‘Ownership Is Everything’

On the heels of his newest cookbook release, Alexander Smalls reflects on his life in music, restaurants, and mentoring young Black chefs

Photo: Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

In the middle of a global shutdown, Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes From My African American Kitchen debuted — the third book from opera singer and longtime restaurateur Alexander Smalls. The New York resident and partner in The Cecil and Minton’s in Harlem with JJ Johnson (now closed), Smalls has lived a remarkable life: Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, he traveled the world singing, then returned to New York, eventually opening a catering company and his first restaurant, Cafe Beulah, in the mid-1990s. Read on for more on his fascinating journey and advice to young Black chefs at this moment. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Melissa McCart: So, Alexander, I’m imagining you through the quarantine — like those videos we’ve seen in Italy — walking out onto your balcony and singing opera for the neighborhood.

Alexander Smalls: There’s no balcony but there should be! You may or may not know this about me but I lived for years in Italy. So my apartment at times reminds me of the ruins of Rome. It’s not uncommon for me to hang off my bar in my apartment and do just what you suggested!

Having had five restaurants and having been in this industry for 30-plus years, you know, one has to have a proper bar. If nothing else, for ambiance.

So Meals, Music, and Muses was released right before coronavirus.…

Right in it! It’s like, really? Are you doing this to me? I’ve got tours set up and I think I’m going all over the place and back. It debuted №1 in cookbooks on Amazon, and I’m thinking, well, bags are packed; I’ve got to hit the road.

But I have to say, while Covid reorganized the concept of my tour, I haven’t missed a beat. I’ve been Zooming and podcasting and radio — doing things we didn’t even know it was possible and it’s been pretty comprehensive coverage. Instead of getting on planes, I’m thrown atop about 10 pillows, playing with my nappy hair, and talking shit, you know?

In the time of coronavirus, do you feel like your new book is a kind of salve or escapism or something to point to in a time that’s really tough for a lot of people?

People are at home. And people are cooking. And people are discovering things about themselves through cooking, through culinary inspiration. I think my book is particularly interesting — because, well, this is not your mother’s cookbook. While it might have some familiarities, the book really creates a context around what it was like to grow up as Alexander Smalls and to create a life through my two favorite disciplines: music and food. And within that context, it’s a rich family culture of generations.

You know, my grandfather was born to parents who had been slaves: People who had been married to the land and married to a way of living for generations that have been passed down through storytelling — and culinary foodways and farming and gardening. So that rich culture of South Carolina really is the backdrop and the container, really, that I became Alexander Smalls.

My first book, Grace the Table, celebrated not only the food of my youth and where it came from — it told the story of how I got to New York and that journey. But then the next book, after having had three restaurants and traveled the world, I realized there is more I wanted to say about who we were, not just from my Lowcountry roots, but who we were in a global perspective. So I wrote Between Harlem and Heaven, traveling all over the world studying the foodways of the enslaved people of five continents, hoping to change the global culinary conversation, which essentially expanded the narrative of the African American kitchen.

So when I got to Meals, Music, and Muses, at this point, I am seasoned, I like to think. If I don’t have a viewpoint, I certainly have more opinions than one person should ever need.

In this book, I am really curating my culinary and musical history. And I am essentially… I put my life into music disciplines, if you will. The first chapter starts off with jazz and the improvisational food of small bites, appetizers. Wynton Marsalis, who wrote the opening forward to my first book, he used to tell me I cooked like jazz musicians.

You know, I’m famous for never cooking the same thing twice. People ask me, “Can you cook so and so that you made before?” And I say, I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Cooking for me is complete inspiration. How many times can you paint the Mona Lisa? I’m not doing that again! You know, I’ll do something similar. But in all three of my cookbooks, I have three different macaroni and cheese, for example. The last one is made with buttermilk. As I approach life, cooking, and food, and particularly in this book, I wanted to give people something else to consider and associate with a life of cooking, nurturing, entertaining, and hosting. And that’s kind of what Meals, Music, and Muses is all about.

Alexander Smalls’ Quail. Photo: Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post/Getty Images

I feel like entertaining right now is in quotations. I’m curious as to how you’re doing that, even if it’s for yourself. If you’re going to cook this week, what’s something you may be cooking? And in terms of listening, are you going through phases of what you’re listening to, or do you have a genre order for the day?

