After 15 years as an opera singer and winning a Grammy and a Tony, Alexander Smalls got turned down for a lead role at the Metropolitan Opera. He’d hit the same glass ceiling that held back many Black opera singers before him. He went home, drank a bottle of wine, and came to a realization: "I couldn't own an opera house, but I could own a restaurant." In the decades since, Alexander has served upscale Southern food in New York, researched the food of the African diaspora in the Americas, Asia, and beyond, and fused cuisines in award-winning cookbooks. His biggest project to date is an African food hall in Dubai, and he plans to open similar food halls around the world. Alexander shares his story with Dan, and also his food, when he cooks up his own spin on shrimp and grits.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Johanna Mayer, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell, with editing help this week from Tanaka Muvavarirwa.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Can You Dig It?” by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- “When You’re Away” by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- “Loud” by Bira
- “Lowtown” by Black Label Productions
- “Private Detective” by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- “Brand New Day” by Jack Ventimiglia
Photos courtesy of Alexander Smalls and Dan Pashman.
Alexander Smalls: You know when I travel, I buy fabric, I buy art, and music. The slip covers are from Ghana, that I brought back from one of my trips. And these are Asian fabrics that I brought back from Macau, China. There’s tons of wine and spirits and various things like that.
Dan Pashman: Some people have one bar where their spirits are collected. I've counted three so far.
Alexander Smalls: In this room.
Alexander Smalls: In the red room is the real bar.
Dan Pashman: Okay. These are the the ancillary bars.
Alexander Smalls: I don't know what I'm doing.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Today, I pay a visit to Alexander Smalls at his home in Harlem. He's a chef, cookbook author, restaurateur, opera singer, and legendary party host. Food & Wine Magazine once wrote that, "If you get an invitation to Alexander Smalls’ apartment, you make whatever schedule adjustments necessary to be able to go." The article went on: “The food is sure to soothe and inspire and his panache for anecdotes induces giggles and hollers the neighbors can hear.”
Dan Pashman: As soon as I walk into Alexander's apartment, I see signs of a creative life well-lived. The rooms are painted in rich oranges and reds, the walls are crowded with giant canvases, shelves piled high with books and artifacts brought back from world travels. And as you heard, there seems to be a bar in every corner. His kitchen has multiple refrigerators covered with photos, like a giant collage. There are pictures of Alexander with people like Lionel Ritchie, Lena Horne, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and LeVar Burton. But as unique as this apartment is, it’s not the first space that Alexander has made his own.
Dan Pashman: What were you like as a child?
Alexander Smalls: [LAUGHS] Busy.
Alexander Smalls: I was very, very busy.
Dan Pashman: Am I right? You said you had your parents turn your room into a studio ...
Alexander Smalls: I did.
Dan Pashman: When you were like five or six.
Alexander Smalls: I was very serious. I decided at a very young age I needed a studio. And I’d seen on Television where studios have couches and pianos and bookcases. And so all of that was put in my bedroom so I could really assume the role.
Dan Pashman: Alexander grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina. But he was close with his aunt and uncle, who lived in Harlem. His uncle was a chef and his aunt was a classical pianist.
Alexander Smalls: I started my first panel lessons with my aunt and started cooking with my uncle. And so, you know at the age of four and five and six, I'm running around, you know, kind of seeing myself as an ... a curator, a creator, an artist, if you will. And, you know, we used to listen to Shakespeare sonnets at night on the Victrola. My aunt would have played them ...
Dan Pashman: Record player.
Alexander Smalls: Record player, yes. And so, I would listen to Shakespeare at Langston Hughes and learn to recite those things. And they introduced me to opera. I mean, if you could imagine a child, you know, in the sixties in South Carolina, Black child, running around, you know, pretending to be an opera singer? That’s how it all started.
Dan Pashman: Right. What kinds of reactions did you get?
Alexander Smalls: Mixed.
Dan Pashman: Alexander says nobody really knew what to do with him — he was one of the only Black kids in his high school, and the only one of any race who was reciting Shakespeare sonnets and singing operettas. And it wasn’t just a phase. Pretty soon, he was winning opera contests.
Dan Pashman: Another creative outlet from early on? Food and cooking. Spartanburg, where Alexander grew up, is inland in South Carolina. But his family came from the coast.
Alexander Smalls: My father and my grandfather, all hailed from Charleston and Buford, South Carolina, and essentially, low country Gullah cooking is extremely distinctive. So the food of the low country, as we call it, was foundational in my home.
