Photo By David Randolph
It’s Tuesday morning and Chef Max Hardy (a.k.a. Chef Max) is in his kitchen at COOP Caribbean Fusion in Detroit’s midtown. Around 10 a.m., his team of young cooks are allowed to play whatever music they want to boom through the speaker of the tight prep stations. While Chef Max enjoys gospel, the beat most of the time ends up on reggae. After all, they are cooking a Caribbean cuisine with just the right kick to satisfy the most opinionated Detroiter.
“Detroit hasn’t always been known as the food mecca of the world, but now that the city is growing in the food scene, it’s so important to train the next generation of chefs,” he says. “With such an influx of chefs coming to the city from all over, it can be challenging to try to make your mark with so many different influences. It would be great if every school in DPS [Detroit Public School] could have a culinary curriculum.”
The proud owner and operator of COOP, Chef Max knows how to cook a chicken, yet what he’s most proud of is that he’s taught his team how to cook the best fall-off-the-bone chicken – so much so that he’s known all over Detroit, across TV cooking competitions, and the world over for those exact culinary skills. COOP’s menu items hold titles like its infamous COOP Wings with just the right jerk, and the Midtown Crispy Chicken Fork Sandwich that would put any Popeyes chicken sandwich to shame. “We marinate our chicken for 18 to 24 hours so that it’s falling off the bone,” says the chef.
“Most of our spices and sauces aren’t found anywhere else in the city.”
COOP Caribbean Fusion is just one selection of a collection of food vendors in the Detroit Shipping Company, set up like a food court with options that include Brujo Tacos & Tapas, Monty’s Beef Company, and Bangkok96. There are two bars with open-air seating and a coffee shop on the second floor. The Detroit Shipping Company is the brainchild of three native Michiganders whose mission was to develop an entertainment venue in the Cass Corridor area, complete with a garden, upscale street-food vendors, artists’ space, and start-up retail out of shipping containers.
“Detroit has always been segregated when it comes to food.” says Chef Max. “There was the Polish, then Mexican; we had our soul food; and in Dearborn, it was Middle Eastern. Detroit always had its different pockets; now so much more of the food growth is saturated in Midtown and Downtown.”
You may have heard of Detroit’s foodie scene. This out-of-nowhere growth has been slowly brewing for the past 10 years, evident with the number of restaurants that have popped up in Midtown and downtown.
With a population of roughly 800,000-plus, Detroit is still more than 80 percent black. The admittedly sophisticated – and still growing – restaurant scene you’ve heard about is flourishing because of black chefs. However, restaurant ownership is largely confined to the rapidly redeveloping core of the city that has spent more years resurrecting itself back alive.
Fame and Fusion
Chef Max has had his share of fame and defeat – from being called one of 16 black chefs changing food in America by the New York Times to securing a full culinary scholarship to Johnson and Wales University that helped kick-start his career. By the age of 21, Hardy was an executive chef responsible for multimillion-dollar food and beverage budgets in South Florida. He launched a private events company, but soon pivoted to focus more on his celebrity clients. “I do a lot of fusion, mixing different ingredients with different cuisines, but I’m known for my healthy meals,” he says.
His clients have included actors, professional athletes, and dignitaries like the Prince of Dubai and the prime minister of Turks and Caicos. However, he was able to really hone his craft in 2010 as the full-time personal chef to NBA All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire. After traveling the world, he appeared on the Food Network’s popular Chopped series as a finalist. “I grew up in a tough neighborhood in Detroit, and being with my grandmother in the kitchen cooking kept me focused,” says Chef Max. “It was important to me to bring home what I’ve learned traveling the world. Because of the time spent in the kitchen, I was able to get a scholarship to attend culinary school. Cooking saved my life. Those days that we would cook and bond with each other as a family back in the day are what made me want to become a chef.”
While in New York, Chef Max met Devita Davison, Detroit’s own FoodLab marketing and communications director. The two collaborated on the Made and Grown Series of private dinners on urban farms – and because he grew up around Meyers and Grand River and noticed that a lot had changed in Detroit since his early days growing up on the northwest side, Chef Max had his first thought that “maybe it’s time for me to come home.”
In 2017, Chef Max opened his flagship Caribbean-soul restaurant, River Bistro, in the city’s Grandmont Rosedale district. Yet after just two years, the resto had to close its doors. “The past two years operating River Bistro have been amazing and would not have been possible without the support from the Grandmont Rosedale community,” Hardy said in a 2018 statement. “Our neighbors welcomed us with open hearts, and for that, we will be forever grateful. It’s time to focus on the future. One of the reasons for me to move back home is to show that black chefs are here. And we are making a contribution.”
Running COOP is just one element to Hardy’s multilevel approach to making Detroit’s culinary scene better reflect Detroit itself- not only is he hoping to create opportunities for more black chefs, but he’s always been focused on training and education for the next generation, even traveling to other countries to do so. “You always think of mom-and-pop places or barbecue or soul food [in Detroit],” he says. “You don’t think of chef-driven restaurants here.”
Chef Max has been on a constant culinary journey-from an urban farm on the block where he grew up to another cookbook and line of Chef jackets and custom spices to culinary training programs in local schools to, eventually, he hopes, his own cooking school. He’s been back and forth to Dubai and Africa, learning and cooking at world food festivals, even adopting a primary school in Africa that he supplies with shoes and books while also working on the infrastructure for a kitchen. Hardy has already been successful in raising a great deal of awareness of the culinary arts in his city.
“In a city that’s like 85 percent black,” he says, “how is it that it’s not a black chef that’s the face of restaurants in Detroit?”