Meet Alexander Smalls, the James Beard award-winning Harlem chef, restaurateur and author. He is known for setting up Café Beulah in New York City (it introduced the soul food he grew up on for the palates of fine-dining clientele), Sweet Ophelia’s, Shoebox Café, and the award-winning The Cecil, NYC's first Afro-Asian-American restaurant. Smalls has been in the news lately because of his new venture - the African food hall Alkebulan - which has been set up in Dubai and London, with another one coming up soon in the US. Each Alkebulan food hall will highlight the food and cultures of Africa, as well as its influence in the cities the halls are in. Alkebulan was once the name of the African continent it translates to “mother of mankind”. In Dubai, the hall has 11 stands run by African chefs and restaurateurs, with West African street food, barbecue, dishes inspired by Zanzibar and East African seafood.
Smalls is also a celebrated opera singer and has won a Grammy Award and a Tony. Here he talks about Africa's culinary influences in multiple continents, about following the slave routes, and the course of Africans on five continents, and how their cooking techniques and ingredients changed food, and about the need for more diversity and representation in the F&B sector.
The idea behind Alkebulan...
As founder of Alkebulan I like to say I “gave birth to the idea of Alkebulan” many years before we realized it in full at Expo 2020 Dubai. It was a project I had been working on for many years and it grew out of the need to understand the heritage and history of my African American Kitchen where the food of my ancestral trust came from which lead me on an odyssey of travel throughout African and Asia, culminating in following the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade which became this journey around the world on five continents.
I will spare you some of the rumblings of the adventure but there is much to say for being in the right place at the right time, as when the moment presented itself Simon Wright of TGP shared the deck of my dream dining hall which was received with an earnest excited yes by the powers that be in Dubai and here we are. I am overwhelmed with gratitude to the people of Dubai who brought me and my big idea to life!
On his childhood in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and how his travels as a baritone opera singer influenced his work as a chef...
My early life in South Carolina was filled with strong role models and heroes. Some of the many were my uncle Joseph, a chef who bought me my first piano and aunt Laura, his wife, a classical pianist. They moved from Harlem when I was born to help mentor and guide my education and cultivation.
I finally decided that whatever I was going to do professionally, I had to not only own a seat at the table, I needed to own the table. And that propelled me to open my first restaurant in 1994. I look back at how the music and the food created every container for all of my experiences in life and continue to. Essentially I opened my first restaurant to take my kitchen public, to feed, and serve, and nurture the world. It is a theme that I feel resonates with me personally, but I also feel particularly with the African-American community. The two [music and food] were so accessible. I mean, you could make up a tune and clap your hands and slap your hip and hum your way to glory if you needed to. And if you had something good to eat on that journey, it made it even better.
The idea behind his first restaurant, Café Beulah, which featured South Carolina Lowcountry fare...
When we opened Cafe Beulah in the '90s, I wanted to see the food of my people be presented on fine china and be part of the contemporary conversation.
The travels around Africa and how these journeys helped him explore his roots and understand the regional vernacular of food...
Our research over the years and knowledge gained from my extensive travels across the continent have given me a holistic understanding of the contribution of the people to the culinary world, and what he wants to share with the world through Alkebulan. There’s no other people that have inspired or contributed to the history of multiple continents like Africans. The African diaspora is the foundation of many of our culinary experiences.
The urgent need for diversity in the food business...
Cooking is a language and artistic expression.It comes with creativity, a lack of creativity sparks no imagination and this reads through food. Through my travels, I found people in the field who were innovative. I grabbed a handful of the people that I thought could help express the vision of Alkebulan. So, there are numerous African chefs spearheading their own concepts at Alkebulan, which includes Chef Kiran Jethwa of Seven Seafood; multi-award-winning Chef Coco Reinarhz the mastermind behind Choma BBQ; Chef Moos Akougbe the French Ivory pastry chef extraordinaire; vegan chef Glory Kabe; famous Cameroonian Chef Pierre Siewe; Chef Mame Sowe of sweet treats Shoebox Bakery.
What goes into conceptualising ideas behind his award-wining cookbooks...
In my first cookbook Grace the Table, I was introducing myself, and I was doing so in the arms of my ancestors and the growing-up experience. Take the lamb meat loaf recipe: My mother used to say, “Hide half the kitchen—that boy puts every ingredient in everything he makes,”but that was my process. In Between Harlem and Heaven, I was defining a culinary concept that I had created based on an expanded narrative of Lowcountry cooking that I call “Southern Revival” cooking. I follow the slave routes, and the course of Africans on five continents, and how their cooking techniques and ingredients changed food. With Meals, Music, and Muses, I’m at the point where I can break the rules. This book allows music to curate the culinary experience. None of the recipes in this book are heirlooms—this is not your mama’s kitchen. I’m older, I have a view, and now I’m presenting that to you.
How an involvement in music influences his work as a chef...
Music is energy, life, love. It stimulates my imagination and feeds my spirit, excites the task as well as the sheer pleasure I get from preparing, cooking, and entertaining in my home, especially for friends and family. I couldn't live, breathe, or eat without music.
His daily routine when he is at home...
I get up at 5 no matter what day it is. I don’t know why I do. It’s bizarre. But I have my ritual: The first thing I do is make a nice pot of Earl Grey tea. Followed by a morning of writing. Writing for me is meditation. I do a lot of fantastic riffs. Sometimes it’s motivational, sometimes it’s just the ramblings of a creative old man who has something to say. I then head out and go food shopping, making a number of stops along the way to purchase different ingredients such as smoked fish, okra and herbs and spices. I like to really take my time and enjoy my cooking now.
In Washington Heights is Moscow on the Hudson. I buy my Russian ravioli there, and they have smoked chicken that’s double-smoked. They bring in from Chicago my favorite hot dog. I’m a hot dog freak. It’s a jumbo veal hot dog. I live for my Chicago hot dogs.
A recipe that reflects the kind of food he likes to serve in his restaurants...
This blended rice dish is currently one of my all-time favorites, it serves as a signature plate in Sweet Ophelia's at Alkebulan - Worlds First African Dining Hall. A combination of black rice and scented white Jasmine grains meets bold flavors of oxtail, chillis, beans, collard greens, and scents of curry.
3 cups cooked black and white rice
4 heads of collard greens
2 cups of bean sprouts
6 scallions chopped
4 bird’s eye chillies sliced, some set aside for garnish
1 clove garlic minced
1 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
½ teaspoon salt
3½ tablespoons soy sauce
½ teaspoon rice vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sesame oil
4 eggs – 2 soft-boiled to garnish
Smoked paprika, to taste
1 bunch coriander
1. Rub oxtails with salt and five-spice powder.
2. Cover and bake at 200C for 3 hours until the meat falls off the bone, and then cool, shred and set aside.
3. Mix eggs with ½ tablespoon of soy sauce and rice vinegar, then add to the frying pan with 1 tablespoon oil. Cook through. Shred and set aside.
4. Add the remaining olive oil and scallions and chilli to the frying pan. Saute for 2 minutes.
5. Add garlic and sauté for 30 seconds.6. Add the rest of the vegetables and sauté for 5 minutes.
6. Add the rest of the vegetables and sauté for 5 minutes.
7. Add shredded meat, rice and sesame oil and 3 tablespoons soy sauce, and then sauté until the rice gets a little crispy.
8. Serve garnished with freshly chopped coriander.