Dan Pashman: For folks who aren't familiar with Gullah Geechee cuisine, what would that be?
Alexander Smalls: Well, they are missing it aren’t they?
Dan Pashman: They are, yes.
Alexander Smalls: They need to get out and get familiar.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Alexander Smalls: But it's a lot of seafood. It's a lot of game. It is a lot of stews and the food tends to be spicier. It really is very much an extension of west African cooking. For example, in west Africa, it will have jollof rice and in the Carolinas,in the low country, you will have red rice. So, I grew up in a household of incredible cooks. And when you live in a small town, food is everything. You have to understand with respect to the African-American community, you know, food was currency, it was wealth, it was pride. I mean, they didn't own anything else. They had been kept out of the financial corporate institutions where they could build wealth. They had to create wealth in different ways. And one of the ways they did that was you know, Ms. Millie's famous recipe for fried chicken. Ms. Means made the best pound cake. Oh my, have you had Ms. Mildred's banana pudding? Those were what they could own.
Dan Pashman: In 1970 Alexander left for college, then studied opera at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. From there, his opera career began.
Alexander Smalls: I lived in London. I lived in Paris. I lived in Italy for three years, studied with the great masters.
Dan Pashman: He also performed in the U.S. Here’s Alexander in 1977 singing “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing” from Porgy and Bess, with the Houston Grand Opera.
[CLIP ALEXANDER SMALLS SINGING "A SOMETIME THING"]
Dan Pashman: In between opera gigs, Alexander would come back to New York and cook. He started a catering company he called Small Miracle, but that was a side hustle. Opera was the focus and Alexander worked with the greats.
Dan Pashman: Hung out with Luciano Pavarotti …
Alexander Smalls: Hung out with Luciano and would babysit his kids and would cook with him.
Dan Pashman: What was that like?
Alexander Smalls: It was amazing because, you know, he loved my cultural experience. He used to love to hear me sing "Yesterday". I would sit down at the piano. It was one of my songs. And I would — you know, the Beatles. [SINGS] "Yesterday ...", and he would just love that. And then he would chime in and sing with — so it was a great — it's a great memory. But I mean, it was an incredible time until it wasn't.
Dan Pashman: This was the late ‘70s and top opera companies were not offering lead roles to many Black people. When they did, it was usually in only one show: Porgy & Bess, which follows Black residents living in a tenement. As you heard, Alexander had already been in the Houston Grand Opera production of Porgy & Bess. He had been one of the youngest cast members.
Alexander Smalls: I looked around and I noticed that all this amazing talent, African-American talent, and this was my first production, but many of them had made a whole career out of doing Porgy and Bess. You know, I just said a prayer to myself, "Lord, please. I don't want to be that."
Dan Pashman: As he neared his 40th birthday, Alexander auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, one of the most famous opera companies in the world. By this time he had 15 years of experience under his belt and he'd already won a Tony and a Grammy for the cast recording of that Houston production.
Dan Pashman: The Met offered him a spot in its chorus — meaning, not a leading part. He turned it down. He went home and drank a bottle of wine.
Alexander Smalls: it was my greatest fear realized, the glass ceiling. I couldn't go any further. And the next morning, I started my restaurant.
Alexander Smalls: I decided that I'm just going to open a fine dining African American restaurant in New York. Through my experience with opera or classical music, I understood that it was not important just to have a seat at the table, I had to own the table. I couldn't own an opera house, but I could own a restaurant.
Dan Pashman: Coming up: Alexander builds his table. Then later, he cooks me a lunch for the ages. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Just a quick note that we will not have a new episode for you next week, but if you’re itching for more Sporkful check out last week’s episode. I’m live on stage in Brooklyn, with Chitra Agrawal, the founder of Brooklyn Delhi, and Vanessa Pham, the co-founder of Omsom. Both these companies make packaged foods inspired by Asian flavors. You know, it’s not easy breaking into the grocery business at all. It’s even harder when you’re trying to feature flavors that are still unfamiliar to a lot of Americans. Sometimes you have to think on your feet, like Chitra did when she was at a food industry convention, talking to a buyer from Whole Foods. Chitra mentioned Curry Ketchup, which she made at home sometimes, but which wasn’t actually a real product her company was making yet.
