When we spoke one early afternoon, Alexander Smalls had been up since five that morning. A self-described “tea freak”, having already had five cups of Early Grey and non-caffeinated chai, he had switched to iced tea in time for our interview. This was no rare occurrence.
Smalls, an award-winning opera singer, restaurateur, and cookbook author, holds his routine dear. He laughs, explaining, “I’m a creature of habit. I find the mornings belong to me. There’s a clarity and stillness. It’s when I really do my writing. When I exercise thoughts, concepts, ideas and get in touch with my inner emotional balance.”
Taking the time to center himself and develop his ideas has been critical to his storied success. “I’ve always been a creative thrust of passion and self-indulgence,” Smalls says. “[It has been] an interesting combination for my career.”
He hasn’t shied away from these traits, but simply found outlets for them. Despite being born in the segregated South, Alexander Smalls pursued his aspirations of becoming an opera singer. As a Black man living in 1990s New York City, he aimed to own an upscale restaurant serving Black cuisine. These feats were largely unimaginable at the time, but Smalls dared to dream anyway—and he was successful.
“My mother said something very interesting about me,” Smalls reflects. “She said, ‘I worry about that boy, because he doesn’t have sense enough to know what he doesn’t know.’ [Her words have] stuck with me because I’ve been very fortunate to live a life of passion and dreaming. I’ve never done any of things that I’ve done before. I just did them.”
Unfortunately, other people often try to stamp out one’s refusal to color inside the lines—simply because it confuses or threatens them. Smalls has never limited his ambitions in response to naysayers and societal expectations.
“I work very hard not to be categorized or put in boxes,” he says. “My job is just to be who I am. If you are uncomfortable, you have to examine what is uncomfortable for you. Maybe it’s a wakeup call to examine the boxes you’re putting yourself in.”
Alexander Smalls and An Atypical Southern Childhood
From a young age, Smalls rocked the boat. He was born in 1952 and raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where there were very clear standards of behavior.
“I was always engaged in grown folks’ conversation, which is a no no when you grow up in the South in a Black family,” Smalls remembers. “Everyone made exceptions for me. I would have opinions. The only time I would know I went too far is when I would get that eye from my mother, and I would crawl out of the room.”
Smalls grew up surrounded by extended family. His grandfather was a furniture repairman and city farmer who moved the family from Charleston to Spartanburg. Although the elder man neither read nor write, he was a treasure trove of wisdom for young Smalls.
“My grandfather was my rock. I would work with him in the vegetable garden, [doing everything] from plowing to seeding,” Alexander Smalls recalls. “The garden was his church, his safe haven. That’s where he abided with the ancestors. That’s where he told me about his parents, who were slaves, and about growing up in a whole different South than I did. We would have reverence together with the spirits, with the harvest.”
Food was a family affair, and Smalls fell in love with it at a young age. While his grandfather grew foodstuff, Smalls’ father was in the grocery business, and his paternal aunt and uncle both worked as chefs in the North.
“I was always interested in the people who wielded the power,” Smalls shares. “I learned at an early age that the person who cooked ruled the roost. If you did the cooking, you had the power. And I wanted to be that person.”
His other love, music, also blossomed within the family home. His aunt began teaching him piano when he was just seven years old. He would also watch The Ed Sullivan Show, which hosted performances from legends such as Mahalia Jackson and Leontyne Price.
“It was one of the few shows that featured Black entertainers [at the time],” Smalls says. “I was fascinated with classical music. The music and the food became the lenses by which I understood life and the world, and how I demonstrated my talents.”
Reflecting on his childhood, Smalls acknowledges his unique upbringing.
“The greatest gift my parents gave me was that they didn’t say no,” Smalls says. “Imagine these poor Black parents who are grooming the next generation to be doctors and lawyers. But an opera singer? They didn’t know what to do with that. And I didn’t have sense enough to know that I was creating something where I wasn’t supposed to be.”
“Imagine a little Black boy in a one-horse town riding around singing classical music in German and French, playing classical piano,” he continues. “I’d also fallen in love with Shakespeare at a very early age, so I would learn sonnets and recite them. Everyone thought I’d lost my mind. [We live in] a society that so desperately needs to put you in a box, locate you somewhere. All of these things were okay for white people to do, but Black folks weren’t supposed to dream of any of this. I became everything my parents wanted me to be, and it frightened them to death.”
Alexander Smalls Pursues His Musical Dreams
As one of the first Black students to integrate the local white high school, Smalls began breaking entrenched barriers at an early age.
He recalls the toll this took on his parents. “My father came to me one day and told me, ‘You know every time you leave here and stay out with your white friends, your mother doesn’t sleep. She grew up in a generation where Black folks disappeared. They just disappeared in white environments. Your mother and I just don’t trust that a young Black boy like you will come home.’”
