef, co-owner at popular Hell's Kitchen restaurant dies at age 61

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Mitch Omer – the co-owner and chef at Hell's Kitchen – loved to wear his Santa zoot suit at the restaurant during the holiday season, his wife Cynthia Gerdes wrote on the restaurant's Facebook page.

He felt he was "THE Santa Claus," and that's why his death happening around the holidays is "actually quite poetic," Gerdes explained. Omer died Friday at age 61 following a year-long illness that "still has the doctors confounded," the post continues.

Omer, a football star who walked away from a full scholarship at Iowa State, started cooking when he was 19 years old – it was his first job, and he had to lie to get it (he lacked experience), the Hell's Kitchen website says.

It was just a job until he met world-renowned chef Jacques Pepin. Omer says watching him in action "lit me on fire" and helped kickstart his culinary career, the website notes.

After working for years under chefs near and far to practice his skills, he and his "partner in crime" opened Hell's Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis. Omer's thought was that food should be prepared "in a simple way using the best ingredients," he told the Pioneer Press in 2008.

Gerdes, who said over the past 13 years she and her husband developed a relationship with many customers through "our cheeky posts" and behind-the-scenes stories, invited anyone whose life Omer touched to celebrate his life at Hell's Kitchen on Wednesday at 1 p.m.

Some took to Twitter to share their condolences:

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