I’m so predictable. I get up at 5 in the morning and my day starts with classical music. Along the way to the kitchen, I press the button on my Sonos. And my morning is full of classical music with Earl Grey tea, until about noon, then I drink water for a few hours. Then I move on to iced tea because I’m Southern —but no sugar. Classical music still going on until about 5 p.m. Then we go into jazz — still iced tea — and that lasts until about 7 or 8 p.m., then it’s Afrobeat, and bourbon finds its way into the iced tea. That takes me to about 10 p.m., then it’s soulful lounge music: a little Chaka Khan and all that kind of stuff happens. And then I’m done!

You asked the question aimed at Covid cooking. Because, you know, no one comes in here — I’ve been really locked in. So my dinner guests become my IG page. I am cooking for my IG people and I make sure I’m taking care of them very well. For someone like me, cooking is a necessary function, it’s tied into my creativity; it’s tied into how I reason life, solve problems, stimulate myself. … It is, without question, what keeps me alive.

‘For someone like me, cooking is a necessary function, it’s tied into my creativity; it’s tied into how I reason life, solve problems, stimulate myself. … It is, without question, what keeps me alive.’

And that part of really setting the table, because I am one who has a formal dining room; I am one who has ALWAYS had a formal dining room. My job in my restaurants as executive chef, is I create the concepts, the flavor profiles, the recipes, or the culinary language by which we express ourselves. That’s what I do, and then I get out of the way and turn it over to my chef de cuisine and his staff because my other big job is being the host of my dining room. It’s really taking care of my guests.

When I opened my first restaurant, Cafe Beulah, in the early ’90s, it was the first African American fine dining restaurant in New York that really catered to African American cuisine.

I read that you had Gullah influences on that menu?

Lowcountry. That’s the backbone of my food. My first three restaurants were all about Lowcountry cooking, which I call Southern revival. Then I took a 10-year hiatus, then opening The Cecil became about the global culinary conversation of African people, enslaved African people on the continent. It’s sort of like taking my local identity and bringing it into global citizenship. I feel like that’s what I’ve done with myself; might as well do it with my food. So essentially what has been really a surprising outcome of Covid for me, is I’ve been working on my plating, which is something I never get to do. When I entertain, everything is plattered, not plated. I do platters and bowls because family style is just the best way to entertain people, to put out a big food statement on the table.

You have this incredible collection of friends. And in your bio — it’s pretty remarkable. I’m curious as to what degree your friends come from music, or restaurants, or?

I know everyone from the pizza maker to the CEO. At dinner at my house, you just don’t know who is going to be here. It’s so eclectic. But so has been my life and my career, starting as an opera singer and traveling the world.

Growing up in the South in the late ’50s and ’60s, running around reciting Shakespeare and singing classical music…. I used to go out and sing for the rich white ladies at the country club. Mind you, Black people weren’t allowed to go to the country club, but you know, I guess I was considered help. So I’d go sing at the garden club and this that and the other.

The arts foundation in town decided that they wanted to help promote my musical talent and career. So they started a fund to assist my studies and my being able to travel. I’d sing in French, German, and Italian: Literally, I’m like, 15 years old. This is what was supposed to impress them, but they were so distracted that this little Black boy could sing in all these languages… They just completely missed the point. Essentially, Black people simply were accepted to be less than and treated as such.

So when you look at where I started, and a Grammy and Tony later, performances on major stages all over the place. … I was considered a New York host long before I opened a restaurant. I gave the most outrageous parties. And everyone and their mother would come. I have to say: Opening my first restaurant, it was as if I was the New York ambassador of Black Hollywood where they all filtered in.

If that was the only part of the story, it would have been atypical. I also was kind of the host and ambassador for the fashion community. Catherine Deneuve, sipping bourbon at the bar. Glenn Close. Toni Morrison was Aunt Toni and one of my first investors. Phylicia Rashad was my investor. Spike Lee hung out there. Will Smith. So you could say, having been an opera singer, a caterer…they were all a part of my world. Over the years, it kind of came together.

I’m wondering if you have some advice for, say, a younger JJ Johnson, a budding chef who is in love with cooking at this moment. Would you have any advice on how to conquer those fears and insecurities in terms of where we are now?

Mentoring is really important to me. And engaging Black talent, young Black talent, and trying to encourage them and support them — negotiating the terrain. The system wasn’t built for us to have ownership. It wasn’t built for us to own much of anything. If you look at the financial structure and some of the injustices that are across the board, not only in our government. There has been a hindrance in our ability as people of color to be a part of financial consideration or conversations.

I think opera was a huge lesson for me; I was such a minority in opera. I had not been able to break the glass ceiling in opera, which is a very complicated dynamic. Black women were considered exotic and they were treated on stage like songbirds. Black men? Nobody wanted us. I even mentor Black opera singers today and they’re having the same conversations I had 30 years ago. What happened to me after singing in the opera houses all over Europe, I came home and I can’t get hired.

