ST. PETERSBURG — The city has lost one of its most colorful and well known restaurateurs.
Hook Atsavinh, the owner of the popular Hook's Sushi Bar and Thai Food on Dr. Martin Luther King St. N, died on Tuesday.
He was 44.
Mr. Atsavinh's family said a doctor attributed the death to sepsis with multiple organ failure. Sepsis is usually the result of widespread infection. His wife said doctors told her they had found a urinary infection.
Since Mr. Atsavinh opened his restaurant in 2003, customers have celebrated both the cuisine and the camaraderie of the head chef and owner.
"People would come in and say, 'Hey, Hook, just make me whatever,' " said his wife, Michelle Kim-Atsavinh. "Or, 'Hey, Hook, I want to spend a couple hundred dollars, make me something.' "
Some customers didn't know what to order, other than a reprise of whatever Hook made them last time.
Customers loved his $1 sushi nights on Wednesdays. Lines stretched out the door of the restaurant at 1210 Dr. Martin Luther King St. N.
Even with people packing the place, Mr. Atsavinh found time to sit down with diners to chat.
"I've never known a chef who wasn't a celebrity who had such a fan club," said retired St. Petersburg Times food critic Chris Sherman.
Employees, family and friends paint a portrait of a man who lived life full-bore. He sometimes roared to work on a Harley. He would go fishing at 3 a.m. if the mood struck him. He babied a red 1969 Camaro.
Employees say Mr. Atsavinh was not always easy to work for.
"He was a pushy person because he wanted us to do our best," said Jonnie Khamphanh, 26, the assistant manager.
But those who knew him also describe Mr. Atsavinh as a man who never turned down a beggar, invited workmen to his backyard barbecues and helped other Asian immigrants get a start in the restaurant business.
Houmpharh Atsavinh (friends later called him Hook because of his love for fishing and because it was easier to pronounce) grew up in Laos, the son of a police officer. He was the middle child of five.
He came to the United States as a young adult and picked up cooking on the job in Atlanta and Las Vegas before moving to St. Petersburg and working at 9 Bangkok (now Bangkok Thai Restaurant) on Central Avenue.
He met Michelle, who owned a wig store next door.
In mid 2002 he joined Laurie Harris at the Sushi Rock Grill on Dr. Martin Luther King St. N, but had a falling out with Harris and left after eight months.
In mid 2003 he opened Hook's directly across the street. Local sushi lovers divided into opposing factions, some favoring Hook's while others stayed loyal to Sushi Rock.
"I've always thought Hook was larger than life," Harris said Wednesday. "Even though we might not have agreed on things from a business standpoint, there are no hard feelings as far as I'm concerned."
At Hook's, The Atsavinhs worked 14-hour days until they could afford to hire more help. They later opened another restaurant in Tierra Verde.
About the time his second child, Jackson, was born in December, Mr. Atsavinh told his wife how happy he was.
"He couldn't believe that he had found someone to love and that he owned a successful restaurant," said Kim-Atsavinh, 41. "He was especially proud that he had a boy to carry on the family name."
At the same time, he had begun feeling sluggish. A protein diet had helped Mr. Atsavinh shed 40 pounds in two months, but he began having coldlike symptoms. They worsened over the last few weeks.
Mr. Atsavinh went to the emergency room at Bayfront Medical Center on Friday and was admitted the next day. He died Tuesday.
Hook's opened on time Wednesday and was selling dollar sushi — even though the charismatic owner was absent.
Hook would have wanted it that way, friends and family said.
Customers showed up, but the staff said the restaurant was unusually quiet.
Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2431.