Detroit’s food scene has been exploding in recent years. The Washington Post called the Motor City a “food mecca” and Zagat named it “one of America’s next hot food cities.” At the same time, the city’s urban farm movement has been increasingly in the spotlight, with over the 1,400 active farms and gardens and the recent introduction of the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016 taking place at D-Town Farm.
But for all the new attention, Black chefs and farmers aren’t in the spotlight often enough, according to Devita Davison, the marketing and communications director of FoodLab Detroit, and the co-founder of a new dinner series called Detroit Grown and Made.
Davison launched the series with Chef Maxcel Hardy and Peter Dalinowski, the owner of a pop-up restaurant venue called Revolver. Their goal is to celebrate the Black farmers and chefs helping to grow a more just and equitable food system in Detroit. It’s also a celebration of the symbiotic relationship between growing and cooking.
“You cannot be a superstar chef without a superstar farmer,” Davison says.
The trio recently wrapped up the first season of pop-up dinners held at urban farms around Detroit. Davison and Hardy say they would like to bring it back in the spring, when the city’s urban farms and gardens will yield again fresh produce, and would like to expand the series’ scope and reach. In the meantime, the discussion on food, race, culture, and activism will go on.
Chef Hardy was born and raised on the west side of Detroit and left when he was a preteen. He went to culinary school in Miami and worked as a personal chef for NBA basketball player Amare Stoudamire. In addition to having a glitzy roster of clientele, Hardy is also an advocate, and founded a group called Along with a glitzy roster of clientele, he is also an advocate, and founded a group called One Chef Can 86 Hunger.
Now, as the chef for the inaugural Detroit Grown and Made series, Hardy is fulfilling an urge to return he’s felt for a while. After cooking for several successful pop-up dinners at Revolver, he now plans to open a restaurant called Coop in December at the Detroit Shipping Co. food hall.
As Detroit reinvents itself, Hardy would like to be a part of it. He wants to use his platform, “to speak not only about cooking and urban farming, but to malnourishment, hunger, all these (issues) plaguing our community.” He hopes the Detroit Grown and Made series can get help bring more people into those conversations.
He also wants to prioritize training Black chefs and helping them find jobs, in a culinary scene that hasn’t always been welcoming. “I want to create opportunities and I want to release those barriers,” he says. “If (other restaurants) won’t let you in, come and join my team and let me train you.” He hopes to “see a lot of our cooks become chefs.”
A ‘Magical’ Experience
With all of the attention on Detroit’s burgeoning food scene, Davison is concerned resources could be shifted away from the smaller farmer. This series is an attempt to shine the light on the smaller operations that don’t have the marketing resources to tell their stories.
The urban farms where the Detroit Grown and Made series have taken place so far were chosen with these facts in mind, Davison says.
The first dinner was held at Oakland Avenue Urban Farm; the second was at Plum Street Market.
Oakland Avenue Urban Farm is in the North End neighborhood of the city, a few miles north of downtown Detroit and Midtown, which have been hot spots for development, and upscale bars, restaurants, and stores. The farm is a program of the community-based North End Christian Community Development Corporation and it serves as a community hub of sorts. In addition to growing food, it also offers opportunities for neighborhood youth and cultural offerings. (Case in point: it’s a test site for the art project the Cosmopolitan Chicken coop.)
Dining in the same space where the food grows was “magical,” says Jerry Hebron, executive director of the North End Christian Community Development Corporation. At the September dinner, diners enjoyed heirloom tomato salad, trout, pollo Sambuca, quinoa pilaf, vegetable gratin, and strawberry-pear-rhubarb crumble at long wooden tables adorned with fresh flowers.
The meal gave diners the feeling that there were in the country, until they looked across the street to see a blighted building. This juxtaposition underscored the effects of the old economy meeting a new economy where food plays an integral role, Davison says.
Not only does the series celebrate Black chefs and farmers, but also the next generation. “We were able to showcase our awesome youth talent,” Hebron says. “People do not always see our youth engaged in a positive situation.”
It also showed guests a different side of Detroit.
“I think the experience demonstrated that there are many safe places in this community to host events and people are curious and willing to explore,” says Hebron.