CLIP (CHITRA AGRAWAL): She was like, "That sounds interesting. I'd like to try it." And we were like, "Okay." And we were in California at the time and it was like, I don't have this product. But she was like, "Can you can you send it to me? I'm going back to Austin. Just like, you know, overnight it to us." And we were like, Oh, my God. So we, like, literally went back to this Airbnb we were staying in. We made ketchup. We mixed it with the tomato achaar, sent it to her. And then we got a phone call from her and she was like, "I love it. Everybody loves it here. We're going to we want to take it national.", and she was like, "Can you also develop a curry mustard for me?" [AUDIENCE LAUGHS] And I was like, "Yeah!" [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: That’s episode’s up now, check it out.
Dan Pashman: All right. Back to my conversation with Alexander Smalls. After leaving the opera world behind, Alexander turned his attention to opening his first restaurant. He would call it Cafe Beulah — Beulah being a traditional Southern name, and the name of one of his favorite aunts. He had never run a restaurant, but he knew how to cook, especially after running his catering company for years. And he definitely knew how to throw a party. Over his years singing, he says every penny he made went right back into his next party. So when he decided to open a restaurant, he knew exactly what kind of place he wanted it to be. He told people he was taking his famous living room parties public.
Alexander Smalls: In fact, Cafe Beulah looks a lot like this. And I will tell you that the ceiling fans in this apartment are from Cafe Beulah. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Oh wow.
Dan Pashman: Alexander had the concept, now he needed the funding. He bought a book from the Columbia Business School bookstore and learned how to write a business proposal. He began asking friends to invest and they responded. Some of the first people to write him checks were Phylicia Rashad, Percy Sutton, and Toni Morrison. In 1994, Cafe Beulah opened its doors.
Dan Pashman: It was a bistro, right smack in the middle of Park Avenue South, where a bunch of other fancy new restaurants were opening up. That location was very intentional.
Alexander Smalls: I opened in that community because I wanted to make a point. I needed to be where you didn't expect me to be.
Dan Pashman: What were some of the dishes from the menu that you can recall?
Alexander Smalls: Oh my God. Well, I can tell you. Probably the most famous was the deconstructed gumbo. I took gumbo out of the pot and put it really on a plate as an elegant dish with all the ingredients separate and then the gumbo gravy poured over or underneath. It was just visually the most beautiful plate and very expensive for the time. All the white folks would say to me, "Oh my God, the food is so incredible, but where did all these beautiful Black people come from? What? I mean, my goodness. I've never seen such a display of beautiful people of color so well-dressed", and I understood what they wanted to say, but, you know — but that was their reaction. And the Black people were like, "How do you get white people to come to a Black owned restaurant." The biggest problem for African-Americans has always been, oh, are we want it there. Is that a place that we're supposed to go? You know, white people don't sit at home thinking, "Is it a Black owned or white owned restaurant?" All black people have to. It's in the culture. So Cafe Beulah was one of those places that belong to the people. I mean, the whole idea that African-American food could be fine dining could be paired with wines, could be served on porcelain plates, and elevated beyond what they considered a hot mess on a plate, but oh so good.
Dan Pashman: So a lot of the food at Cafe Beulah was inspired by the same low country cuisine that Alexander grew up with. But at the restaurant he didn’t call it low country cooking, he called it Southern Revival. He wanted people to understand where it came from, but also that was his own artistic interpretation of it, something new.
Alexander Smalls: I'd have people come in all the time going, "Well, this isn't how my mother makes the black eyed peas." And I'm — you know, my response, of course, in my head is, "Well, do I look like your mama?"
Alexander Smalls: You know, I was in a unique position that I could do things that other African-American chefs who were probably more talented and skilled than I, but not necessarily more creative. But I could tell the story of the Black kitchen, of the African American kitchen. They worked for people who weren't interested in them doing that.
Dan Pashman: It's interesting to me, Alexander, because when I listen to your description of Cafe Beulah, it sounds a lot like some of the restaurants that have opened in recent years in America and have gotten a lot of attention: Kwame Onwuachi’s [Alexander Smalls: Yes.] place in D.C., which I went to and we had him on the show that a while back. Mashama Bailey ...
Alexander Smalls: Yup.
Dan Pashman: And others. And it's interesting to me because it seems like certainly, you know, people who were tapped into the New York dining scene in the '90s, certainly knew Cafe Beulah and people who are familiar with your work certainly know it. But when I hear or see stories written about these new places, the characterization is often as if like this is a totally new concept.
Alexander Smalls: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Dan Pashman: This elevation of Black and African foodways to this high-end fine dining environment is totally new.
