Humanitarian, father, husband, chef and restaurateur Noel Cunningham dies at age 62

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Lori Midson
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.

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.


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21 comments
RyanJohnSmith
RyanJohnSmith

I ate with an ex at 240 Union who used to work their. He stopped by our table and treated me like a friend even though I had never met him before.

May the road rise up to meet you.May the wind be always at your back.May the sun shine warm upon your face;the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Robert Pinz
Robert Pinz

What a great tribute to a great man. Though I never met him, his generosity was legend. Thank you, Lori, your thoughtful and caring eulogy brought tears to my eyes.

Tony
Tony

I remember the day when Noel first arrived in Denver.

He arrived in an old blue station wagon, kids, family and belongings in tow. He drove straight out from L.A. directly to strings where the pre-opening  dinning room crew was already in training and awaiting his arrival. 

Noel went straight to the kitchen, with an anxiousness and excitement that he couldn't hide. He was seeing his kitchen for the first time.

In the days that followed, it was immediately evident that this great restaurant which we were all becoming a part of, had a tough, dynamic and talented working chef to launch it. 

The standards and bar were set very high, and when we started to see the quickness and freshness of the beautiful dishes that were becoming part of our menu the pride factor went thru the roof. Something special was happening!

Strings changed the Denver dinning scene forever.

At a time when our best restaurants in Denver were classic haute cuisine in the French tradition. Noel introduced something new, fresh and different. We called it California Nouvelle cuisine and Noel Cunningham was the man that brought it to Colorado. That was 25 years ago. 

While this comment only reflects an old snapshot in time, those that knew and remember Noel, along with their sadness of his passing, can only smile at the thought of him. 

Noel would want us to smile.We have lost one of our heroes.

Sonja Christ
Sonja Christ

When my loving husband, Klaus Christ, suffered a stroke, Noel arrived at the nursing home, with his cart, a napkin draped accross his arm, a big smile, and wonderful food prepared at Strings...........to nurse my husband back to health.  He arrived every day for weeks to come!  It was Noel who brought a wonderful healer from Ethipoia to our home who miraculously had my husband rise from his wheelchair and walk around our room without his cane.  There are no words to describe this wonderful friend and humanitarian.  May his spirit live on forever and pass on his uncharitable love for mankind.  He fed the old, the homeless, the orphaned, the elite, and me.   I will never forget the sparkle in his eye, and welcome each and every time we met.  He was truly unforgetable.  May God bless and comfort with his wonderful family at this most difficult time.  Sonja King-Christ

Carolannemckinley
Carolannemckinley

Noel Cunningham was always so full of energy it's hard to believe that this spark has been shut down.  I will miss knowing he was out there looking out for everyone else.One of his philosophies was to teach privileged kids in America about struggles in other places.  My daughter was one of those teenagers who was lucky.  She got to go to Ethiopia on one of Noel's trips to Project Mercy.  I think Noel believed in God, being a good if not questioning Irish Catholic.  I hope his wife Tammi gets through this and keeps his light alive.

Marc Pingry
Marc Pingry

I met Noel and Tammy when we went did a documentary about Project Mercy in Denver and Ethiopia.  I have met many people from around the world and I can only count very few that had that something that sets them apart from the rest of us.  Noel was one of them.  He will be greatly missed by all the lives he touched.  I will miss him.

M Galgano
M Galgano

I worked with Noel and Tammy for many years as the liaison to schools for Quarters for Kids and I have never met a more generous couple.  My heart aches for Tammy and for all of Denver as well as beneficiaries of their charities all over the world. 

Rickyp
Rickyp

God bless Tammy and their children.THEY will really be missing their hero,forever!!! Mr.C.was a true MENSCH.I hope he did not hurt when he left this planet,and that he is now one of the Lord's very special chefs and friends.Stay strong Tammy.

jason mccormick
jason mccormick

I had the pleasure of working with Noel at Strings.  Although we butted heads occasionally, he was a man of honor and of passion.  He will be missed.

CD
CD

I only met Noel a few times, through charity work inEthiopia, and while his gift in that capacity was enormous, the way he touchedme, personally, was to take a minute to tell me of his patriotism and supportfor the soldiers deployed, after learning my husband was in Iraq.  So many military family members, like me, spenddeployments holding their breath, hoping nothing “bad” will happen, the fewminutes Noel took out of his evening at Strings to stop by my table and speak tome, essentially a stranger, and pat my back and ask me if I was okay, will besomething I will never forget.

Jon Rizzi
Jon Rizzi

Great elegy, Lori. He was a truly philanthropic, talented and generous soul.

Guest
Guest

Met him only twice but he was a great person and an invaluable asset to our community. Shocked and sad to read this news.

Jlc
Jlc

Great tribute, Lori. A sad, sad day for our community - he was far too young.

Des Cunningham
Des Cunningham

Wendy

Thank you so much for sharing this story. Of all the wonderful comments I have read today about my beautiful brother, your story tells us what Noel was about. He really cared about the person.

Archerclove
Archerclove

When he fed me at every visit, it was always my favorite - chocolate souffle.  This man taught me more about life than I think could be written in volumes.  He was real, true and brilliant.

Wendy
Wendy

When my father was terminally ill two years ago at Thanksgiving Noel added our family to the his turkey list at Thanksgiving at the last minute. There was a star by my name when I came to pick up the turkey. He wanted to be notified when I arrived. Although we had never met, he knew the circumstances for the late entry and wanted to show his support. He gave me a big, bear hug and told me that he would hold my family in his heart over the holidays. I will never forget his concern for people he barely knew. Denver has lost a great man.

Chelsea
Chelsea

I just learned of the passing of Noel Cunningham. Why are tears running down my cheeks, I didn't know him personally, he wasn't a member of my family? But i did know him through working on charitable events in Denver.  I do know that he supported numerous worthy causes not only with monetary donations or gifts but with personal involvement. I do know that his family extended well beyond his home and into the community. I do know how difficult it is to succeed in the restaurant business, how much time and effort and energy that requires. Noel still found time and energy and resources to reach out to others. Denver has lost one of it's finest citizens and we should shed tears,because we were a  better place with Noel Cunningham and we will miss him. Deepest condolences to his family.

Terri Slivka
Terri Slivka

Noel Cunningham, a man who was truly good to the core, will be missed around the globe. His light will shine on in the multitudes of people he touched.

Wendy
Wendy

Dear Des,

Like your brother did for me, I will hold your family in my heart over the holidays. Our world is a better place because of people like him.

Ccunningham
Ccunningham

sorry to hear the news des . he his father and all the cunninghams in catering have been inspirational to me .. i never met him but i wish i did now 

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