Chef Maxcel Hardy gets real about what Detroit’s...

Chef Maxcel Hardy gets real about what Detroit’s restaurant industry needs right now

Chef Maxcel Hardy. Photo by David Rudolph.

We spoke to Chef Maxcel Hardy a few days after a massive hurricane leveled the Bahamas, where much of Hardy’s extended family still lives. Hardy said that his family’s homes were all pretty much destroyed in Hurricane Dorian, which has left more than 70,000 Bahamians homeless. Click here for more information on how to donate to Dorian relief efforts.

When Detroit first began to receive national buzz as a foodie town on the rise, Maxcel Hardy noticed a trend that was troubling — the media kept focusing on chefs who had recently arrived to town. And overwhelmingly, those chefs in the news all seemed to be white.

“I just wanted to help raise awareness of the chefs who were here already,” he said.”There were chefs who have been here in Detroit already for a long time, who were doing the work on the ground, but they just weren’t getting the shine that they deserved.”

So Maxcel Hardy moved back to the city that raised him. A private chef to stars like the NBA’s Amar’e Stoudemire, Hardy made headlines by opting not to open his first restaurant in downtown Detroit. Instead, in 2017 he opened River Bistro (featuring a fried chicken plate the Freep deemed “life-changing”)  near the west side neighborhood where he grew up, creating a dining destination on a stretch of Grand River Avenue that hadn’t seen much in the way of new investment. The results, he says candidly, have been up and down. River Bistro cut weekday service last year but has focused on their weekend dining experience. Hardy also opened his COOP Caribbean concept in the Detroit Shipping Company food hall last year. When he’s not in the kitchen, he still moonlights as a private chef, produces a line of chef jackets, helps further culinary education and is writing two more cookbooks.

“Part of my goal was to help raise that awareness and foster that new generation of chefs to continue to push,” Hardy said.

He’s also led the way for other notable restaurant projects to flourish outside of greater downtown, like the upcoming Magnet restaurant, also coming to Grand River in Core City and Sandy Levine’s upcoming restaurant and bar concept in Milwaukee Junction.  Meanwhile, chefs of color like Hardy (who was recently named one of 16 black chefs changing food in America) are finally getting their due.

“I see a lot of other ethnic minority chefs, minority restaurants opening and it’s just not in the city anymore, not just focusing on downtown and Midtown. So I think there’s definitely been progress. But there could be more. A lot more.”

Part of fostering that movement, Hardy believes, is creating more access to hospitality education and training to create the talent pool of chefs and staffers that a thriving urban restaurant industry needs. And funding, he acknowledges, can be another huge challenge for chefs trying to do projects in the neighborhoods. One of Hardy’s financial partners was a friend of the family who wasn’t part of the restaurant industry, but also had roots from the west side.

Chef Maxcel Hardy. Photo by David Rudolph.

“He believed in the community and he believed in the mission and the story, so he invested.”

But partners like those in the food industry can be like unicorns, which is why access to capital — for all kinds of entrepreneurs — is critical. “Funding for minority restaurants –those channels need to be opened up a little more. And not just for downtown and Midtown!,” Hardy said. 

“As investors, bankers, funding agencies, lending agencies, it’s important to look at the overall picture. As the city turns, who stayed true to the city through the recession and the hard times? It was the neighborhoods. Who stayed open? It was the mom-and-pop businesses. Those stayed true, and we should be supporting those areas better now.”

See Chef Maxcel Hardy and more of Metro Detroit’s finest chefs at the Detroit Wine & Food Experience on Sept. 12 in Cadillac Square. Purchase your own tickets to the Grand Tasting right here. The Detroit Wine & Food Experience is a content partner of Detour Media LLC.

Ashley Woods Branch is the founder and CEO of Detour Media, a local journalism startup that builds community, spotlights neighborhood issues and curates Detroit news through an equitable perspective. Ashley leads Detour’s audience growth strategies, community partnerships, revenue operations and strategic planning. She’s also a sought-after consultant for digital newsrooms and has worked with more than 100 news outlets across America. Ashley previously led consumer experience and digital strategy at the Detroit Free Press and was the editor of HuffPost’s Detroit bureau, as well as a reporter and editor focused on Detroit culture and development for MLive, Real Detroit Weekly and Model D. She was a 2019 Marshall Memorial Fellow and a 2018 Visiting Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter: @ash_detroit