The choices for Black opera singers during my era — and still! You know, Germany will take anybody. But, by the time they finish with you, you’re lucky if you can still carry a tune. It’s like a factory; you’re singing two or three times a day, five days a week. You’re lucky to have any voice to speak after they finish with you. I talk about this in my first book. I had had my New York audition and I flew in from Paris where I was studying with the Paris opera house. Usually, you sing an aria, and you begin another one, and you know, that’s it. So I sang two full arias and had to give another. And they interrupted the last one to say, “Oh, we can tell you’ve grown so much. You sound great….” And they said, “We’ve very excited. We’d love to offer you chorus on Porgy and Bess.” I won a Grammy and Tony in Porgy and Bess [with the Houston Grand Opera] as the lead!

My agent apparently knew they wanted to make this humiliating offer to me. And I looked at them like they had 10 heads and I was so humiliated and so minimized, I just said I had absolutely no interest whatsoever. I left the stage, I grabbed my coat, and I headed for the door.

I tell you this story so you can understand how I got into the restaurant industry and what I brought with me. After I went home, I sat there… and drank a bottle of wine, and said to myself, I’m done. I cannot dedicate my life to be a part of a profession that does not want me. I realized: I need to not only share the table, I need to own the table.

I cannot dedicate my life to be a part of a profession that does not want me. I realized: I need to not only share the table, I need to own the table.

I can’t own an opera house. Well, I can, but I’m not going to spend my life trying. So I said, I’m going to open a restaurant. And I’m going to own that sucker. That’s my advice to young chefs: Ownership is everything.

My mother used to say to me, “You poor baby. You don’t have sense enough of what to be afraid of.” You know, I’m fearless because I don’t know better. And since I don’t really understand what it takes to do stuff, I just knew whatever it took, I can do it.

I started hitting the pavement and I started learning what I can do to own and operate my own restaurant. You know, it never occurred to me that I didn’t know what I was doing. How do you go from wanting something to realizing it? What are the steps? I always tell people, you have to start from where you want to be and walk backward. You have to have a road map to get there.

The first thing I needed was a business proposal. So I went to the Columbia bookstores. You can imagine, in the early ’90s, this book was almost $100. It was a textbook! Why would I want to read something like that with no photos? But I bought that book. And I read that book about five times because I felt that was where my destiny was. And then another friend gave me a business proposal that they had done and I wrote my first business proposal. That went well. What I did is went out with the proposal, and people got very excited. I was a good salesman. And everyone was like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m down!” I was talking to my Wall Street friends, all kinds of friends — and then I realized that I need to know how to close the deal.

Then I learned about a subscription agreement: You need a contract or an equivalent of a prenup. I got in touch with a lawyer friend of mine who convinced his bosses to support me gratis until I got up and running. So then I got the subscription agreement and finally, I could talk to people about investing. I went to banks, and I don’t need to tell you the end of that story. The point is, I had to rely on friends and family.

And, I got my restaurant. It was with the grace of friends and family and people who just felt that — I did not have experience; I had not really worked in the restaurant industry, with the exception of my catering company ….that I had run that for about five years or something like that before opening the restaurant.

But the moral of the story is ownership. And as you can see, JJ has his restaurant, Field Trip. It’s really the way that I see being able to have a voice, not only in the community conversation but also in really being able to direct and grow your future. And be relevant, you know?

‘But the moral of the story is ownership. It’s really the way that I see being able to have a voice, not only in the community conversation but also in really being able to direct and grow your future. And be relevant, you know?’

Is there anything you’d want to convey to readers that I have not asked you?

I see food, I see the hospitality experience and profession, as a noble craft. And an honorable profession. The idea that as a restaurateur I am able to take care of you, feed you, share my cultural expression, and my world views, through my food, my hospitality. … It is one of the greatest gifts that one can experience. And so it’s serious to me.

For so long our food has been dismissed as comfort food, soul food, that’s not good for you. Traveling around the world as I did as an opera singer, I realize that fine dining and classic French food was really local peasant food that had been elevated through technique and fashion — and more theater than anything else. And African and Asian food…essentially all other disciplines came out of African and Asian cooking. So when you really want to speak to the annals of history, from a culinary perspective, that’s where you really need to start.

What I’m most excited about is the voice that Black chefs are giving themselves as they go out into the world and create a platform. And I’m so looking forward to what happens next.

Editor of Heated with Mark Bittman on Medium. Dog mom. Pho fan. Send me your pitches: melissamccart@gmail.com

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