Alexander Smalls: Well, that's also institutional. This is white journalism. And this is how you kidnap people's culture, erases culture. You essentially assign this false narrative that so-and-so is the first Black person to do this, the first bite. And I mean, even if you put that on me, there was Edna Lewis before me, Leah Chase. The whole concept of that is basically how we erase historical value of a particular race of people. And it's interesting because before, when I started it was discrimination because of my color. And now, I face a different kind of sort of discrimination, which is age. So I mean, now that it's vogue and chic, I have aged out of the conversation.
Dan Pashman: Can I — how old are you now?
Alexander Smalls: I am 70.
Dan Pashman: And how can you tell that that is something people are holding against you?
Alexander Smalls: Well, I mean, try selling a TV show. Try — well, even trying to sell a book. I mean, I have three books, and essentially positioning me as the voice of anything that isn't tied to a historic or academic moment, it's not what the trend is all about. You know? So it's subtle, but convenient. And I think it's something that you don't notice until it happens to you. I mean, I find myself more relevant than ever in the conversation, but that doesn't mean that the people who create the platform for the conversation would agree with that.
Dan Pashman: You seem like the kind of person who is just — you're never going to stop moving.
Alexander Smalls: Oh, no, no, no.
Dan Pashman: Cafe Beulah got great reviews, including a nice write-up in The New York Times. Alexander opened two more places, both featuring his spin on Southern food. But as we all know, running restaurants is hard, even if your food is great. After about four years, money was tight and Alexander was spread very thin. He closed his places and decided to take a break from the business. But as usual, he didn’t stop moving.
Dan Pashman: He spent the next 10 years traveling the world and tracing the path of the African diaspora — from Africa to Asia to South America. He dedicated himself to learning about the various cuisines that were born out of the slave trade. He kept catering (and throwing great parties), and would sing professionally every now and then. But he mostly spent the time exploring, creatively and literally.
Dan Pashman: By the early 2010s, he was ready to get back into the restaurant business, and to put all he had learned into practice. This time he decided to open his place in Harlem, at the center of Black culture in New York. He worked with the chef JJ Johnson, who had been trained in classical European techniques, but who grew up in a Caribbean household. Together, the pair created an Afro-Asian-American menu, for a restaurant that would be called The Cecil.
Alexander Smalls: We really revolutionized the conversation of essentially how through slavery Africa change the global culinary footprint. And that's what The Cecil was all about. I traveled all over Africa, all over Asia, and South America, Brazil, Caribbean, North America and Europe trying to understand the contributions and creating a flavor profile that spoke to what Africa's footprint looked like in a global context.
Dan Pashman: Give me some examples of some things that were on the menu when you opened The Cecil.
Alexander Smalls: Oh my … There was very interesting dishes. We basically married a lot of the spice profile of the African diaspora, you know, we highlighted some Brazilian dishes, we brought the suya profile from West Africa, and then, of course, the Asian influence with the oxtail dumplings. What a lot of people don't realize is that there were African slaves in China that date back to the 1500s. And when the new world abolished slavery, particularly the Caribbeans, a lot of Asians, Chinese and Indians were brought over to do that work. And of course, they were infused with the African community because they were still considered substandard.
Dan Pashman: In 2019, Alexander and JJ expanded on these ideas in a cookbook called Between Harlem and Heaven, which won a James Beard Award. Around the same time, Alexander was starting work on an ambitious new project — a Harlem Food Hall that he described as “The Cecil on steroids," but when the pandemic hit, that got scrapped.
Dan Pashman: Meanwhile, though, across the world, plans were being laid for Expo 2020 Dubai, a six-month long event, kind of like a World’s fair. It would have exhibitions on technology, architecture, sports, and … you guessed it, food. Someone involved in the expo saw Alexander’s proposal for the Harlem Food Hall, and said "Hey, why don’t you come do this in Dubai instead?"
Dan Pashman: Alexander dove right in. As he traveled back and forth between his home in Harlem and his work in Dubai, his creative focus evolved once again. At Cafe Beulah, he explored African American food. Then he zoomed out and spent years tracing the culinary paths of the African diaspora. Now he was following all of those roads back to the source, to Africa itself. But he didn’t want it to just be a history lesson. He decided his food hall would focus on African food today.
Alexander Smalls: I really wanted this to be authentic. And I wanted it to say more than my imagination or my proposition. So I wanted to bring in culinary practitioners who were at the top of their game, reinventing the African culinary. And that's what I did.
Dan Pashman: Alexander invited six African chefs to open up in the food hall. One was Mame Sow, a pastry chef from Dakar, Senegal, who served a popsicle that uses baobab fruit, hibiscus, vanilla, and peanuts. Then there was Chef Coco, who serves Jollof rice, but in the form of a croquette or a risotto. The name of the project?
