Detroit — When chef Maxcel Hardy returned to his hometown after cooking in high-profile positions in Miami and New York, the Detroit native could have opened a splashy new restaurant in any hip neighborhood. Instead, he returned to his roots on the city’s west side to open River Bistro, a small restaurant that serves expertly crafted comfort foods.
From there, he went on to debut Coop Detroit, a Caribbean fusion restaurant inside Detroit Shipping Co. food hall, and later Jed’s Detroit, a pizza and burger carryout at Seven Mile and Interstate 75. He’s planning two more restaurants — What’s Crackin’ on the Avenue of Fashion and Honey in Harmonie Park.
His drive to feed those who aren’t customers and his decade-long commitment to fighting hunger, however, is the reason he’s one of our Michiganians of the Year and the recipient of the Angelo B. Henderson Community Commitment Award.
Max Hardy, Michiganian
Chef Max Hardy, of Detroit, talks about his restaurants, charity giving during COVID-19 and the blessing of being named a Michiganian of The Year.
Todd McInturf, The Detroit News
Ten years ago while living in Miami, Hardy and his brother, Aaron Arnett, brainstormed the idea for One Chef Can 86 Hunger, a nonprofit that began by giving a scholarship to an aspiring culinary student and evolved into an organization that teaches young people about nutrition, cooking and economics in an effort to alleviate hunger. (The name comes from culinary lingo. When the kitchen is out of a dish or an ingredient, it’s “86’ed.”)
After starting One Chef in Miami, Hardy relocated to New York where he held community events in different boroughs each weekend, feeding up to 1,000 people per event and later started teaching children in Harlem how to cook. When he returned home to Detroit, he continued his work with kids, taking them from the kitchen to the Eastern Market to teach them how to buy food and make a dollar stretch to feed as many people as possible.
Seven years ago, he started doing the same thing overseas in Kenya, where his nonprofit adopted a school and teamed up with the I AM Hope Foundation; he visits twice a year to cook with the kids.
“It’s a natural thing for me,” he said of helping others. “I guess it kind of comes from me being a kid and sometimes going without, so now I just want to make sure if anybody’s hungry, we’re going to feed them. But also teaching kids how to do the same thing and understand how food grows, where it comes from, how to spend money and how to save and do this with their family.”
It was also natural for Hardy to spring into action when the pandemic hit, which forced restaurants to close their doors or make drastic pivots, leaving community organizations scrambling.
“I’m like, I can’t sit at home this long … I gotta do something,” he said. He teamed up with the Horatio Williams Foundation — a Detroit-based nonprofit that supports young people and the community and offers free classes — and along with other local chefs, organized to get unused restaurant food into the hands of Detroiters who needed it. “We just went into action. It went from one day feeding 200 people to 5,000, then 20,000 then next thing you know we’re at 50,000 meals in three or four months.”
He and the other Detroit chefs named their effort “Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen for Good” and “continued rockin’” throughout the first year of the pandemic.
“It was really good to do that and be a part of it and really help,” he said. “It was truly an honor to do it.”
Hardy later teamed up with the Horatio Williams Foundation last fall to help get 300 free meals to Detroit voters stuck in long lines at the polls on Election Day 2020.
Williams, who founded his nonprofit in 2005, has known Hardy for nearly eight years and said everything the chef does is “from the heart, it’s not money-driven.”
“When the pandemic happened we had some food left over from a cooking class and he was like, let’s feed the homeless,” he said, adding that they worked at least 45 days in a row “sunup to sundown”
Williams said he appreciates that Hardy gives back to his hometown.
“He always comes back to the community and he gives these young cooks opportunities to fulfill their dreams that they can be their own restaurant owner-operator,” he said. “When you give a kid an opportunity to do that, you give them some hope.”
He likes that Hardy is “never bragging” and describes him as mild-mannered.
“It’s not about him … he’s all about producing and when you get someone in the kitchen and get to doing what they do, and not try to get publicity from it, because that travels with you once you’re doing a great job.”
In addition to his honor as a Detroit News Michiganian of the Year and the Angelo Henderson community award, Hardy was recently recognized by the New York Times as one of “16 Black chefs changing food in America.”
This year the chef, who has his own retail line of signature spices and has co-authored two cookbooks, appeared on national television on the Food Network competition “BBQ Brawl” as one of 12 “talented and buzzworthy” barbecue stars. He was also named Chef of the Year in 2021 by Detroit’s Hour Magazine.
Maxcel Hardy (Angelo Henderson community award winner)
Occupation: Chef and restaurant owner
Education: Culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University — North Miami
Family: Two daughters
Why honored: A decade of work with young people via his nonprofit, One Chef Can 86 Hunger, recent efforts with fellow Detroit chefs to feed the community during the pandemic, and his commitment to opening restaurants in Detroit neighborhoods.