It's with a heavy, heavy heart that we bring you the tragic news that Noel Cunningham, the beloved chef/owner of Strings, passed away unexpectedly yesterday afternoon at 62, leaving behind his wife, Tammy, and their twin daughters.
Born in Dublin in 1949, Cunningham, an unapologetic, feisty Irishman with a heart of gold and a voice of conscience, became the youngest sous chef ever at the Savoy Hotel in London when he was just 23. He introduced Strings to Denverites in 1986, and in 1989, he opened 240 Union in Lakewood. A few years later, in 1991, he opened Ciao Baby in Tiffany Plaza, which he later sold.
But while Strings, which marked its 25th anniversary in February, was Cunningham's bread and butter, charity work was his unwavering passion. He was deeply committed to non-profit organizations, especially those that focused on children and hunger relief efforts -- here and around the world. He was instrumental in the conception of Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation, and he and Tammy, whom he called the "greatest love of my life," devoted their own lives to supporting many more philanthropic causes, including Meals on Wheels, Project Mercy in Ethiopia, Quarters for Kids and Volunteers of America. Every Mother's Day for nearly twenty years, Cunningham would honor Denver's mamas, generously serving complimentary brunch to 175 women, none of whom had family in town.
"The world is a better place because of Noel Cunningham," says restaurant consultant and longtime Cunningham friend John Imbergamo. "His influence stretched far beyond the borders because of his commitment to things like Share our Strength and Project Mercy."
Joshua Darnell, a former dishwasher at Strings, posted this comment on Facebook: "I was probably the worst busser Noel ever employed. I hope the service is better up there."
Years ago, when I sat on the board of Share Our Strength alongside Cunningham and his best friend, Pat "Gabby Gourmet" Miller, Cunningham would summon me in before our meetings. I was pregnant at the time, and he wanted to feed me. It was always scrambled eggs, and to this day, his scrambled eggs -- diabolically rich with butter and cream -- are still the best scrambled eggs that have ever passed through my lips. For years I've tried to replicate them, but while I've come close, I've never been able to do them the way Cunningham did.
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In 2005, Cunningham did an interview with Blacktie Colorado, in which he was asked what his epitaph might read. "I tried to live life to the fullest -- to participate in life. Not just to have been a taker, I left something behind. I hope I put back a little more than I took," he said.
Not only did he give back far more than he took, he did it selflessly, without ever expecting one thing in return. Funeral and memorial plans are still pending, but we'll let you know when they've been solidified.
RIP, my friend. You'll be greatly missed.