The phone call that came a few months into the pandemic set a celebrated opera singer turned chef on a different course. His mission of changing perceptions about food from the African continent would move from Harlem to Dubai.
“It is the biggest project of my life and in many ways the most important with respect to its reach, advocacy and what I’m hoping it is going to do for the food of the African Diaspora,” says Alexander Smalls, chef and curator of Alkebulan.
Alkebulan Born in Dubai
The award-winning author and restaurant creator saw his jam-packed schedule shelved when COVID put the world on pause in 2020. It struck about two weeks after the release of his latest book, “Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from my Africa America Kitchen.” Smalls describes how the pandemic disrupted his active life.
“My book tour was canceled. I started a concept called Bold Palates. I created these wonderful, intimate soirees with guest chefs from all over the African diaspora in my apartment in New York. The tools that I use are all about setting the table, engaging people, cooking and conversation. It’s really about being as social as we could be.”
The New York restaurateur planned to open a food hall in Harlem before the 2020 pandemic put all his projects on hold. When TGP International, a global hospitality agency, asked him to curate an African dining hall at Expo 2020 Dubai, Smalls leaped at the chance to showcase his vision in Dubai.
He shifted his Harlem concept to a broader focus on modern African cuisine and its influences. “I would do a foundation of Africa, but most of it would extend to North America, the Caribbean, South America and the footprint on the other side of the Atlantic,” he says.
Knowing he would be sheltered in his New York apartment for months, Smalls wondered how work on the Dubai project would be completed. “Thank goodness for Zoom. We were zoom, zooming all day, every day. We put this thing together, literally, in less than a year and a half on Zoom,” says the James Beard awardee.
Smalls researched African chefs who could help him curate the concepts and menus for the first-of-its-kind dining hall. The name for it, Alkebulan, the oldest name for Africa, means “Mother of Mankind” or “Garden of Eden,” according to WeAfrique, an online news source.
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“What is so beautiful about the name and birth of this at Expo Dubai is it speaks to the relationship of Africa and the Middle East. It speaks to the continuing commitment, dedication and support of Africa that Dubai has shown,” Smalls says.
The pandemic postponed the start of the world expo for one year. Alkebulan made its debut when Expo 2020 opened on October 1, 2021. “Expo consists of national pavilions from all over the world. In fact, it is the first time so many countries from all over the world have participated in Expo. Every African country is represented for the first time,” Alkebulan’s curator says.
African Dining Hall Vision
The first world expo held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia region carries on the 170-year tradition of introducing international visitors to technological innovations, global initiatives, cultural achievements and culinary experiences.
Smalls created the Alkebulan Dining Hall concept through collaboration with four core chefs, Coco Reinarhz, Glory Kabe, Pierre Siewe and Moos Akougbe. “What I wanted to do was represent in one small space as much as the African conversation as I could through a contemporary modern lens. So, I identified chefs I felt were really telling that story in the different regions of Africa.”
Visitors to Alkebulan have ten food counters to explore, including two bars. The two floors of the African dining hall include:
- Chef Coco Reinarhz’s Afro Street Eatery – West African street food delivering rich flavors with dishes such as Ugandan-style miniature chapatti wrap filled with beef or vegetable curry
- Chef Reinarhz’s Bar Cane – Sweet cravings and dessert cocktails, including what might be the world’s finest doughnuts
- Chef Alexander Smalls’ Chicken Coop – Celebrations of the humble chicken in rotisserie or fried offerings
- Chef Reinarhz’s Choma BBQ – Roasted, grilled and smoked meats, including Zanzibari spiced rice and lamb and Kenyan style beef skewers
- Tribe Hotel Kenya’s – Stirred, muddled and strained cocktails created by Kelvin Thaiya and incorporating the flavors and spirits of Africa
- Chefs Pierre Siewe, Glory Kabe and Moos Gane’s Penja – Innovative, world-class African cuisine featuring dishes such as farm cockerel breaded with mustard and tapioca
- Chef Iran Jethwa’s Seven Seafood – Contemporary look at East African seafood using ingredients, flavors and combinations from the region
- Chef Mame Sow’s Shoebox Bakery – Ultimate pan-African bakery experience offering both sweet and savory items, including Ethiopian injera flatbread
- Chef Smalls’ Sweet Ophelia’s – Afro-Asian wok bar that serves tasty rice, noodle and dumpling dishes, including West African Cameroonian pepper fish
- Chef Jethwa’s The Tasty Goat – Nose-to-tail dining of this versatile meat, combined with the tastes, textures and ﬂavors of modern East African cuisine
“Then I have my pop-up chefs like Omar Tate, Carla Hall, Pierre Thiam and Kwami Onwuachi,” says Smalls. “I have them all coming in at various times until the end of March. And then I have African chefs coming in from the Ivory Coast, South Africa and Paris.”
Dubai’s Expo 2020 will welcome guests through March 31 of this year. Chief experience officer Marjan Faraidooni emphasized the significance of the expo in an August 2021 news release. “Food brings people and communities together—at a time when we need it most. In the spirit of Expo 2020’s theme, Connecting Minds, Creating the Future, we have invited countries from around the world to showcase their national dishes, giving visitors the chance to taste traditional and specialised food from around the globe in a safe environment.”
Alkebulan’s curator also stresses that the world’s first African dining hall offers guests opportunities to appreciate Africa’s music, art, fashion, history and tradition. “What we’re also doing is showing people where things started and where they went. It’s how that connection with Africa on five continents has influenced the culinary expressions that are global,” Smalls says.
Passion for a Mission
The South Carolina native’s passion for excellence in Black food and music grew out of a childhood immersed in culinary creativity and professional pursuits that made him a world traveler.
