PORTLAND – Robert Smith, a chef who had a passion for food and a zest for life, died on Dec. 13. He was 49.

Mr. Smith had more than 20 years of experience in the food and beverage industry, most recently at Kitchen Chicks Catering in Kennebunk, where he had been executive chef since April.

He was the chief architect of the menu for the caterer, which has clients from southern New Hampshire to midcoast Maine. Kelly Gendron, the company’s event coordinator, said he was a top-notch chef and a mentor to the staff.

“It’s a terrible loss for our business and, for me, on a personal level,” she said. “We spent 60 hours a week together. He became my close friend. It’s shocking that he’s not going to be here.”

John St. Germain of Saco, Mr. Smith’s sous chef, said Monday that he had a warm heart and contagious personality.

“He was smart, friendly and very open,” St. Germain said. “He was right there for anyone to see. Bob was a really amazing chef, but he was an even better person and an amazing friend. One of the best lessons I learned from him was how to enjoy life.”

He was previously a chef at the Port Tavern & Grille in the Kennebunkport Inn, and a waiter at Jonathan’s Restaurant in Ogunquit.

He grew up in New York, a loving son of Norma and Erskine Smith, of Beaver Meadow, N.Y. He is also survived by a sister, JoAnn and her husband, George Cerasani, who live close to her parents. He also leaves two nephews, George Jr. and David Cerasani.

His mother said he always made time to see his nephews when he went home. She said he took an interest in their lives and enjoyed going to their ball games.

“He adored those two boys,” she said. “He thought the world of them. … JoAnn is pretty crushed too. All they had was each other.”

His mother said early today that her son was a “loving, compassionate, and awesome individual” who could accomplish anything he set his mind to. She said he will be deeply missed.

“We were very proud of him,” his mother said. “It’s such a big loss for us. We’re devastated. The tears come at unexpected times. One minute, I know he’s gone. The next minute, I expect him to walk through the door for Christmas.”

Susan Wright, a longtime friend who owned the restaurant with him, said they lived together in Wells on and off for the past 15 years. She said he loved to throw parties and entertain people.

“He was brilliant, funny, and had a huge heart,” Wright said. “Bob’s motto was, ‘Food is love,’ and there was more than enough of it wherever he was.”

Steven Gerlach, his friend for the past 31 years, remembered Mr. Smith on Monday as a “beautiful and joyous man” who had a deep appreciation for “beauty in the world.”

He said his fondest memories are of Mr. Smith on his doorstep with bags of groceries in his hands.

“I’ll miss those dinners … getting together with him to share a laugh over a glass of wine or a beer,” Gerlach said.

In the early morning of Dec. 11, Mr. Smith called 911 after experiencing atrial fibrillation — an abnormal heart rhythm. When the paramedics arrived, they found him unconscious. Doctors resuscitated him, but he never regained consciousness.

Wright said she was at the hospital on the day he died. She said he was like a brother to her.

“It feels like there’s a hole in the earth where Bob once stood. There is a hole in my heart. There is a hole in my soul,” she said. “It really felt like he was part of me.”

A celebration of his life will be held on July 3, 2011, in New York, the day he would have celebrated his 50th birthday.

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at: [email protected]