Detroit is gaining momentum as a “foodie” town. It seems restaurants are opening constantly and chefs are now coming from across the country to the Motor City to open various concepts addressing its collective culinary tastes and appetites.
Detroit native Chef Maxcel Hardy, came back home after spending time in culinary meccas New York and Miami. He is the principal at Hardy Hospitality Group, which manages two Detroit-based restaurants, River Bistro and COOP. Additional endeavors include the Chef Max Brand, Chef Max Aviation (a service to provide high level cooking on private jets) and Chef Max Design (a design of chef jackets for chefs). Each brand is designed around his personality and business pursuits.
And Hardy’s culinary skills have been featured on the Food Network and Food TV.
A fun-loving, family-oriented man who enjoys riding motorcycles and playing golf, Hardy’s passion is developing restaurant concepts and cuisines for customers to enjoy. And when he’s not cooking, he can be found enjoying a basketball game at a sports bar or eating at some of his other favorite restaurants around Detroit.
I recently talked to Hardy about coming back to Detroit to open two unique restaurants and to discuss the city’s burgeoning and growing dining scene.
Lee: Why did you decide to become a chef?
Hardy: I’ve always had a love for food. As a child, I enjoyed watching and cooking with my family. When I got to high school I took it to another level enrolling in the culinary Arts and training program under Chef Edward Burjaski. I started catering for our sports teams offering per game meals that creating revenue for the culinary program.
I loved the idea of being around food, cooking, prepping and creating dishes people loved to eat. I would stay last after school to help the chefs prep for the next day. In school, I helped start a restaurant for our teachers so they could enjoy their lunch break eating great meals. Being a chef for me is all about the love for food and creating happiness through food is probably the biggest reason.
Lee: You worked in both Miami and New York. You also worked for former NBA’er, Amar’e Stoudemire. How did that work out for you?
Hardy: It was an amazing experience every day. I got to travel the world it and it was almost like living the life of a NBA player – I once wanted to be without the $100 million dollar check. It was truly fun and I got the opportunity to co-author “Cooking with Amare” – my first cookbook. I really had fun back then.
Lee: And yet, after those experiences, you decided to come back to Detroit. Why?
Hardy: I love Detroit. Detroit made me. I wanted to bring some of flavors and flair from Miami and New York City back to the “D,”. I saw Detroit’s food scene developing without the faces of African American chefs at the forefront. So I thought I would come home and help make that push. I also loved the diligent work of so many other organizations and people I noticed all contributing to rebuilding Detroit. I wanted to join them.
For example, look at the efforts of Detroit FoodLab’s Devita Davidson, who has played a huge role in Detroit’s food and restaurant scene. I looked at the work of Jerry Hebron at Oakland Avenue Farms in Detroit’s North End. When I did a popup dinner at the farm, I knew then I had to come home. I just fell in love with Detroit all over again.
Lee: You recently opened River Bistro in one of Detroit’s neighborhoods, but decided to scale back the hours. What’s the rationale behind this business decision?
Hardy: I just wanted to mix it up and focus on the strong revenue generating days, and used the other days to help up and coming chefs and bakers perfect their skills, doing pop-up restaurant style dinner presentations and grow and test their concepts.
Detroit needs a neighborhood community kitchen.
Lee: While scaling back on River Bistro, you opened COOP recently. Please describe the concept?
Hardy: COOP is a fun Caribbean flair with a food truck vibe, small plates with big flavors. We are playing with some cool island spices, our signature chicken is marinated 18 hours in our jerk seasoning and ginger beers. I’m truly expressing how I see Island cuisine; through food and the foods I enjoy cooking and eating when I’m traveling throughout different islands.
Lee: While River Bistro has had a shift in the strategic direction, why is now the time right for COOP?
Hardy: COOP has been in the works for two years. I had originally developed the COOP concept four years ago. Now is a great time because the food scene is expanding and growing. In the restaurant and culinary world you have to always be able to grow and make adjustments as needed that makes you different and keeps you rolling!
Lee: Any regrets about opening up restaurant concepts in your hometown?
Hardy: Not any regrets, there are concerns with the lack of training professionals cooks and chefs in my hometown, I think there needs to be more training programs for inspiring cooks looking to become chefs. We have a lot of restaurants popping open without proper trained workers.
So I’m joining forces with Cleary University to help get students enrolled and trained to help improve the talent pool of culinary professionals in the Detroit industry.
Lee: Does this mean certain Detroit neighborhoods aren’t ready for new restaurants?
Hardy: I believe Detroit was never looked at as a culinary mecca like a NYC or Chicago, and some of the other major cities. In a lot of areas in Detroit, all you see is, you buy, we fry places, fast food on every corner, or $5 buck pizza, so you almost do not have an opportunity to have a successful causal dining restaurant in those area because you trying to compete with that.
I think as we continue to grow as people and start eating better in our community restaurants in the inner city, (we) will do better. I think when people think of good food, it is only downtown or midtown but we have to support our communities more!!
Lee: Whom are your target audiences for each concept?
Hardy: Would say individual that enjoy great food, and fun dining experiences. Millennials seems to be our biggest draw right now. Both concepts are fun and cool island vibes, so it can be appreciated by a vast group of foodies.
Lee: Detroit continues to gain a reputation for being a “foodie” city. What advice would you give to someone wanting to open a restaurant here?
Hardy: Come with a different concept, and different flair, I feel like a lot of the restaurant opening are doing the same foods, using the same designers. Put some true thought into the menu and offer a dope fare that no is doing. Start small and give yourself some room for growth!!
You have the resources out here, including Food Lab, Detroit Restaurant Association, Detroit Food Academy, Grow Detroit. I am also interested in partnering with culinary training programs for staffing (purposes).
Lee: What’s next for you and what’s your favorite food?
Hardy: I always have always something up my sleeve of my chef jacket. Resident chef at Cleary University, the relaunch of Chef Max designs, and new cookbook coming next spring. (We) will be announcing our new restaurant concept opening in 2019 soon.
My favorite food is spaghetti.