Twenty-five years ago, Noel Cunningham, along with Pat Miller, the "Gabby Gourmet", launched Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation, a nonprofit childhood hunger relief organization that Cunningham, the former owner/chef of Strings, worked tirelessly to grow and advocate.
It soon blossomed into an annual event, where dozens of the city's top chefs communed under the same roof to cook and raise money. Cunningham then started Quarters for Kids, which educated children about homelessness and hunger, and then he stretched his altruism even further with 4Quarters for Kids, a nonprofit that raises funds to educate and feed children in Ethiopia. And in 2003, he and his wife, Tammy, now the sole owner of Strings, started the Cunningham Foundation, which has raised more than $750,000 for struggling Ethiopians.
When Cunningham committed suicide in December of last year, everyone who knew him mourned, shocked that a man who gave so much to others, a man who was arguably one of the most benevolent human beings this city has ever seen, would take his own life. He had a successful restaurant; he was was married and has two twin daughters; he was changing the world.
And we're still grieving his loss, although Cunningham wouldn't want that -- not for a second -- but he would, I know, want his legacy to live on, manifesting itself in others, who share the same commitment and devotion he did to eradicating childhood hunger and poverty, in Colorado, and around the world.
A few months ago, the Taste of the Nation committee, which includes local chefs, restaurateurs, pubic relations folks and other industry members, was sitting in a meeting at the local Share Our Strength office, and part of the discussions included deciding upon a venue to host a chef appreciation party, an event that takes place every year prior to the actual Taste of the Nation event. Stefanie Jones, who does PR for Strings, suggested the committee host the event there. "It didn't take long for all of us to realize that having it at Strings was exactly what we should do," says Leigh Sullivan, who sits on the committee. "Taste of the Nation started at Strings, and hosting the chef appreciation party there meant bringing it back to its roots."
And then Sullivan had what she calls a "light bulb moment." The committee, she recalls, wanted to do something special to honor Noel, and what better way to do that, mused Sullivan, than to bestow a local chef with an award that recognized his or her own pledge to end childhood hunger? "God knows Noel did more for the community than he did for himself, and we wanted to give an award that honored both Noel and another chef who's really giving back to the community," adds Sullivan.
The first annual Noel Cunningham award honoring a chef doing just that was conceived, and the first recipient of that award was honored last night at Strings, where a slew of chefs and restaurateurs turned out to watch Matt Selby, a former chef chair of Taste of the Nation, and the chef of Vesta Dipping Grill, Steuben's and Ace, Eat, Serve, accept the First Annual Noel Cunningham Award for Outstanding Commitment to Ending Childhood Hunger in Colorado.
"I suggested Matty, and it was a unanimous decision," says Sullivan. "Right out of the gate, it was clear to all of us that he should get this."
Selby, who was there was his wife, Gina, and two of their daughters, had gotten wind that he'd won the award, but it still a poignant moment for the chef, who choked back tears in his short but impassioned speech. "I'm kind of at a loss for words," he said. "I've had a lot of culinary milestones, and a lot of those big moments have included Noel. The way he treated me, the way he taught me the importance of giving back...I wanted to someday be like him."
And then Selby recollected a moment in time during last year's Taste of the Nation party, which was also Selby's last year chef-chairing the event. "Noel waked in with Tammy at his side, and I was like, wow, there's Noel Cunningham. I was reminded of being a young, aspiring chef again," he told the crowd. "And I remember calling Noel 'chef', and he was like, enough with this chef bullshit, just call me Noel, and then he put his hand on my chest and said, 'You did it Matty.'"
Cunningham would have liked Selby's tribute.
If you haven't already bought tickets to this year's Taste of the Nation -- Selby is one of the participating chefs -- you can do by going to the website, or you can enter our contest, in which we're giving one Cafe Society reader the opportunity to attend for free.
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It's one of the best chef-driven food events of the year. Go.