Longform

Noel Cunningham

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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."

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.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner