By Kevin Coughlin
When a great athlete dies in his prime, the team retires his uniform.
The same goes for great chefs, in kitchens where teamwork counts just as much, and forges bonds every bit as close, as any locker room.
And so Justin Pehowic’s uniform will occupy a place of honor in the kitchen of Morristown’s popular Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen, where he was a beloved sous-chef until his sudden death over the weekend.
Pehowic, 37, worked on Saturday night, went to his Madison home, started a load of laundry, and crawled into bed with a book.
A family member found him there the next day, dead from an apparent heart attack, stunned co-workers said.
Saturday evening’s shift had gone perfectly, said Head Chef Kevin Sippel. “Spring was around the corner. Everyone was in high spirits. This is crushing.”
Colleagues said Pehowic sometimes joked that he was surprised to have survived as long as he did.
“We knew he had a little heart condition that always bothered him,” said Christian Cruz, 25, who looked up to his fellow sous-chef. “To all of us, he was just like a big brother.”
Pehowic, a 1996 graduate of Madison High School, had a prankster side that could keep things light, Cruz said. Every so often he would alarm a colleague with a bogus report about some burnt dish or missing ingredient, finally revealing the ruse by declaring: “Psych!”
Yet Pehowic took his calling seriously. He was part of the 2014 team that opened Jockey Hollow, a creation of renowned New York restaurateur Chris Cannon that made Esquire’s list of best new restaurants last year.
“He wanted to make sure everyone was on top of their game,” Cruz said of his mentor, a pasta wizard. Cannon and Sippel were from the city, and Pehowic “wanted to make sure they understood that these guys in Jersey could do it, too.”
“He was one of those people who you say, ‘Why does he have to go?'” said Cannon, noting that Pehowic was just three weeks from a promotion to chef de cuisine.
The man never uttered a bad word about anyone, his boss said. “He was incredibly hard-working, always in a good mood, the kind of guy everyone in the restaurant loved…a man of grace and dignity, at a time when there is not much of that to go around,” Cannon said.
A striped bass will be mounted alongside Pehowic’s uniform, in a nod to his other great passion, fly-fishing, the Jockey Hollow owner said.
‘HE KEPT IT CALM’
Sippel has worked in kitchens since he was 15, and considers Jockey Hollow’s staff the closest-knit of them all. When you work 80-hour weeks in a confined space, he explained, your co-workers become family. After hours, the Jockey Hollow crew plays softball and paintball together, catches movies, or grabs dim sum at a favorite haunt in Parsippany.
This family is devastated, Sippel said.
“He was a great leader…the kind of guy who would light up a room wherever he went,” the chef said of Pehowic.
Top kitchens can be pressure cookers where people burn out. Pehowic “always kept it calm,” Sippel recounted.
“On Saturday nights when I’m losing my mind and screaming, he’s very relaxed and focused. You couldn’t ask for a finer cook.”
Pehowic honed his culinary skills at such places as Chakra in Paramus, Escape in Montclair, and the former Copeland’s at the Westin Governor Morris in Morristown, Cruz said.
He also spent kitchen time at the 54 Main Bar & Grille and Poor Herbie’s in Madison, said high school classmate Dan Baldan, who remembered his pal as a varsity football player. Pehowic also liked snowboarding, and detoured to Colorado for a spell, Baldan said.
Wherever Pehowic went, he made fast and lasting friends.
“He was a life-of-the-party kind of guy. He loved having a good time,” said Baldan.
But another side of him yearned for a secluded stream, where he could indulge his love for fly-fishing–probably the only thing he enjoyed more than cooking, according to pastry chef Andrea Lekberg.
“He loved fly-fishing and couldn’t wait to retire, to stay in the country,” Lekberg said.
“When this happened, part of me was hoping he was there,” she said, at a place where the bass are always biting.
Justin Pehowic is survived by his parents, Marie (McCarthy) and Edward C. Pehowic Jr., his brother Troy, sister Alyssa, and sister-in-law Meg (Bippart). He will be memorialized on Sunday, March 20, 2016, at 2 pm in the United Methodist Church, at 24 Madison Ave. in Madison. The family suggests that donations in his memory be made to the cardiac unit at St. Mary’s Hospital Foundation, P.O. Box 1628, Grand Junction, Co 81502.