Charles “Chad” Freeman’s love of food began long before he started Milton’s restaurant in Crystal. As a little boy, he shoved his favorite food under his bed.

His stepfather, Phil Weber, said he would always find partly empty cans of oysters and mushrooms and artichoke jars tucked under Freeman’s bed.

Family members and those who knew Freeman said he was also a prankster who had something funny to say to everyone he met. At times, he brought smoked oysters to school for lunch to stink up the room — especially when he was upset with a teacher, his family said.

“His presence was comforting and lit up the room,” Weber said. “It’s a huge loss. His absence will be a big hole in everybody’s life.”

Freeman died on his 37th birthday at his New Hope home. His mother, Francine Weber, said he died of natural causes.

He was born in Minneapolis and graduated from Hopkins High School. He attended Augsburg University for a year.

Before getting into the restaurant business, Freeman was a personal care attendant for two disabled brothers. He did his work but also provided them some fun, Francine said. He took them fishing, for pizza and for car rides.

His love for food led him to start a fast-casual eatery with his mother, which later blossomed into Milton’s.

In 2013, Freeman and his mother opened their “family-friendly” and “easygoing” restaurant and began working together on recipes, some of which came from his grandfather, Milton Freeman, the restaurant’s namesake.

Freeman’s vivid personality showed in his popular dishes. His customers loved his jerk sauce, Chad’s hot sauce, crabcakes, beef jerky and the steaks he made on a charcoal-fueled grill.

“He was a great influencer of the many popular items on the menu,” Francine said.

Milton’s customers said they loved his personality even more than his food.

Susan Maki, a longtime patron of Milton’s, said Freeman made his customers feel like they were a part of his family.

Freeman, she said, also gave back to the community and could be seen catering at the gay pride parade and to small businesses.

“He was quite the chef for sure,” Maki said. “But the biggest thing was his personality. He had a very warm aura about him.”

Freeman loved the outdoors and was an avid fisherman who often enjoyed taking his boat to Lake Minnetonka.

He also loved watching football, growing tomatoes and trying ethnic food. He adored his children, C.J. Smith and Adele Freeman, and his dog Bruno, an American pit bull, who died in April.

In recent months, Freeman picked up a new habit. He started going to the gym and within a few months of working out, lost 65 pounds.

“He talked about his future goals after he got his weight off and got back into shape,” Francine Weber said. “He was inspired to become a trainer, do massage and have a food truck with his son.”

In addition to his mother, stepfather and children, Freeman is survived by his father and stepmother, Charles and Beth Balenger; his sisters Chaz Goyette, Charlene Freeman, Gina Freeman, Sophie Weber and Heather Balenger; and brothers Hector and Heston Balenger.

A celebration of his life has been held.