Alexander Smalls: It's called Alkebulan.
Dan Pashman: What does that mean?
Alexander Smalls: Alkebulan means mother of mankind. It was the first name of Africa. It's Arab. And the Europeans showed up, couldn't say Alkebulan, so they changed it to Africa. [LAUGHS] No surprise.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Dan Pashman: Alkebulan opened in Dubai last October and ran until the expo wrapped up at the end of March. Alexander’s project was a critical and commercial success.
Alexander Smalls: It was the hit of hits and centerpiece of Dubai. It did extremely well.
Dan Pashman: Now he's working on opening a version of this food hall in New York next year. After that he has his sights on London, D.C., Atlanta, Paris, Lagos, and Accra.
Alexander Smalls: I can do with Alkebulan 10-fold what I could do with just a stand along a boutique concept. I mean, essentially in this process, I've transformed into an activist advocate for the food of the African diaspora. I mean, we have, well, it was 600 years of institutional racism to overcome. And it's extraordinary when you introduce the wealth of this food and people are like, "Oh my God, this is what I thought African food was," you know? And so getting beyond and over the prejudice and the stereotypes — and this is why I opened Cafe Beulah, because no one wanted to allow any Black person that was cooking to breathe outside of soul food. That stigma became everything and we didn't exist outside of that context.
Dan Pashman: Today, Alexander sees Alkebulan as an important experience for everyone.
Alexander Smalls: All those people who didn't know what African food was and all those people who did, who needed to be re-introduced. And, as I said to you earlier, with Black people, food is currency. It is wealth.
Dan Pashman: When you sort of trace the arc from Cafe Beulah to Alkebulan, certainly you can see a similar goal at work, but I'm curious how you have changed and evolved over that time. How are you different?
Alexander Smalls: I no longer see myself as the bright eyed culinary creator, the person that has to make the sauce. I’m now a mentor and I'm on a mission. My role is to not only advance the cause and concept of African food, but to bring the village with me.
Dan Pashman: Alexander may not be the person who makes the sauce at the restaurant anymore, but in his apartment? Different story.
Dan Pashman: Should we cook something?
Alexander Smalls: I think we should.
Dan Pashman: All right, let's do it.
Alexander Smalls: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: To the kitchen.
Alexander Smalls: To the kitchen we go.
[KITCHEN BUSTLING SOUNDS]
Dan Pashman: I wanted to cook something quintessentially Alexander — something connected to the low country, but with his own creative spin on it. So I said to him, “You tell me what you want to cook. What dish fits?” Without hesitation, he responded …
Alexander Smalls: Grits!
Dan Pashman: Grits!
Alexander Smalls: Foundational Southern food, really. And grits are this wonderful grain that has always been at the root and heart of the African American kitchen.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Alexander Smalls: So I’m going to get our skillet going. So you see I put in a restaurant stove into my old apartment…
Dan Pashman: Alexander gets the grits going in one pot. Then he coats shrimp in a mixture of flour and spices, and drops them into the skillet.
Alexander Smalls: Yes.
Dan Pashman: He takes out the shrimp, sets those aside. And then fills the skillet with onions, peppers and celery.
Alexander Smalls: There we go.
Dan Pashman: Can I just say, Alexander, it's days like this that I don’t regret my job.
Dan Pashman: Like what’d you do today for work? I went to Alexander Smalls house and he made shrimp and grits and that was my job today.
Alexander Smalls: That's your job.
Dan Pashman: Not a bad day to go to work.
Alexander Smalls: Not a bad — and you get to eat
Dan Pashman: That's right. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Smells fantastic.
Alexander Smalls: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Smells so good
Dan Pashman: As Alexander stands over the stove he reaches for one spice container after another, sprinkling cilantro, cumin, sage, herbs de provence, and suya spice into the pan, working it all into a gravy.
Dan Pashman: Just to make clear, folks listening at home, there is not a measuring cup or measuring spoon —
Alexander Smalls: In sight.
Alexander Smalls: Nowhere to be found.
Dan Pashman: That's right.
Alexander Smalls: Just didn’t happen. This is pure flavor.
Dan Pashman: You just got it all going right now.
Alexander Smalls: It's all going and I'm going to hit it with a little bit of red wine.
Dan Pashman: Oh?
Alexander Smalls: Hey!
Dan Pashman: Now is this how they did it in the Low Country?
