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What’s cooking? Hospitality grad serves up smorgasbord of culinary endeavors

March 6, 2019

Saying Chef Noel Cunningham has a lot on his plate is a colossal understatement.

The owner of catering company Cuisine by Noel seems to have a finger in every conceivable culinary pie — marketing his own Jamaican jerk marinade, writing food columns for multiple media outlets, appearing as a regular guest on CTV Morning Live and the Marc and Mandy Show, and demonstrating his talents at events like Montreal’s Jerk Food Festival and Savouring Jamaica at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City.

And that’s just for starters. The 28-year-old go-getter spent the past two years upping his business game as a full-time student in Red River College’s Hospitality and Tourism Management program, where he majored in Hotel and Restaurant Management — an undertaking that some of his colleagues found perplexing.

“They would see me on CTV and say, ‘Hey Noel, why are you going to school? You’re already established, why are you doing this?’” he recalls. “For me personally, I just believe in education and that you can’t limit yourself.”

Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, where he trained at Runaway Bay Heart Hotel and Training Institute and earned his chops in high-end restaurant kitchens, Cunningham wanted to master skills that will serve him well over the long term, particularly since he aspires to be a restaurateur.

“As a chef, I believe it’s good to be able to cook well, but it’s also good to be able to manage an operation very well,” he says. “It’s the tiny details that separate the professionals from the amateur and the average cook from a truly great one.”

Some of his courses at RRC were obvious fits with his calling — learning more about mixology and wine pairing, for example — but he’s also seeing the benefits of learning about legal issues, marketing and management accounting.

“It prepared me a lot — things I would never think I would need to know,” he says. “All these courses will help my business to grow because I’m better.”

Chef Noel Cunningham with Jamaican jerk marinadeSince graduating in early February, he’s put his catering business back on the front burner, dived into a cookbook he plans to publish this summer, and revved up prep work on a Caribbean spice rub and a roasted pepper sauce to expand his product line.

He developed his Smoky Jamaican Jerk Marinade while attending RRC. The idea arose during a private catering event, when the hostess asked him to show her how to make jerk spices.

“She liked the taste and she said, ‘Why don’t you bottle these?’” he recalls.

Cunningham started making the marinade for friends and soon launched a side business, producing at least 100 jars at a time in a local commercial kitchen and selling it at farmers’ markets and online to customers in New York, Florida and beyond.

“I also have a lot of support from instructors at Red River College,” he says, adding he’s sold “a lot” of marinade to instructors and staff, and that in the near future, he plans to market it to retail stores, along with his new products.

Already acknowledged as one of Winnipeg’s culinary stars — in 2017, online city guide Narcity named him “one of 12 Winnipeg chefs you need to follow on Instagram right now” — his long-term plan is to open a Caribbean restaurant where Winnipeggers can enjoy reggae music and great fusion cuisine.

“My goal is to have a restaurant where people can come and have a good time. I’d love to have a good spot where I can give you a Caribbean treat.”

In the meantime, he plans to share his culinary journey in his first cookbook, which he hopes to see published this summer as a celebration of his first 10 years in the business. Along with simple recipes for home cooks, Cunningham wants to motivate other young people, and the book will serve as a biography of sorts, including his first experience of Canada after he applied for a job in Thompson under a foreign worker program.

Chef Noel Cunningham in the kitchenAt the time, he was looking for a change in environment and he got an extreme one, arriving in mid-January 2015, when the windchill in northern Manitoba was hovering around -49C.

“I’m Jamaican — I don’t know where Thompson is, of course. I came to Winnipeg overnight and then we drove to Thompson for like nine hours,” he laughs. “That was super crazy.”

After almost a year as executive chef at the Burntwood Hotel, Cunningham decided to move to Winnipeg to attend RRC.

“That was a main goal when I came from Jamaica, was that I would love to come here and further my education,” he says.

But there was a bump in the road. Cunningham applied for permanent residency and almost immediately faced a health crisis. Following a trip home to Jamaica, he was under the weather when he returned to Winnipeg. Eventually, doctors discovered he had a ruptured appendix, which required multiple surgeries, 34 days in hospital and six months of bed rest. He lost more than 30 pounds, but true to form, he bounced back with a vengeance.

In 2016, he began contributing columns and recipes to Toronto’s Jamaica Eats magazine, followed by appearances in the Kingston-based Jamaica Gleaner, Barbados’ Cooking Sense magazine, Toronto Caribbean newspaper and other publications. With radio and TV appearances and growing business interests, he’s often burning the candle at both ends. But he points out there are 24 hours in a day, and he uses those hours wisely, with an eye on reaping the awards in years to come.

“There’s a building stage and then the reaping stage,” he says. “I’m currently in my building stage!”

Profile by Pat St. Germain (Creative Communications, 1989)