Acclaimed Chef Alexander Smalls Opens the World's First African Food Hall
"As a kid, I was told if I loved what I did, I'd never have a job," acclaimed chef, James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, and entrepreneur Alexander Smalls told Food & Wine recently. "I've never had a job. I've been able to create work for myself by following my passion and understanding the mission of my passion. And this is how we got here, if you will."
The "here" he's referring to is the grand opening of Alkebulan, the first dining hall in the world that showcases and celebrates African food. It opened in Dubai last fall as part of the pandemic-delayed Expo Dubai 2020, and it's also the realization of a vision that Smalls has focused on for well over a decade. "I've had five restaurants, starting with The Cecil in Harlem, all of which have been about the food of the African diaspora," he explained. "About six or seven years ago, I set out to create a destination that would tell the story of African food on five continents [and tell] how through slavery, Africans changed the global culinary conversation."
In early 2020, Smalls started looking for a location in Harlem where he could open what he'd planned to call the Harlem Food Hall, but the COVID-19 pandemic quickly put an end to those preliminary conversations. "You know, as fate would have it, if doors close, windows open and skylights fall," he said with a laugh. "I got a call from my business partner who said that he'd been meeting with a hospitality company that had been engaged to do major projects throughout Europe and the Middle East, including doing food and beverage for the Expo."
That company was interested in Smalls' idea for a fine-dining African food hall. Although Smalls said that he was "ready to jump on the next plane," it ultimately took a year of international collaboration and (of course) countless Zoom calls to refine the idea and bring Alkebulan to life. "It's something that I probably could still be curating, except we had to get the show going," he said. "I think we did a good job of highlighting regional food that people could not only identify with, but also understand from a geographic persuasion. It's about cultural education and it's about discovery."
Alkebulan features 11 African restaurant concepts that were all hand-picked by Smalls, and their offerings include South African barbecue, East African seafood, Kenyan goat dishes, and Senegalese baked goods. "I also incorporated African street foods and, under that umbrella, you have South African bunny chow, West African bread cakes, and all kinds of wonderful things from Nigeria and Morocco," he added.
The entire project has been a massive undertaking, but Smalls says he's just getting started: he's now focused on opening an Alkebulan in Harlem, followed by one in London, and then in at least eight other cities.
"My whole career has been about expanding the narrative and elevating the conversation around the contributions of the people of the African diaspora," he said. "Let me share with you that this is only the beginning. As a disciple of the beauty and brilliance of African food, I'm taking it all over the world."