Despite these justified fears, Smalls took the school by storm. By then he was an accomplished soloist and local white organizations would invite him to sing at their events.
“They had never seen anything like it,” Smalls says. “It was like a circus. They would ask me, ‘How did you learn all those words? Who taught you? How did you know you could be this?’ Forget the fact that it sounded good, oh my goodness, wonderful singer. They were like, how did that Negro learn how to do this?”
But Smalls remained unfazed, determined to pursue his childhood dream of becoming an opera singer. After high school, he attended the University of North Carolina School of Performing Arts, “an extraordinary mecca of alternative education for artists, talented musicians, and creatives.”
His tenure there was a transformative one. “It allowed me to transition from the restraint of a formal, curated, traditional awareness,” Smalls says. “It gave me permission to be the creative thinker that I was, [that I had been] hiding under conformity.”
After graduate studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in 1977, he was selected by the Houston Grand Opera to participate in the first full length production of the opera Porgy and Bess. This experience launched his professional career and earned him both a Grammy Award and Tony Award. He toured the United States and Europe, where he ultimately stayed for several years. He lived in London, Rome, and Paris, and befriended fellow creatives such as James Baldwin and Nina Simone.
“I write about them in my first book, Grace the Table: Stories & Recipes from My Southern Revival,” Smalls shares. “This is when Paris was a renaissance for Black talent and jazz and fashion. It was like the golden era. Those experiences gave me permission to see myself beyond music, as a host, a presenter, a culinary enthusiast, and later a chef. I attended classes at a cooking school there and studied to expand that part of who I was. I continued with my classical studies and performing, but at the same time I started to really delve into the culinary treasures of what I loved.”
In the 1980s, Smalls was living in Paris and working with Columbia Artists Management Inc., commonly known as CAMI; the now defunct agency was internationally renowned for its roster of classical music talents. His friend, Kathleen Battle, arranged an audition for him at the Metropolitan Opera House at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.
At the time, Smalls was ecstatic. “I felt that this was going to finally change the trajectory of my career and propel me into that dream of being a full-time opera professional performing artist,” he says.
He flew to New York City and headed to the audition.
As Smalls recalls, “The last aria they requested [I sing] was actually a Negro spiritual, which was kind of confusing after I had just sung Italian and French arias. But okay I’m Black, we’ve worked hard to raise spirituals to the level of concert music. You want to see versatility? Here you go.”
Once he finished, the opera house representatives praised his performance. They then offered him a small chorus part in an upcoming Porgy and Bess production. Smalls was taken aback.
“Now, I have a Grammy and Tony for a leading role,” he explains. “Do you think I’m interested in small parts in chorus? What started off as being a highlight and an exciting moment quickly went flat.”
Smalls told the representatives that he was not interested in the part, which horrified his agent.
“I left the stage,” Smalls remembers. “[My agent] runs after me and says, ‘How could you do that? This way, even if you get through the back door…’ I said, let me be clear. The back door doesn’t offend me, but not recognizing my value is offensive. I can walk in back doors, side doors, I can fly in through the roof. But I cannot be somewhere disrespected, and my value not realized. I went home that night and drank the whole bottle of red wine I had smuggled from my Paris apartment. I [had] hit the glass ceiling in opera for the third time. When it did not break, it broke my desire to continue.”
Alexander Smalls, Restaurateur
After giving himself a few hours to mourn, Smalls moved on to the next chapter of his career.
“The next morning, I woke up with a plan to open my own restaurant,” he says. “I had decided that not only did I need to own the chair, but I needed to own the damn table. I couldn’t own an opera house. I wasn’t prepared to dedicate my life to that. But I could own my own restaurant. It was my great love, and sometimes more so than singing. Eighteen months later, I was building my first restaurant.”
Smalls understood the importance of owning the eateries that served Black food, as opposed to merely being the face of a white owned venture. However, as he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last year, ownership is no easy feat.
All too often, lack of capital serves as an insurmountable hurdle for aspiring Black restaurateurs. Alexander Smalls faced this same obstacle upon deciding to open a restaurant, having struggled to obtain business loans from banks.
Instead, the funding for his first eatery came from more personal sources: friends such as Toni Morrison, Phylicia Rashad, and the Harlem icon, business owner and activist Percy Sutton. This restaurant became Café Beulah, “the first white tablecloth fine dining African American Kitchen concept in the city.” It opened its doors in New York City in 1994.