Alexander Smalls: No.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] But this is — see, Alexander, I feel like that was the moment that we just crossed over.
Alexander Smalls: Right.
Dan Pashman: You added that red wine and suddenly we're taking something from the past and we're adapting and we’re evolving.
Alexander Smalls: Right. Which is the point. Which is absolutely the point, which is what I have sought to do with African cuisine. It's this elevation. Here you have to taste the gravy.
Dan Pashman: Oh my gosh.
Alexander Smalls: This is where we're going.
Dan Pashman: All right.
Dan Pashman: I don't want to burn my tongue. It'll be so it would be so tragic if I burnt my tongue.
Alexander Smalls: Just blow on it. That's the way we do, we blow.
Dan Pashman: Oh my God.
Alexander Smalls: Okay. The shrimp just went into the gravy.
Dan Pashman: It's just firing on all cylinders. It's acidic and a little spicy ...
Alexander Smalls: Right.
Dan Pashman: But rich and creamy ...
Alexander Smalls: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And a little sweet.
Alexander Smalls: And then you have that touch of lemon.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. And that, um ... I mean, the acidity from the wine ...
Alexander Smalls: Yes.
Dan Pashman: I mean, you know ... Mmm!
Alexander Smalls: This is a very adult dish ...
Alexander Smalls: In case you were wondering. But voila! And now comes … this is a surprise …
Dan Pashman: Oh, he just went to the toaster oven. What’s coming now?
Alexander Smalls: The chicken, that I fried.
Dan Pashman: Oh snap.
Alexander Smalls: I fried this chicken earlier and now I'm going to make …
Dan Pashman: He's cutting up the leftover fried chicken.
Alexander Smalls: The earlier made ...
Dan Pashman: I'm sorry. Yes. Right.
Alexander Smalls: Fried chicken.
Dan Pashman: Premade.
Alexander Smalls: The earlier prepared.
Dan Pashman: We have the other skillet with the shrimp and the vegetables and the stock going, all the spices, and then we have grits. This is …
Alexander Smalls: Hey, do you know what else we have? We have lunch. It is done and ready.
Dan Pashman: Oh yes.
Alexander Smalls: And it is all of this. I'm thinking to bring the pots to the table.
Dan Pashman: Let's do it.
Alexander Smalls: Can you handle that?
Dan Pashman: Absolutely. I'll follow your lead.
Alexander Smalls: Great. I'd love that.
[SOUNDS OF SETTING TABLE]
Alexander Smalls: Okay. Would you like some iced tea or you're staying with water?
Dan Pashman: Hmm. I'll so — I mean, do you have iced tea ready?
Alexander Smalls: This is a Southern home.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Alexander Smalls: We always have iced tea.
Dan Pashman: Alexander sets the pot of grits and two skillets on the table .
Alexander Smalls: Here we go. Grits go down.
Dan Pashman: One has the shrimp in that gravy, the other is the pre-made fried chicken with chicken gravy, which had been simmering on a back burner to concentrate its flavors even more. Now it was time to dig in. And the mark of a good meal — everything gets very quiet.
Alexander Smalls: How are we doing? Did you try the chicken?
Dan Pashman: Mm! I got to move on to that.
Alexander Smalls: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Oh my God. There's chicken with that gravy.
Alexander Smalls: Hmm.
Dan Pashman: Woo!
Alexander Smalls: This is second nature for me because the flavor and destination of arrival in this dish has been my life. So I know where we're landing. I may change the path home. I may add a little this, a little of that, you know, but I know where we have to land. For example, the red wine, I've made this with white wine, rose, and interestingly enough, champagne. And it's the finish is always different, but always so incredible.
Dan Pashman: Hmmm.
Alexander Smalls: Eat!
Dan Pashman: That is the one and only Alexander Smalls, the restaurateur, opera singer, renowned party host, and the author of the cookbooks Meals, Music & Muses, Grace the Table, and Between Harlem and Heaven. He’s also recently gotten back into singing. In June, he released his first solo album — a collection of spirituals called Let Us Break Bread Together. We’ll listen to a bit of one track called “Hush.”
Dan Pashman: If you want to win a copy of Meals, Music, and Muses, you can sign up for our newsletter by August 31st. You’re already entered to win if you’re a subscriber. To do that go to Sporkful.com/newsletter.
Dan Pashman: A couple more final notes, Alexander plans to open the New York version of Alkebulan in 2023. And next week, he’ll be receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at Food and Wine Magazine's Family Reunion event.