Chef Mitch Omer was proud of the wild-rice porridge on the breakfast menu at his Minneapolis restaurant, Hell's Kitchen.
"It looked mushy, and people wouldn't try it," said his wife, Cynthia Gerdes. "He gave people samples, they tasted it — and it took off. Mitch wouldn't give up."
Over the years, that perseverance was ingrained in Omer's character as he battled far tougher challenges — alcohol addiction and mental illness.
"Mitch may fall down, but he gets back up and fights even harder," said Steve Meyer, Hell's Kitchen business partner and Omer's best friend.
Omer, 61, died "unexpectedly but peacefully" in his sleep at home on Friday, his family said. Gerdes has planned a celebration of his life for Hell's Kitchen staff, friends, family and loyal customers at 1 p.m. Dec. 23 at the restaurant at 80 S. 9th St.
At 6 feet 4 and 270 pounds, "Mitch was larger than life," said Gerdes. "He was big and boisterous. His presence could be intimidating."
But Omer also had a big heart, said Pat Forciea, Hell's Kitchen marketing director, who went from a promising political career to serve jail time for fraud and who, like Omer, has bipolar disorder. "It was the land of second chances, and no one has benefited more from that philosophy than me," Forciea said.
Omer's back story was rooted on the football field, not in the kitchen. At Anoka High School, he was a gifted athlete. He went to Iowa State on a football scholarship. "But when he was a freshman, he walked off the field and never played football again," Gerdes said.
As a jobless 19-year-old, Omer "lied his way into his first job — saying he had cooking experience — at a Country Kitchen," she said.
Cooking was just a job until Omer met world-renowned chef Jacques Pepin and saw him in action. It "lit me on fire," Omer later wrote on the Hell's Kitchen website.
With no formal culinary training, he honed his skills by learning from chefs across the state.
Gerdes and Omer, both divorced, were married 14 years ago after meeting on a dating website. "I was looking for someone sane and insane at the same time," she said. "He answered it and reeled me right in."
In 2002, the couple, along with business partner Steve Meyer, opened Hell's Kitchen in a compact space on 10th Street in downtown Minneapolis.
Omer and Meyer met while working as chefs at Pracna on Main in Minneapolis three decades ago. "I loved the guy," said Meyer. "He taught me a phenomenal amount of cooking skills."
Before long, Hell's Kitchen became a breakfast and lunch destination known for lemon-ricotta hot cakes, bison benedict and huevos rancheros. Talk show host Conan O'Brien devoured the hot cakes when he was in town.
Omer even made his own peanut butter from roasted peanuts and honey to spread across his bison sausage bread.
Gerdes said a gourmet magazine "nailed it" when it described the Hell's Kitchen menu as "unique but not fancy, interesting but not fussy American food."
"Most of the recipes are Mitch's," Gerdes said. "But I persuaded him to little by little start to pass on menu decisions to the other chefs."
As they got the restaurant up and running, Gerdes weathered the roller-coaster ride of Omer's alcohol abuse and bipolar disorder, for which he eventually received treatment. Gerdes, who founded the chain Creative Kidstuff, sold that business in 2004 when helming two businesses became too much. "I decided to stay in hell," she joked.
In 2008, the couple moved Hell's Kitchen one block down to the old Rossi's inside a massive underground space, which famous foodies like Andrew Zimmern told them would never survive the dungeonlike setting, said Gerdes. "But we're risk takers," she said. "We just held hands and jumped."
Omer was constantly taking risks, his associates said. In 2014, when he was 60, he scampered from stampeding bulls at the Great Bull Run in Elk River.
Hell's Kitchen not only survived, but has thrived after adding a dinner menu, cocktails and live music. Three years ago, the couple opened Angel Food Bakery & Coffee Bar on the street level.
In 2009, Omer had countless good stories and recipes to share. So he and food editor Ann Bauer assembled a cookbook called "Damn Good Food: 157 Recipes from Hell's Kitchen," which peppered tantalizing recipes with profanities, as well as chronicling his triumphs and failures struggling with mental illness. "Mitch wasn't just my co-author, he felt like a brother to me," Bauer said. "He was extraordinary in every way."
"I will miss laughing with Mitch," Gerdes said. "He taught me to stop and enjoy life."
In addition to his wife, Omer is survived by children Casey, Jesse, Lauren, Katy and Nate; a sister, Libby, and two grandchildren.