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Max Hardy, Amare Stoudemire's Personal Chef, At Sunday Dinner

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In basketball, "drive" is a quick, forceful move toward the hoop; in the culinary world, it's graduating from Johnson & Wales and earning a spot as executive chef before the age of 21.

Chef Maxcel Hardy knows both plays well, having run them, first as a promising athlete on his high school basketball team, then as one of the most sought after young chefs on the South Florida restaurant scene.

"I made a commitment in high school: If I couldn't make it to the NBA [I'd] cook for Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, some of the big NBA hitters at that time," Hardy says, musing on his two loves and how they'd eventually become one dreamy full-time job.

Perhaps Michael and Magic had their personal chefs already lined up, but Hardy's determination lived on, landing him in the kitchen of another NBA star instead -- Amare Stoudemire of the New York Knicks.

How Hardy got the gig sounds a little like the old "preparation meets opportunity" adage, a stroke of luck he explained to Bon Appetit magazine last year:

Hardy had just made dinner for a client and was packing up when Stoudemire called him. He was looking for someone to cook for him and his friends before they went out to a club. As in: That night. Immediately. "I looked at my watch. It was almost midnight," Hardy recalls. "I thought, Well, okay. I did a little shopping and made them a grand feast: grilled lobster tails, steaks, Yukon-garlic mash, and chocolate souffle."

"I remember thinking, We may have a winner here," Stoudemire says, laughing. Not long after, Hardy packed up and moved to New York to work with Stoudemire full-time.

ONE ON ONE
Hardy's move meant trading in a rotating list of A-list clients -- among the most notable: Missy Elliot and the Prince of Dubai -- for much more intimate digs. (Though he does still manage a chef-outsourcing business based in his hometown of Miami.)

"Working in the private sector makes you more understanding of the individual's lifestyle everyday," Hardy says. "You're the first one they see when they wake up, the last one they see when they go to bed. It turns into being more than just a chef. [You're a] confidante, a chef, a babysitter, a bodyguard at times. They tell you all of their deeper secrets," he says, secrets that take the place of the accolades and thrill many restaurant chefs thrive on.

"You lose that a little bit, because it's not everyday going crazy, but on the creative side, you do have to get really crazy," he says, describing the challenge he faces trying to avoid serving up the same dishes to Amare within the same month.

Next week, Hardy plans to work the grill and throw in some twists to the average Superbowl Sunday fare. On the menu: Jerk chicken wings, artichoke and spinach dip, grilled lamb chops, twice-baked potatoes and crab cakes, a Stoudemire fave.

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Though Stoudemire has ventured into some unexpected territory when it comes to food (his Hebrew background means he only eats kosher food, though he doesn't actually keep kosher at home), Hardy says his eclectic cooking style wasn't always easily received. "When I first started cooking for [Amare], it was tough because he was a meat and potatoes kind of guy." But his creativity (and a few sneaky substitutes, like the butternut squash he made in lieu of sweet potatoes last Thanksgiving) paid off, opening Stoudemire up to what Hardy now calls a full-out foodie lifestyle.

Case in point: This week's Sunday dinner, a menu of hearty winter eats, with a little Irish flair.

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