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Kenneth W. Kerber, 85, self-taught chef who won Pillsbury Bake-Off award

Sept. 22, 1931 - June 30, 2017

Much of Kenneth W. Kerber's career centered on numbers and computers, though it was in the kitchen where he found his greatest happiness.

His professional career began with IBM, later followed by Western New York Savings Bank in Buffalo. That background helped with the advent of online banking and later in life using his iPad and connecting with friends on Facebook.

But he marked some of his most treasured milestones while cooking.

His signature Spicy Butter Cake recipe landed him in the Pillsbury Bake-Off in 1961. As the only male contestant in the competition held at the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel, he earned senior third prize and won $1,500. Then-General Electric Theater spokesman Ronald Reagan presented Mr. Kerber with a canary-yellow General Electric range.

Mr. Kerber died June 30 in Buffalo General Medical Center from complications resulting from a stroke. He had lived in Amherst since 2007.

His love of cooking carried through most of his 85-year life. Mr. Kerber retired at 75 from the Wegmans store on Amherst Street store as a chef.

"He had a great second act to his life," said his son, Joel Altre-Kerber. "He loved the banking thing, but the pull of going into his first love of cooking was just too much to ignore for him."

With no formal culinary training, Mr. Kerber early in life found his niche in front of the stove. The second youngest of six children, he began cooking at 8 years old.

"When my grandmother broke her leg, it was his responsibility to take on the part of cooking for the family. That's when he learned how to cook," said his son. "He just took to it and he loved it. His collection of cookbooks is extensive, to say the least."

Born in Rochester, he graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School. During his three-year stint in the U.S. Air Force starting in 1951, he was a staff sergeant and payroll officer for a unit based in England. Afterward, he went to college and graduated in 1958 from Florida Southern College with a bachelor's degree in mathematics.

He married the former Maria Altre, on June 15, 1951, and together they had five children. They celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary two weeks before he died.

He began his career in the late 1950s with IBM, where he became an early expert in data processing. He was a management consultant in charge of the Rochester branch of Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. until 1976. In that role, he was a frequent national lecturer on the growing topic of information security and customer data privacy.

With his move to Buffalo in 1976, Mr. Kerber entered the banking world. He worked for Western New York Savings Bank as vice president of its InstaCard unit. In that role, he negotiated the first contract in the United States for an ATM to be placed in a non-bank location at the then-Super Duper supermarket in Great Arrow Plaza in 1978.

After leaving the bank in 1980, he began a computer consulting firm, KenTech & Associates. He worked with savings banks nationwide to select mainframe computers systems to meet their client relationship management needs.

"Even in his 80s, he was very excited to see what online banking was all about. He was always fascinated by the next big thing," said his son, Joel. "When the Macintosh came out in 1986, he got one and wanted to see what they could do. He taught the Mac course at Niagara County Community College."

After retiring from his firm in 1986, he returned to his first "love" – the food industry. He worked for Williams-Sonoma, helping to open its Walden Galleria store in 1989. A stint as head chef at Premier Gourmet in Kenmore followed. His next and final stop was as a chef at the Wegmans store on Amherst Street, where he was known for entertaining food prep demonstrations. He retired from cooking in 2006.

But it was his original Spicy Butter Cake recipe – which went through about 24 iterations – that won him fame.

"The cake has a cookie crust on the bottom, and when Dad was developing the recipe, my mom dubbed it 'Yum Yum Bottom Cake.' But when they submitted the recipe to Pillsbury, the corporation thought the name was too racy, so they came up with the more generic name of Spicy Butter Cake," Joel said. "I still make the cake, but he wouldn't eat the cake (as much) because he got so sick of it. The cake has been served at family gatherings for years."

Mr. Kerber's diverse cooking flair became part of the family fabric. "The holiday meals were really his big thing – Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving. He liked to make a huge production out of those," said his son. "Leg of lamb was probably one of his favorites. He would let us help, but he put together the menus and what the dishes were going to be."

He counted Christmas among his favorite holidays, and had amassed an extensive collection of antique European blown glass ornaments, eventually donating the bulk of them to the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site. For years, Mr. Kerber and his son have decorated the main tree in the inaugural library, well before his ornament donation, which now adorns the tree each year.

Other survivors include three daughters, Gretchen Jessmer, Ursula Davis and Kirsten Kerber; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned.

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