The news started to travel around downtown Santa Fe on Friday night, the way that news travels in our town. Word of mouth. Friend to friend. Text messages. Facebook posts. Whispers in the corner. Raised voices over the music. At the High Note, inside Skylight, on the sidewalk of San Francisco Street. By midnight, it seemed like everyone had heard.

Chef Eric DiStefano died in his sleep at about 9 pm Eastern time in Hilton Head, SC, where he had recently checked into a weight-loss program, according to longtime friend and former business partner Sara Chapman. He was 52.

Hailing from Hershey, Pa., DiStefano made a deep mark on the city's culinary scene as the executive chef and co-owner at both Coyote CafĂ© and Geronimo, fine dining establishments where he had worked for 11 and 18 years, respectively. Chapman tells SFR in an interview this morning that the chef had been experiencing health problems related to obesity, including difficulty with mobility and two bum knees. She dropped him off at the facility last Saturday.

"He was going to live there for two months and work with a trainer. ... He just wanted to get healthy, and that's it," she said.

DiStefano was a father figure to her daughter Page, now 14 and pictured above, and the two were planning a trip to Italy. He had been living in their home for the last two years as his health failed, Chapman says.

"He just he had such a vibrant personality. He was probably the most generous person I have ever known. It's just freaking heart breaking," she says. "I talked to him every day [from Hilton Head], and he was like, 'I'm going to do this.'"

Champan says she's been inundated with calls and messages.

"He would want everyone to celebrate his life and not necessarily mourn, even though that's hard to comprehend," she says, noting later that the restaurants "are going to go on."

Louis Moskow, chef and owner at 315 Restaurant, also knew DiStefano well. Moskow tells SFR the community won't be able to fill those big shoes, but his legacy is far reaching.

"What Eric will leave behind is an army of well-trained chefs," says Moskow. "He brought his A-game all the time, despite his limited ability to maneuver. Imagine what he would have been like without that physical challenge. ... There was no amount of pain greater than what he was experiencing, and still every day, he had the discipline to get in that kitchen and stand in the line and do a pre-meal with his staff and then stand there all night long and cook for people."

Moskow, Chapman and other friends who were like family are planning a memorial. SFR will update this story as those details are available.

DiStefano is survived by his parents, who still live in Hershey, Chapman says.