Few chefs have the level of international influence and culinary creativity of Alexander Smalls. He's an award-winning chef, having earned recognition as Esquire's Best New Restaurant in America in 2014 for The Cecil. Smalls specializes in delicious cuisine inspired by the African Diaspora. Here's how he rose to fame and continues to beat out his competition.
An Operatic Past
The Alexander Smalls we know today isn't how he began his career. When he was young, Smalls was an accomplished opera singer. After graduating from college in 1974 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in opera, he set out to study music at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He mastered his craft and has the awards to show for it: he earned both Grammy and Tony awards for starring in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in 1977. Then, he set out to continue studying music in Europe, where he also developed an interest in culinary arts.
From Baritone To Executive Chef
After returning to the US from his music and culinary studies abroad, Smalls made a shift in his career ambitions. The accomplished baritone opened a catering business called Small Miracle. This was just the beginning. Over a decade later, he would open his very first restaurant in New York City called Cafe Beulah.
As executive chef, he developed an impressive menu that drew upon international, Gullah, and Southern Revival flavors. It didn't take long before he became a full-fledged restaurateur.
The Birth of a Restaurateur
Two years after opening Cafe Beulah, Smalls opened his second restaurant, Sweet Ophelia's, followed by the Shoebox Cafe, located in Grand Central Terminal in New York City. These restaurants eventually closed and Smalls shifted priorities, opening another catering business following the tragedy of 9/11.
Smalls' new catering business, Smalls & Co., was an instant success. It was a hit among notable Black celebrities and breathed new life into Smalls' culinary ambitions. After several years, he reached a deal to open two new restaurants in Harlem. His flagship restaurants, The Cecil and Minton's, further propelled him into the spotlight.
The Cecil was the first NYC restaurant to serve Afro-Asian-American food. It achieved extreme success, leading to recognition by Esquire Magazine. Minton's, located next door to The Cecil, is much more than your average restaurant. Featuring low country cuisine, a staple from Alexander Smalls' childhood, this restaurant also features a jazz club atmosphere. It's a great place to enjoy a quality meal with the benefit of sophisticated entertainment.
A Culinary Genius
Smalls didn't stop at catering, casual restaurants, and jazz clubs. His extreme success made way for even more creativity. In 2018, he published his cookbook, cleverly titled Between Harlem and Heaven, which gives readers the opportunity to learn his Afro-Asian-American style of cooking. The popular cookbook went on to win the James Beard Award in 2019.
With all of these accolades, Smalls could have retired comfortably long ago. But his hunger for success is what makes him a culinary genius. He's still building his legacy, and now he's set his sights (and tastes) on Dubai!
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Smalls opened a brand new concept in Dubai called Alkebulan in January 2022. This dining hall gives guests the opportunity to experience cuisine from different regions in Africa. Smalls accomplished this by partnering with several other chefs to provide culinary choices from several different restaurants, all under the same roof:
- Afro Street by Chef Coco
- Bar Cane by Chef Coco
- Chicken Coop by Alexander Smalls
- Choma BBQ by Chef Coco
- Jiko Cocktails by Tribe
- Penja Innovative African Cuisine
- Seven Seafood by Kiran Jethwa
- Shoebox Bakery by Mame Sow
- Sweet Ophelia's by Alexander Smalls
- Tasty Goat by Kiran Jethwa
These restaurant concepts allow guests to eat foods inspired by modern African street food, as well as cuisine from Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco, and other countries on the African continent.
While it's the world's first African food hall, Smalls doesn't plan for the Dubai location of Alkebulan to be the last. Next, this delicious eatery heads to New York City and London, among other cities across the globe.
Alexander Smalls has had amazing careers in both opera and the world of culinary arts. He's managed to leave his mark on the world in a way many people can only dream of. We're watching history in the making—his international legacy is sure to outlive him, and it's only fitting to feature him during Black History Month!
To learn more about Smalls' upcoming restaurants and books, check out his website.
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