|L/R Front Row. Bocuse , Robert Fedorko . Noel Cunningham and Me.|
|L/R . Myself, Noel, Noel's Chef and Robert Fedorko|
More photos of this event will be added later. These were taken at the Bocuse even in Strings and include Robert Fedorko who is the Chef at The Grand Geneva Resort. As soon as I find the photos I will post them.
A friend of mine passed away the other day.
He is most certainly in heaven and heaven is a nicer place for his being there. We are a sadder place because of his departure. He is probably organising dinners for the less fortunate people up there. Less fortunate people in heaven must be a rare thing but if there are any , he will certainly find them.
When I was an apprentice in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin in the early sixties there was a young and dynamic sous chef by the name of Dessie Cunningham. All of us kids loved him because he had lot of ideas and we were able to relate to him more as a big brother figure than as a father figure like the older chef and sous chefs.
I don't know what happened to Desssie but he didn't stay very long at the hotel. I think the older chef did not like him and he was eased out. I remember the chef embarrassing him one day in front of the staff so I knew something was going on between them. We were so low on the totem pole that we were mere observers to events.
I left for London a couple of years later and worked in various hotels and then decided I needed to go to college so I enrolled in Westminster Technical College in London for the culinary and hotel program. These courses were required and carried a lot of weight in the business. I was very lucky to get in and get such a wonderful professional education in that great city.
The day I started at the school ( another story ) I noticed this sheepish looking fellow who was around my own age among my fellow pupils, he seemed very shy, very eager to please and very nervous. I was a little nervous myself to say the least but seeing someone more nervous than I was made me braver. ( This was the charming effect Noel had on people ) This was a completely new experience and I didn't know what to expect. Nobody wants to look like a fool on their first day. We were both a little older than the average student in the class and we had a lot more practical experience than the others given that they were just starting in the industry and we had a few years experience under our belts.
This sheepish looking fellow with the downcast eyes and humble demeanour had a thick Dublin accent, so after a few sidelong glances and general summing up we naturally started talking. It turned out that his name was Noel Cunningham. The name didn't ring a bell right away but over the next few conversations I discovered that he was my old sous chef Dessie Cunningham's son. Who knew ?
We became good friends over the next few months. Noel was married and I was single so we didn't socialize a lot after school. His wife had recently given birth to twin girls who are now beautiful adults. The pay in London in the hotel industry was not very high in the sixties and the hours were very long so this added to his worries. I can still see him sitting in front of the electric fire in the flat in London wringing his hands. He had that little brother quality that made you feel protective of him and at the same time in awe of his unassuming personality. As a counter to that he had an amazing amount of focus and determination. He was a wonderful cook and cooking was his life.
He had that enviable quality of making people feel good about themselves and really listening to what was being said by the person he was talking to.
He was kind hearted and would do anything to help those in need. I remember one day he told me that he had loaned one of the dishwashers in the Savoy a pound note. The dishwasher was Irish and straight out of George Orwell's depiction of life in hotels as a dish washer in Paris. I asked him why he had lent him the money given that he didn't have any money himself; he replied, " Well he's one of our own ". A pound note in those days was a princely sum and would buy many a pint of Guinness or a nice flower power shirt on Carnaby Street but these things were far from Noel's mind. He never saw the pound note again but he shrugged it off.
The axiom ' he would give you the shirt off his back' was coined for Noel Cunningham and I can easily imagine him doing just that.
The culinary field can be very stressful, especially in the formative years where those who are very conscientious strive for absolute perfection. There are many nights sleeps lost and days off ruined because something had gone wrong during the service the night before and this perfection was not achived. None of us in this industry are strangers to the stress of not living up to our own standards. This was exaserbated in the big London hotels by the dogmatic approach to the field. There was no free and easy ad lib cooking and dishes were dictated by a book by escoffier which was read like the bible by all aspiring chefs in the hope of retaining the words of the master.
Noel would take this stress to a very high level because he really loved what he did. I can still hear him mutter on the way home from school or on break that such and such did not turn out the way it should have.
Shortly after I left London for Germany I lost contact with Noel but I knew he had moved to the United States and was working in Los Angeles. The US was the furthest thing from my mind at that time. There were far more exciting places in the underdeveloped world and the food world in the USA was not as developed then as it is now.
Twenty years later I found myself in the Four Seasons Hotel in Seattle and the 'phone rang in my office: it was Noel welcoming me to the US. I was surprised and delighted to hear his voice. He had opened and owned a very successful restaurant in Denver, Colorado and was doing very well. A few years later he came to visit me at my hotel in Palm Springs and I saw him again over the next few years. .
He had found great happiness in his second marriage to Tammy.
He rang me in the nineties and asked me to come to Denver to help him translate and cook for a dinner for Paul Bocuse at his restaurant. I did so and the dinner was a great success. The next day there was a luncheon for all the chefs in the city at one of the major hotels in Denver in honor of Bocuse. This was a very prestigious lunch and was attended by all the leading restaurant movers and shakers in Denver.
On the way into the lunch Bocuse said to me " Let's us French sit together ". I naturally told Noel to join 'us French' at the table. After lunch Noel came to me and told me how proud he was to sit at Bocuse's table. He thanked me for the invitation. I think Noel didn't realize that, as the host of the event' he was more entitled to sit at Bocuse's table than anyone. His unassuming and almost humble approach to life was one of his most endearing sides of his personality
This was the essence of Noel; he would never assume that he would be invited even though the dinner was held in his very successful restaurant and he had a very prominent place on the Denver food scene. This was both his charm and his strength.
He was a gentle and caring man and that very rare thing- a true friend.
Noel Cunningham committed suicide last Thursday afternoon in Denver Colorado. He was just sixty two years of age. I hadn't spoken to him in a long while and that made me feel even more sad.