Ever since he launched his first restaurant, one of the first African American fine-dining concepts, in New York City in 1994, chef Alexander Smalls has been traveling the length and breadth of the African continent, connecting with his roots and, as he puts it, “understanding the regional vernacular of food”.
He has since been on a mission to make food from Africa get the respect it deserves.
“When we opened Cafe Beulah in the '90s, I wanted to see the food of my people be presented on fine china and be part of the contemporary conversation,” he tells The National.
Today, five restaurants and three cookbooks later, the former opera singer and James Beard Foundation Award winner has been tasked with a new project: to create a fine-dining African food hall at Expo 2020 Dubai.
“I jumped for joy,” Smalls recalls of the time he received the call to helm the project a little more than a year ago.
“It really is a big concept and idea. We are not only bringing you modern contemporary African food in a way that it has not been seen, but the cultural element that really speaks to what African culture, food, art and music is all about.”
Called Alkebulan, which he explains was the first name of Africa, the food hall will initially host 20 chefs across 10 outlets, with guest chefs making appearances for week-long pop-ups.
“The idea is to really have a culinary meeting of the minds and bold interesting flavours from far-reaching parts of the continent,” Smalls, who visited the Expo 2020 Dubai site for the first time this week, says. He adds that he’s reached out to “some of the best African chefs in the world”.
“You'll have some of the best young chefs creating masterful dishes, chefs who are taking their culinary education and skills and style of fine dining, and applying those principles to the African flavour profile.
“I have taken chefs from all parts of Africa, some African chefs who have gone on to Europe, and they are all coming to bring in this new culinary expression that mirrors what African food is about today.”
The food hall will showcase Africa in all its glory, Smalls promises.
“The wonderful thing about Alkebulan is we are curating a concept that’s about the continent of Africa. Most food halls will have a collection, a mix of cuisines. With us, we’re telling a story where all the food is really about the African experience.”
Alkebulan will also feature a book nook, where visitors can buy books by African chefs from around the world.
“It’s so important to get it right and the representation is as full as we can make it,” he says. “Everything, from the decor to the art finishes is going to be museum quality. I think people are going to be very impressed.”
Smalls won the James Beard Foundation Award, which recognises achievements by US culinary professionals, for his 2018 book Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day.
His latest book, Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen, which came out last year, is an ode to his musical past, as well as his African roots.
His research over the years and knowledge gained from his extensive travels across the continent have given him a holistic understanding of the contribution of his people to the culinary world, he says. And that’s what he wants to share with the world through Alkebulan.
“There’s no other people that have inspired or contributed to the history of multiple continents like Africans. The African diaspora is the foundation of many of our culinary experiences,” he says.
But the one thing that still irks him after all these years, he says, is the notion that food from Africa is unhealthy.
“This is really a part of institutional racism. The food of Africa has always been looked at as comfort food, but not very good for you… it’s sort of soul food or scrappy food, or food that has no depth or dimension or creativity. That gets under my skin.
“You can’t tell me stew on the stove, just because it has gravy, is less healthy than French food with butter sauces. It’s been such a deception and stereotypical framing of food that’s African is not good for you.
“It’s also a way to devalue a people,” he says. “When you devalue their food and practices, you devalue them.”
Alkebulan, he hopes, will change all of that.
“We have to fine-tune all of that and change the way these things are viewed. And I’m positive that we are going to be doing that,” he says. “That’s why I want to bring you into really good, fresh, wholesome, creative and healthy African food.
“We want to level the playing field.”
Smalls is blown away by the culinary options in Dubai.
“Expo 2020 Dubai has done an extraordinary thing for the African people and making a space and really promoting and backing this food hall. It’s so fitting that in a way this movement has a beginning here in Dubai,” he says.
“I plan to take this concept all over the world and we will look back and say, this is where it all began.”
Which chefs will be featured?
Alkebulan will host 20 chefs across 10 outlets with guest chefs making appearances for week-long pop-ups. Here are four of them:
Co-author of To the banqueting house, African Cuisine and Epic Journey, Reinarhz attended the Ecole Hoteliere de la Province de Namur and Institut Superieur de Gestion Hoteliere, in Namur, Belgium.
He is known for combining his classical French training and skills with African food, creating modern and sophisticated dishes.
Born in Paris but based in London, Kabe is a young French chef of Congolese descent known for her vegan creations with African flavours. Kabe has also worked at La Mano, Abattoir Vegetal and Papilles in Paris. Her cuisine is a mix of traditions using time-tested ingredients from Africa.
Siewe is a Cameroonian-French chef and original member of the Parisian Bistronomic movement, which combines high-quality meals with a casual dining atmosphere, and changed the French food scene.
He’s the chef and owner of the Garde Temps restaurant in the 9th district of Paris and previously trained at the Savoy in London and at the Grand Pan alongside French chef Yves Camdeborde in Paris.
Pastry chef Akougbe trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and was a finalist on the British TV show Bake Off: The Professionals, in 2019. He has worked at Savoy Hotel, Langham Hotel, Landmark Hotel and other prestigious establishments in the UK. He’s now developing a low sugar plant-based fine pastry line celebrating African products and flavours.