To receive an invitation to dine at the home of Alexander Smalls, entrepreneur, chef, author, and longtime Harlemite, is to make whatever schedule adjustments necessary to be in attendance, and not solely because the food is sure to soothe and inspire, nor solely because his panache for anecdotes induces giggles and hollers the neighbors can hear. His guests say yes because, in a way, they must. They need to. “I grew up in a household full of love and attention. I was the only grandson, the only nephew. I was the man of the hour—as a child I was very much indulged,” Smalls says. He knows what it is to lavish attention, to make a guest feel enthralled and at ease. In the sprawling domain of his second-floor apartment bedecked with tapestries and art collections rivaling the floor-to-ceiling galleries at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans, Smalls is ambassador. And everyone knows (don’t they?) that it’s impossible to say no to a charming diplomat.
Over a career in food surpassing 25 years, Smalls has garnered accolades and a loyal following for his genre-defining (and -defying) restaurants and cookbooks. His presence feels inherently familiar these days—the striking white beard, the observant gaze through wire spectacles, a laugh that explodes up and outward. But when Cafe Beulah opened in New York in 1994, he was new perhaps to the scene but not to the Southern cooking tradition. The New York Times heralded his celebration of low-country cuisine, shaped by both his Spartanburg, South Carolina, childhood and his experiences as a globe-trotting baritone opera singer, as part of a “new wave” of soul food cooking. The acclaim over his last restaurant, The Cecil at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, was robust, too. The menu, with its kelewele, feijoada, and oxtail dumplings, merged the diverse African diaspora including Ghana, China, and the Caribbean with its rich Indian influences. Esquire named it their best new restaurant in 2014.
Smalls’ cookbooks, including this year’s celebrated Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen, are jubilant meditations that frame recipes by song genre. In Meals, Smalls describes the blend of music and food that guides Black Southern vernacular. Many Black American musicians take food as inspiration, and the reverse is true of such chefs, in part because both arenas can tell textured stories of one’s people, calling forth a kind of self-recognition and community love song. Hear “Mother Popcorn” by James Brown, and feel the heat of bursting kernels, or “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock, the oft-reinterpreted jazz standard that canonically conveys the lilt and lope of the fruit seller’s cart. Meals moves from jazz to opera in stories told by an artist eager to find new pockets of inquiry emerging from a life enriched by travel and soundtrack. (Smalls shared his favorite tunes to cook and dine to; check out his dinner party playlist here.)
Jazz pianist Jason Moran resides in Harlem with his family. He and his wife, vocalist Alicia Hall Moran, are frequent invitees to Smalls’ home, and Moran intimately understands that visceral connection. “The food has a big impact on how we find colors,” Moran says of the music. “Duke Ellington can find those colors because he’s from the Northeast, Louis Armstrong because he’s from NOLA. It’s impossible to separate our food from our music.”
Who wouldn’t come to dinner? Smalls has been a magnetic host from his earliest days in the business. He has socialized in one place or another with a who’s-who list of figures but often in his abode. Two of his three refrigerators feature a pre-Instagram photographic collage of 1990s-era New York Hollywood. Top left, there’s Smalls with former 60 Minutes host, the inimitable journalist Ed Bradley. Scroll down a couple photos, there’s Smalls grinning alongside Quincy Jones. Pan to the center, a clean-shaven, boyish Smalls looks positively luminescent next to Lena Horne. Ah! Cicely Tyson, with the devastatingly low-cut, eyelash-kissing bangs. Phylicia Rashad, LeVar Burton, LorraineToussaint, and CCH Pounder—bright faces expressing joy, amusement, bliss. Posted unframed and aged, they sit in conversation with the sepia-hued portraits that line the hallway, an honor roll of Smalls’ immediate and extended family, generations of dapperness, swag, and grace enshrined under the glimmer of a tiered basket chandelier. In his first book, Grace the Table: Stories and Recipes from My Southern Revival, Smalls writes, “Nobody outdressed the Smalls family in Spartanburg—nobody.” The homage on his wall—featuring wide lapels, pearl strands, symmetrical pocket squares, and fedoras snapped-to—confirms.
These days, the guest list might include longtime friends like Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee or Al Roker and Deborah Roberts (“I’ve catered Al’s Christmas party for 22 years”). Newer ones, too—Lupita Nyong’o or musician Paul Beaubrun. A guest mentions a book she’s just learned about; Smalls knows the author, who was sitting in the same chair last week. A guest admires a painting; inevitably, Smalls is friends with the artist, and a story follows.
“Alexander creates community when he sets a table,” says singer Shola Adisa-Farrar. She connected with Smalls through mutual friends over a decade ago. While living in Paris, she remembers, Smalls would visit and link her with other artists, always encouraging her music. “He also introduced me to black rice,” Adisa-Farrar says. “There’s a ceremony to it,” she says of Smalls’ entertaining.
The participants change event to event, and no one knows who’s coming in advance except the host himself. The soirées lack pretense or strain, perhaps because of the traditions that follow: No more than eight people. A fully stocked bar opens each evening with top-shelf bourbon and rum. Smalls typically cooks himself, sometimes making one-pot dishes a day ahead, but he’ll occasionally lean on talented friends (this writer enjoyed a meal cooked by Charleston chef BJ Dennis, an emerging master of the Gullah Geechee repertoire that Smalls also grew up eating). The food overflows; there are always leftovers.
“Any convening with Alexander promises equal parts music that moves the soul and food that elevates the palate,” says filmmaker Lisa Cortés, a longtime friend of Smalls. “Many an evening has ended with us gathered around the piano to sing, and on certain bourbon-fueled nights, to recite poetry.” It’s just the way it goes when Smalls has you over for dinner.
Just as the award-winning cookbook he penned with chef JJ Johnson, Between Harlem and Heaven, captures the history and spirit of a neighborhood that’s seen eras of Black food culture and history, perhaps the title can be bent to refer to Smalls’ small corner of the world. Tucked in Hamilton Heights, a slice of heaven sits, and the man with that grin; the warm, booming voice; and a stovetop bubbling over with goodwill cannot wait to welcome you.