Timberwolves chef Tré Donte' Hardy envisions a better future for fine dining

The pandemic has provided Chef Hardy with ample time for reflection in recent months, as professional basketball's hiatus also affected his restaurant in Minneapolis's Target Center.

The pandemic has provided Chef Hardy with ample time for reflection in recent months, as professional basketball's hiatus also affected his restaurant in Minneapolis's Target Center. Courtesy Tré Donte' Hardy

Consider for a moment what it’s like to be an elite chef “working” in fine dining at this time. Now imagine your gig entails steering the Lexus Courtside Club inside Minneapolis’s Target Center, the small VIP restaurant that serves Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx season ticket holders, and you’re… close to where Tré Donte' Hardy finds himself these days.

When the Wolves’ executive sous chef and I settled in for a chat recently, the future of restaurants (and his in particular) loomed before us like a block of clay waiting to be shaped. The potential feels like it’s right here, but we both wondered what’s to be done with it? 

Well, after decades of racing through fine dining’s upper echelons—sweating out his early years in Michelin-starred kitchens in Las Vegas, moving to the Twin Cities to work at Cosmos in the Graves Hotel, with Alex Roberts at Alma and as Brasa’s sous before joining Beard-nominated heavy-hitter Heartland, spending almost seven years as head chef to 3M’s executives while hosting his own local pop-up series, and leading Joan’s in the Park for a spell—Hardy has ideas. And with the NBA on hiatus until July 30, he has time on his hands to talk about them. 

The chef participated in our call from the porch of the suburban home he shares with his husband, where he sipped tea and said that to best understand his approach, it’s important to know where he’s coming from. 

Hardy first caught the culinary spark as a boy in his family’s kitchen on Chicago’s South Side, where he recalls hanging out underfoot was about the only way to not get sent out to play. 

There he could learn about life straight from grown-ups’ mouths. “When cooking is what's happening, you could be around [adults talking to each other], and you could engage them. You couldn't really talk much but you could listen,” explained Hardy, with love in his voice. “Which is why Ophelia, with my pop-up that I created, is named after my grandmother. I learned so much from her, [and] my mother. There's so many family stories attached to me just being around them—when they were cooking, and learning little bits and pieces of things.”

While Hardy departed for culinary training through Le Cordon Bleu, his brothers went on to graduate from Big Ten schools, and one became a Target vice president. He highlights his family’s achievements alongside his own to preempt an oversimplified view of the place that first laid the foundation for his successes. “I think the percentage of what we hear about neighborhoods—whether in Chicago or the north side of Minneapolis—we're telling one side of the story,” he says. “But there's so many positive things going on in north Minneapolis, and there's so many people coming out of there doing great things… that we could tell more of those stories and change the narrative.”

Hardy started demolishing easy narratives in the food he serves. With Ophelia, the chef became known for taking his grandma’s Southern standards as a backbone, folding in foraged Minnesota treasures, then elevating their presentation as befit his Michelin background. Each creation existed unto itself—non-pareil, and personally so.

Though the dedication Hardy feels toward each guest’s plate and experience is unquestionable, it’s plain that the future of kitchens as an institution can't be about food alone. He cites interest in developing mentorship programs, and the need for conversations around mental health and fiscal management skills for the rising generation of chefs, so they’re better positioned to navigate the career's challenges. In the last year alone, Hardy also contributed to Twin Cities first Queer Soup Night, and worked with local organizations like Roots for the Home Team, which immerses kids in the food chain to grow and prepare salads, which are then sold at Target Field.

“The long of it is, I'm a people person. And if I'm not helping my people then it doesn't really matter what I'm doing.”

Chef Hardy turns carrots into art.

Chef Hardy turns carrots into art. Courtesy Tré Donte' Hardy

Similarly, Hardy recalls grueling occasions where being a Black chef in the majority white environment of fine dining has provoked instances of blatant racism. Beyond “being passed over for opportunities,” he recalls, “being told, ‘If I would have known that you were Black when we hired you we probably wouldn't [have],’ and ‘You're really talented but, you know, people like you don't lead these kind of kitchens.’”

To endure, Hardy recognizes a familiar pattern: “It's been my habit to not want to rock the boat, and just kind of put my head down and do my job, knowing that I had to work twice as hard to get to where I wanted to be… and did work twice as hard and sometimes it still wasn't enough.” 

But he’s passionate about ensuring this isn’t the case for future chefs. It helps that Levy Restaurants Group, which operates the Lexus Courtside Club, has proven a great fit. "Working for a company that invested in me as a manager and invested in me as a person, it allows me to make decisions for the company," says the chef. "It's a great place to be in where I can actually see and affect change, and have a team around me that I believe in…. So I think that that's an important thing that we can take away, as far as restaurants, from everything that's going on in the country right now as it relates to race, and inequality.”

What does that look like, practically? Hardy’s proud that hiring decisions are made as a group. Together they interrogate potential biases brought to the table, ensuring conversations actively address candidate experience. “I mean, the last two people that I hired, they’re blind and they cook in kitchens. And they do a great job,” says Hardy. “My point is: Are we checking our bias and, you know, a lot of times we've missed out on great candidates when we don't do that.”

But as Hardy is telling me of the work he’d been doing, pre-COVID—while he now sits on that tranquil porch, a world away from those fiery kitchens he knows and loves, filled with a staff he’s finally gotten a hand at cultivating—all this downtime had begun to pile up.

Adult words from his youth came flooding back: “'Idle hands is the Devil’s workshop,' is what my grandmother always used to say to me, so….” Readers without season tickets to the Wolves can find Hardy teaming up with chef Steph Hedrick of the Minneapolis Woman’s Club and Scott Pampuch, formerly of 4 Bells, on July 26. For one night only, the trio will host a coursed dinner of smoked Driftless trout, entrees, and sweets just outside of town at Iron Shoe Farm

Perhaps a seat at Hardy’s socially distanced, ethically sourced table is within reach, beyond the arena’s VIP gate?