“People were amazed,” Smalls reminisces. “Amazed that it existed. No one had put fine dining near our culinary offerings. The establishment would have you believe fine dining is only French or Italian, but never African or African-American. But having traveled the world, having eaten at all kinds of restaurants and friends’ kitchens, and the finest foods, what I understood was that fine dining was about elevating mama’s cooking into a modern, contemporary setting and curating it. And I got that.”
It would be the first of several restaurants Smalls would own in the city. A few years later, he opened Sweet Ophelia’s and The Shoebox Café. All three of his restaurants served Southern Revival Cooking, which was based on the Lowcountry cuisine Smalls enjoyed as a child.
“I sat out to change the narrative,” he asserts. “That’s when I also became a culinary activist. Someone waving the banner and promoting not only our culinary [traditions], but also our chefs. Helping give them permission to create our food as fine dining, as an elevated culinary offering. Since my first restaurant, and I’ve had five, that has been my mantra and my creed and my revolution.”
A New Mantra: Afro-Asian-American Cuisine
After closing his restaurants, Alexander Smalls took a hiatus from the industry.
“I spent ten years traveling all over the world and really studying the footprint of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” he shares. “But more importantly, [studying] the Black people inhabiting five continents and what they brought to the foundational culinary aspects of their food. This allowed me to expand the narrative of who we were as Black folks and to take liberty to create a whole new discipline, which I then called Afro-Asian-American cooking. And so it was mine. It was mine to canvas. It was mine to define.”
A newly inspired Alexander Smalls was ready to get back into the restaurant business. In 2013, he partnered with his longtime friend Rick Parsons, then CEO of Time Warner and chairman of Citigroup. They decided to open two eateries in Harlem: The Cecil and Minton’s.
While the latter’s menu was largely influenced by the Southern Revival cuisine served at Café Beulah, The Cecil would showcase the Afro-Asian-American cooking Smalls had encountered throughout the African Diaspora.
Smalls and The Cecil’s chef de cuisine, JJ Johnson, traveled to Africa together. Smalls thought the culinary tour was critical. It provided Johnson with a clear understanding of what Smalls was envisioning for the restaurant’s menu. Their hard work paid off. In 2014, The Cecil was named “Best New Restaurant in America” by Esquire.
A deeper discussion of Afro-Asian-American cooking and the recipes served at The Cecil can be found in Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day. Smalls and Johnson cowrote the James Beard Award-winning cookbook with Veronica Chambers in 2017.
“[The praise] validated my intuition and gave me more fuel for this battle I’m in, which is food justice,” Smalls says.
Last year, Alexander Smalls published a third cookbook, Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen. It combines his lifelong loves: music and food. The chapters are organized by musical genre, and his fish and seafood recipes are found in the opera section.
In the book, he explains his reasoning for the pairing. “Porgy and Bess, the opera by George and Ira Gershwin, in its depiction of the fictionalized town of Catfish Row, brought the worlds of African American fishing communities and opera together.”
This is particularly significant to Smalls, as he starred as a young fisherman in the Houston Grand Opera’s Porgy and Bess production. Moreover, his Gullah Geechee roots relate to a reliance on the sea; seafood is an integral part of Lowcountry cuisine.
For someone using the cookbook for the first time, Smalls recommends three dishes: buttermilk cornbread, okra and shrimp skewers, and smothered shrimp and crabmeat gravy. “I always send people to the smothered shrimp and crabmeat gravy,” he says. “That was the dish that my father always cooked for the family. That dish is the essence of southern cooking.”
The book’s focus on southern cooking showcases the astounding diversity within Black American food. The recipes reference soul food as well as creole and Lowcountry cuisines. This is consistent with the legacy Alexander Smalls hopes to leave on the culinary world.
“[I would like to be remembered] as someone who fought to create space and value in the African culinary diaspora,” Smalls said. “As someone who sought to expand the narrative, make it easier for young Black men and women to not only be part of this extraordinary profession, which is our legacy by the way, but also to own. [As someone who sought] to change the conversation.”
He appears to be doing just that. A few months ago, Smalls shared an Instagram post, captioning it, “New York. Dubai. What’s the difference…Another river to cross…Mountain to climb…It’s what we do…What we’re built for.”
On October 1, Smalls opened his new concept, Alkebulan, at Expo 2020 Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The event runs until March 31, 2022 and is an effort to showcase the culture and innovation taking place in 192 countries.
The term Alkebulan is the first written name for the continent known as Africa. It translates to “mother of mankind” or “garden of Eden.” Smalls chose this moniker for his groundbreaking project: the first modern, contemporary African dining food hall. He plans to open Alkebulan locations across the globe, starting with halls in Harlem, New York and London, England.
Smalls is doing what he has done all his life: diving headfirst into a new dream and applying his creativity and innovation to a noble aim. Alexander Smalls is placing Black cuisine on the world stage and giving it the role that it truly deserves.