Alexander Smalls raises awareness of the diversity of African cuisines
Alexander Smalls has long been a proponent of raising the voice of black people. At first he did it literally, as an opera singer. He was very successful, having won a Grammy and a Tony for his performance in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, but he said he still reached a glass ceiling beyond which a black opera singer was not going to progress.
To truly succeed, he said, “I had to not only own a seat at the table; I had to own the table.
He couldn’t own an opera, but he could own a restaurant. And that’s exactly what he did with the early 1990s opening of Café Beulah in what was then New York’s booming Park Avenue South neighborhood, just north of Union Square, which was being revitalized by restaurateur Danny Meyer, chef Douglas Rodriguez and others.
Cafe Beulah was something the town probably hadn’t seen before, which was fine African American cuisine.
As an opera singer, Smalls had traveled the world. “I recognized that the African-American culinary conversation was not part of the [broader culinary] talk,” he said. “People didn’t think of our food as cooking. It was “food for the soul”. It was “heart attack food”. It was abandoned food. It was sneaky food, but it was not respected.
So he took the traditional recipes of his mother and grandmothers, added his own style and, as he had seen chefs from other cuisines do, “redressed, re-veneered, set in a classic landscape with lots of beautiful porcelain and flowers”. and things like that, which basically conveyed a sense of an organized museum,” he said.
He ended up opening three restaurants like this before taking a break from the restaurant business. He traveled the world and learned that enslaved Africans in South America and Asia also had profound influences on the cuisines there, which led to the opening in Harlem of The Cecil, an Afro-Asian concept which he left in 2017.
His latest project takes this culinary conversation further. Alkebulan is an old name for Africa, as well as the name of a food hall in Dubai organized by Smalls, with 11 restaurants which opened in October 2021, originally as a temporary project as part of Expo 2020 Dubai. But now it’s there permanently, and plans are underway for new releases for London and New York.
London’s Alkebulan will focus on countries colonized by the British Empire. The one in New York will highlight the influence of the slave trade on American cuisine, from Gullah Geechee and Low Country cuisines to the culinary heritage of Louisiana to the many iterations of the barbecue. Of course, the African continent will also be on display, with dishes ranging from South African braai – this country’s approach to outdoor grilling – to East African seafood and goat, to rich stews and jollof rice from West Africa.
The sites for those food halls have yet to be located, but Smalls expects the New York one to be in Harlem, where he has lived since 1998.
“Harlem is mecca for me as far as the African Diaspora is concerned,” Smalls said. “It’s the community that nurtures and inspires me. To be able to bring something like Alkebulan to this community – nothing excites me more than that.
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