Noel Cunningham is almost too good to be true. The owner of two of the town's best restaurants, Strings and 240 Union, and the driving force behind several charities that have raised more than a million dollars in Denver, Cunningham is one of the few people in the back-stabbing, chef-eat-chef restaurant industry whom everyone likes. There are no horror stories about his throwing a pot of spaghetti at a sous chef, or paying off anyone for publicity, or substituting Armour hot dogs sprinkled with cayenne for andouille sausage to save a buck. Apparently, Cunningham is a genuine, straightforward, warm, honest, hardworking guy with principles and talent.
And the worst part is, he's really modest about it, too.
"Oh, I'm not any different from anybody else who cares about their work and other people," the 58-year-old Cunningham says in his slightly faded Irish brogue, with a twinkle in his bright blue eyes. "I've just always thought that working hard should mean something, and that's the philosophy I've tried to live by. And I also believe that we're all in this together, so I like to give back as much as I can. 'Cause I've been blessed."
Some would say he's lived a downright charmed life. Cunningham started working at the Savoy in London at the age of 17. At 23, he was the youngest sous chef London's prestigious Berkeley Hotel had ever had. In 1976 he brought his family to the U.S. to visit Disneyland and wound up staying in Los Angeles to cook, first at Hermitage and then at Chianti, one of L.A.'s oldest Italian eateries. He hung out with "Wolfie" and Alice Waters. Hugh Hefner's best friend, John Dante, hand-picked Cunningham to run the kitchen at a private club they started called Touch, one of the town's most popular spots. When Dante closed it in 1986, Cunningham was sought after by restaurateurs all over the country, but it was a Denverite who wooed him to move here and open Strings. Of course, the restaurant was immediately embraced as one of the city's finest establishments and became the place to go for celebrities and unknowns alike.
But the Dublin native privately paints a more complex picture of his life, one that includes a few dark spots and could probably be made into another Irish movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis. It begins with Cunningham's rounded shoulders and back that forced his parents to send him to an orthopedic hospital for a year at the age of thirteen. He was able to see his family only once a week; the rest of the time he was alone but for the other residents, kids with horrible deformities and congenital diseases. "I'd have to say, that was where I developed my feelings for kids who haven't been as fortunate as others," Cunningham says. "It was so hard for them, and being with them like that made me see how much it hurts. It hurt me, too, to know how they felt."
That's not to say that Cunningham sat around feeling sorry for himself, however. "I remember one time, me and this kid--he just had two fingers coming out of where his arms and shoulders should be, but he had so much spirit--we decided that we wanted to get out," he remembers. "So we ran away from the hospital. We were going to go to the beach. Of course, we weren't out for long, but it was so good to do it."
When he got out of the hospital for good, his parents decided to send him to a strict Irish school, a by-the-book Christian institution that Cunningham says drove him nuts. "I hated it," he recalls. "I just did not want to be in school. I hated sitting in class, I hated the curriculum. So I left. And I wrote a letter to the headmasters as if it was from my dad, telling them that I had to go back in the hospital! Isn't that horrible?" He got away with it for a year, too; his dad would drop him off in front of the school every morning, and he would slip out the back and go to the movies or a park. "Then one day, one of the Christian brothers ran into my dad and asked him, 'When the hell is your son going to get better?' Well, he didn't say 'hell,' I guess. But I caught hell when I got home."
So the Cunninghams decided to take little Noel out of school and put him to work in the kitchen of the restaurant where his dad and uncle were chefs. On his first day there, a co-worker jacked him up against the refrigerator and punched him in the face. When Cunningham asked why he'd done it, the guy replied, "Because that's what your father did to me when I started working here."
That wasn't the only beating he got. "My dad had to smack me around, too," he says, "because he didn't want anyone to think he was showing favoritism."
No pain, no gain. Despite the violence, Cunningham thought the restaurant life was great. "I really liked it, right from the start," he says. "All of my uncles were chefs, my dad was a chef, and my mom was a waitress. So I guess you could say I've got it in me blood. I tried to learn everything I could."
One of the most important things he learned was how to make sure the food turned out the best it could be. "Since it was a restaurant that also made food for the airlines at the Dublin airport, we were often making dishes a day ahead," he explains. "We knew that if the tomato wasn't perfect or the lettuce had a tiny bad spot, the next day it would be twice as bad and probably inedible. So there was no room for cheating, and we had to use the best." It was a philosophy he carried with him through his days in London--"At the Savoy, we didn't have to worry about food costs," he says. "We were charging so much money, we could do anything we wanted"--and L.A., as well as here in Denver.
Between cooking gigs, Cunningham married, fathered twin daughters, divorced and became an alcoholic. "I've been sober for eighteen years," he says. "And I like to say that I'm still crazy, but now I remember how crazy the next morning." Ten years ago he met and married Tammy, who's the beautiful, warm, honest, hardworking female equivalent of Noel. And since then, the Cunninghams have devoted their lives to two things: the restaurants and children. "I like children more than I like most adults," Cunningham confesses. "And there are a lot of kids out there who have to overcome a hell of a lot to get through life."
At Strings, Cunningham had to overcome a bad business partner who almost ran it, along with two other restaurants they owned together, into the ground. "At one point we owed $30,000 to the IRS, which was saying that we had until the end of the month to pay up or we'd be padlocked," he recalls. "So I went around to all of our suppliers and asked them to hang in there. And I eventually made good on all of it, but it was really rough going for a while."
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Ultimately, though, he got out of the deal with that partner, gaining a Fish Market in the settlement and turning it into 240 Union. Although he later opened the now-defunct Ciao! Baby with another Strings partner, a few years ago he got out of that deal, too, in the process becoming the sole proprietor of Strings.
Through all of that, Cunningham stayed in touch with old friends, one of whom was Comedy Club owner Mitzi Shore's brother, Bill. "Billy started Share Our Strength, an organization to raise money for starving people throughout the world," Cunningham explains. "This was at the time when Ethiopia was getting attention, and since then, there's never been a shortage of famines. And Billy came to me and asked how we could raise money through the restaurants. And we realized that instead of trying to get them to just send money, we could ask chefs to donate what they do best: their food." The model for what eventually became the Taste of the Nation was introduced in 1988 by Cunningham and other prominent restaurateurs and chefs; the event has raised $4.8 million nationally to date.
But Cunningham decided he didn't have enough to do, sharing the cooking in one restaurant, running two others and working with a charity, so in 1993 he added Quarters for Kids, another Share Our Strength program in which kids collect quarters to help feed other kids; the project has pulled in $45,520 since it started. Each year, Strings puts on a dinner for those who participate, and Cunningham remembers every one of those kids.
That's not all, of course. Cunningham also works with the local Frontline Outreach to set chefs up to teach disadvantaged people about nutrition and cooking; he's involved with ArtReach; and he and Tammy spend quite a bit of time at Children's Hospital. They sometimes talk doctors into letting them take kids who are well enough back to the restaurant for one of Noel's killer pasta dishes. "It just breaks your heart," he says. "It really puts your life into perspective. I think, 'What the hell do I have to complain about?' I've got a wonderful life and am happy and healthy. And I'm very proud of the restaurants and the people I work with. Everything's going well, thank heavens.