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."