NEW YORK - Christian "Hitsch" Albin, who fed the world's luminaries for decades as executive chef of The Four Seasons - a restaurant that invented the "power lunch" - has died. He was 61.

Albin died at New York University Medical Center on Saturday, five days after being diagnosed with cancer, the restaurant's owners said in a statement.

The Swiss-born chef's hearty laughter filled the ritzy Manhattan restaurant's kitchen for 36 years, and he served guests from Jacqueline Onassis and Elton John to President Clinton, Princess Diana and Martha Stewart.

"He was our hero: the man we always turned to when we knew we had to achieve the impossible," said the statement released by 50-year-old restaurant's managing partners, Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder.

The "impossible" at times meant wealthy, demanding guests "who would ask for everything you can possibly imagine!" Albin joked recently. "Like, an English muffin with an egg on top, for dinner."

He sent a waiter out to buy muffins - and the special request was served alongside fancier fare like filet of buffalo with truffle sauce.

A bigger-than-life man, he put in 14-hour days at the restaurant off Park Avenue. With him in the kitchen, the Four Seasons won a James Beard Award, equivalent to a culinary Oscar.

The chef had not been feeling right lately. He finally went to the doctor on Monday, when he was given his diagnosis.

He lived in Palisades, north of New York City in Rockland County.

Raised in a Swiss village near the town of Flims, he trained in Switzerland before moving to the United States in the early 1970s.

The whole world entered Albin's Four Seasons kitchen, where the best raw materials arrived daily from faraway lands and seas.

"Look at this salmon from Scotland!" he said with gusto one day just weeks ago, opening a refrigerator and pulling out the huge, gleaming fish that would be accompanied by a fine white wine - which he sipped from a glass before returning to the stoves.

Albin "has been our friend and our brother since we were all kids, three European immigrants who came to the U.S. at a very different time in the history of American restaurants," said Niccolini and von Bidder, natives of Italy and Switzerland, respectively.

Like them, Albin arrived when New York was expanding the concept of fine dining from standard steak-and-lobster restaurants to food created by "a culinary Rip van Winkle, reawakening what was once too-familiar fare with subtle but surprisingly adventurous new flavors," New York Magazine once said of him.

But fame never interested Albin. Instead, he enjoyed feeding hungry deliverymen and workers who came his way.

In addition to his Four Seasons colleagues, Albin is survived by his wife Hani Albin, daughter Stephanie, son Christopher and granddaughters Nicole and Claudia.

Funeral arrangements were pending. *