“My whole life centered around music and food. Those have been the tools that I have used and the language of who I am,” says Smalls. “I grew up in Spartanburg, which is about three and a half hours from Charleston and Beaufort, but we had a Low Country household, meaning that we ate the food of Charleston and Beaufort.”
The Geechee food traditions Alkebulan’s creator learned growing up in South Carolina came from a family of chefs, including a grandfather, a great uncle, and an aunt who worked in New York and later Philadelphia. Another uncle also was a professional New York cook married to a classical pianist.
Before pursuing his interests as a restaurateur, Smalls sampled the cuisines of European countries where he performed in operas. He recognized the racism and exclusion that kept food prepared by Blacks in Africa and America out of the world’s culinary conversations beginning with the slave trade and the oppression that followed. “I can’t say enough about how much damage was done and how much has been lost because of those experiences. I can also say because of this, a race of exceptional, extraordinary people with strength, courage and perseverance emerged,” Smalls says.
The chef began to change the narrative by launching his first restaurant, Café Beulah, in the 1990s. He presented contemporary, upscale African American cuisine on fine china. “No one really regarded our food as cuisine. It was soul food, heart attack food or feel-good food. We all know that this is about institutional racism if we understand how this has all been by design,” Smalls says.
The acclaimed restaurateur went on to open The Shoebox Café and Sweet Ophelia’s in New York City before embarking on a journey of discovery. “I was seeking to tell a bigger story about who we were through our food. I knew our foodways didn’t start in Charleston and Beauford. I really wanted to connect with where this all starts. It took me on an odyssey of discovery, following the transatlantic slave trade, but also the slave trade of the Eastern seas by looking at how China had played a factor.”
Smalls took a young chef he was mentoring to Ghana to learn more about the links between African American cooking and foods from the African Diaspora. That led to their collaboration on the Afro-Asian cuisine at The Cecil, the fine-dining restaurant Smalls opened in Harlem.
In 2014, Esquire named The Cecil “Best New Restaurant in America.” Next came their cookbook written with Veronica Chambers, “Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day.” It won the 2019 James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook.
Even with those accomplishments, Smalls still had more to do. He needed a larger platform to share his passion for educating people about food from the African Diaspora and elevating respect for the creative contributions of Black chefs past and present.
The idea of a food hall dedicated to menus inspired by the cooking of African Americans and Africans. “I had consciously put it together five years ago. I created the depth, full understanding and language of what it was along with all of the recipes and menus.”
The Alkebulan dining hall in Dubai revived the mission Smalls planned to advance before the pandemic stalled the Harlem project. “This is my mission because I can’t change history. I can only use it to fuel what I have to accomplish and what I feel is my passion. That is, to lead the charge or at least be a part of the charge of bringing who we are through our culinary excellence to the foreground.”
New Creative Conquests
Smalls took another step toward accomplishing his goals with a new award-winning cookbook. Esquire named “Meals, Music and Muses” one of the best cookbooks of 2020. It marries the food and the music he loves. “My two disciplines are food and music, and it allows me to bring all that together in celebration of the African American kitchen and music,” he says.
The Spotify playlist Smalls created uses a different genre of music in each chapter. The selections reflect the spirit of Southern recipes and twists on tradition, such as Hoppin’ John Cakes with Sweet Pepper Remoulade and Carolina Bourbon Barbecue Shrimp and Okra Skewers.
As if that were not enough on his plate, Smalls spent three extended stays in Dubai and still managed to appear with chef Eric Adjepong as a judge on the “Great Soul Food Cook-Off.” The show produced by The Oprah Winfrey Network and Good Egg Entertainment aired on Discovery Plus. Food & Wine Magazine also featured him in a cover story about dinner parties at his Harlem home.
Later in 2022, the Grammy and Tony-award-winning opera singer plans to release a new album. “It’s a celebration of what I consider endangered Black music. I’ve taken some spirituals and re-engaged them in a more secular way. I’ve chosen kind of a jazz musical discipline to express them.”
Smalls wants listeners to understand the slaves made up spirituals, not for religious purposes but to communicate news through hidden meanings and messages while preserving African culture. “This is just how brilliant they were. They took Bible verses and religious songs and put them into African melodies. As long as they were singing about Jesus and hallelujah, they could still beat the drums and have their rituals.”
Alkeluban Going Global
This year will ring in other moments of pride as Smalls prepares to share his African dining hall concept with other cities around the globe. The Akebulan in Dubai will continue to operate after Expo 2020 closes and is replaced by a permanent community, District 2020.
Plans are underway to open food halls with the same name in New York and London. In a January news release, TGP International Founder and Chairman Simon Wright expressed the company’s motivation for expanding the African food hall concept created by Smalls. “With the concept performing so well in Dubai, it is evident that Alkebulan offers an incredible investment opportunity with unsurpassed potential. We see London and New York as the perfect markets to expand, putting Alkebulan on the map as a globally renowned destination for African cuisine.”
The more cost-efficient food hall model continues to gain popularity in a pandemic-impacted world. Smalls is thrilled about the support talented entrepreneurs will receive through the expansion of Alkebulan and the focus on modern cuisine influenced by Africa.
So when it comes down to it, the praise from food critics and accolades from book reviewers are not what drive Smalls to continue investing so much in his mission. It is his love of caring for his tribe and letting the world in on the joy served up by generations of Blacks in kitchens.
“Our food is a currency. When we didn’t own ourselves, we owned that dish. We owned the way we made people feel about the humble things we could do in a pot. It’s a humbling, religious experience, really. It’s heaven for me.”