By 1010 WINS’ Larry Mullins
To walk into the OpportunityCharterSchool on 116th street in Harlem, you’d immediately think that you mistakenly walked into a 5-star restaurant. That’s because the school (or at least the Culinary Arts side of it), is a mock restaurant, complete with a full dining room, coat check, front lobby bar, and last but not least, one of the most impressive chefs kitchens I’ve ever seen!
And behind it all; Chef Maxcel Hardy. If the name sounds familiar, he’s the guy who started “One Chef can 86 Hunger”, an anti-hunger campaign. He’s also familiar to basketball followers; he had a stint in the NBA a few years ago. It didn’t go as well as he wanted, but it didn’t matter; he still ended up working with NBA players (like Amare’ Stoudamire), and A-list actors and performers like Jamie Foxx, Michael Jordan, and others, as a…(wait for it, wait for it)…”personal chef”! And he’s totally cool with that, recognizing that not everybody makes it in the league.
But Chef Max feels that EVERYBODY needs to make it in the kitchen, whether they want to be a chef like him or not (gotta feed yourself and your family he says). So he’s now teamed up with the OpportunityCharterSchool in Harlem. It’s a school that takes kids who everybody else turned their backs on, and gives them a shot at specialized vocations, including “cooking”. My Executive Producer Sharon Barnes-Waters and I walked into one of his “classes” early one morning, and you would have thought he was planning a state dinner for the president. And the staff, “all decked out in their fresh white coats and chef top hats, were mostly 16-18 year-olds.
Max says it’s always been his dream to give back to kids. His parents (his whole family) consisted of cooks who helped everybody in their communities so he accepted the baton. And for two hours, there they were, going over kitchen safety, cross-contamination, how to handle guests at a restaurant, the works. We caught them on a day that they were also practicing knife-handling (yikes) for the first time. I met a girl (Nakia) who says she never knew it took all those knives to cut different things. She says she was immediately struck with the school (overall) and how much the teachers cared for them. And cooking skills? Nakia says it’ll be good to be able to cook something more than Ramen noodles! Back to the class, on this day, nobody got accidentally cut, or burned down the kitchen, so today was a good day J. I was really impressed with how at how Chef Max managed to capture these kids attention, with the art of cooking…(and not just how to boil water, but actually shopping, preparing and serving people). Max says even if they don’t want to become Chefs, they need to know how to cook, so they can take care of themselves and their families. There was this kid Dante who says he wasn’t all that interested in cooking, until working with Chef Max came up. Now he says his friends are asking him, “hey man, how can we get into that school”. You can imagine the waiting list to cook with Max Chef! Go Dante!
I also met Leonard Goldberg, who says he started that school because back in the day, there were no schools which catered to “special needs kids”. He says it was a blessing to land somebody like “Chef Max” to offer his hand in running the popular Culinary side of it. I was ready to sign up for his class myself. But my penchant for “sneaking samples” in my mouth disqualified me as a good candidate.
Max is doing some amazing things with these kids! He’s teaching them about life, and discipline. Hah, who would have ever thought that you could do slam dunk, even in a kitchen.
(Note to Max: Call me when you guys finish cooking…I want a sample…it’s my dedication to radio).