Chef Alexander Smalls on His Life, His Storied Car…


Tony, Grammy, James Beard Award Winner Chef Alexander Smalls

[Photograph: Daniel Kreiger]

The last Special Sauce I recorded in a studio before the coronavirus pandemic hit was with the multi-talented chef, opera singer, and restaurateur Alexander Smalls. He was just about to publish his new book, Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes From My African American Kitchen. It was March 11th, and after an hour-long interview I found myself in awe of Alexander. We hugged in the green room at the studio as we said goodbye, and that was in fact the last hug I have received from anyone besides my wife since. It was an extraordinary interview, befitting an extraordinary man, who I think is the only person in the world to have won a Tony, a Grammy, and a James Beard Award.

But now, three months later, given what’s transpired in the interim, we thought it was time to check in with the remarkable Mr. Smalls. We were very confident that he would have a lot to say about our current state of affairs. And as you’re about to hear, he most certainly did. But before you hear all that, we decided to include a big chunk of our initial interview in this episode.

Next week you’ll hear more about Alexander’s new book and recording. I think Serious Eaters will find both this week’s episode and next week’s to be must-listens. How lucky we are to hear Alexander Smalls’s story in its entirety at this moment.

The song you will hear from his soon-to-be released recording Meals, Music, and Muses: My African-American Songbook is a stunningly powerful version of “Wade in the Water.” The track was produced by Ulysses Owens and Robert Sadin and features Cyrus Chestnut on piano, Joseph Joubert on the Hammond B3 organ, Ben Williams on bass, Ulysses Owens on drums and percussion, and, of course, Alexander Smalls on vocals.

Production note: With everyone hunkered down in place we are no longer able to record Special Sauce in a fully equipped studio with an experienced and skilled engineer. So if the sound quality of this episode isn’t up to snuff, know that we are working on all aspects of the production within the context of the new reality we’re all living in. Better things and better sound lie ahead.

Special Sauce is available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Soundcloud, Player FM, and Stitcher. You can also find the archive of all our episodes here on Serious Eats and on this RSS feed.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: The last Special Sauce interview I recorded in the studio before the pandemic hit was with the multi-talented chef, opera singer, and restaurateur, Alexander Smalls. He was just about to publish his new book, Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen. It was March 11th, and after an hour long interview, I found myself in awe of Alexander. We hugged in the greenroom at the studio as we said goodbye. That was in fact the last hug I have received from anyone besides my wife since. It was an extraordinary interview befitting an extraordinary man, who I think is the only person in the world to have won a Tony, a Grammy, and a James Beard award. But now, three months later, given what else has transpired in the interim, we thought it was time to check in with the remarkable Mr. Smalls. We were very confident that he would, unprompted, have a lot to say about our current state of affairs. As you’re about to hear, he most certainly did. But before you hear all that, we decided to include a big chunk of our initial interview in this episode. Here it goes.

EL: Today, I am so excited to have chef, restaurateur, opera singer, and cookbook author Alexander Smalls on Special Sauce. Now, it’s time to officially welcome Alexander Smalls. Alexander is the author of Meals, Music, and Muse: Recipes from My African American Kitchen. But what’s even more impressive about Alexander Smalls is that he is the first guest in the history of Special Sauce to have won a Tony, a Grammy, and a James Beard award. Welcome to Special Sauce, Alexander Smalls, man.

Alexander Smalls: Great to see you, great to see you.

EL: That’s like the Special Sauce awards trifecta, dude.

AS: Well, give me the Special Sauce award. I want it.

EL: I mean, that is an impressive feat.

AS: It’s been fun.

EL: I know it was not the result of being an overnight sensation.

AS: No.

EL: Let’s start by you telling us about life at the Smalls family table growing up.

AS: Wow. Well, we’re Southern. My father, who was born in Charleston, South Carolina. I was raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina. You have the low country of Charleston and upcountry of Spartanburg. I ate very differently than most of my friends because we ate Gullah Geechee food, we had Charleston food.

EL: Gullah, we should explain. Gullah is G-U-L-L-A-H.

AS: Yes, it is.

EL: Geechee is G-E-E-C-H-E-E.

AS: That’s it.

EL: Not bad.

AS: Not bad.

EL: I mean, I haven’t won a Tony, but I got that right.

AS: But you’ve won a few spelling bees.

EL: Yeah, exactly.

AS: The food we had was always bold and big, flavorful and intense. You would imagine that like the food, so was the family. Gatherings around the table always started first and foremost with rice, because my father would not… if there was no rice, as mother would say, “Well, we have two starches here already. I didn’t think we needed rice.” My father would get up until the rice had been prepared, and then we’d start dinner.

EL: Wow, that’s a powerful mojo.

AS: Baby.

EL: Who did the cooking?

AS: My mother, my mother. My father cooked on special occasions and on certain Sundays. He had one dish that he would prepare, and that was smothered shrimp and crab beef gravy over grits.

EL: That doesn’t sound bad.

AS: That was his dish, and that was his moment. But all the other meals, my mother had to learn how to make low country cooking.

EL: Did she give you tasks from an early age?

AS: Oh yes, oh yes. Well, the tasks started like this. If there were dishes that I loved, she would get tired of making them because I wanted them all the time. Especially Sunday dinner, because Sunday was the best eating all week. I had to learn how to do all that prep work.

EL: That was after church.

AS: Well, we would start on Saturday nights. Come on now.

EL: I see.

AS: Sunday was a feast. There were like five side dishes, two kinds of biscuits, and corn muffins. There was chicken and then another meat, a seafood or something. Yes, we had to start. Then there were all those Sunday desserts. You couldn’t have just one.

EL: Man, I wish I knew you.

AS: I know.

EL: We are the same age, but I didn’t grow up in South Carolina.

AS: No.

EL: Who did the singing?

AS: Well, my mother had a beautiful, very timid soprano, but my father was a tenor and sang in the church choir. It came honestly, my singing.

EL: Did they encourage you to sing? Did they really sing while they cooked?

AS: Well, they didn’t encourage me to sing, but they did… The greatest thing my parents did for me in my singing career, if you could imagine a child essentially growing up in the ’60s, running around singing opera, reciting Shakespeare in a Southern Hamlet in what you would consider a one horse town. My parents didn’t know anybody who made a living doing things like that.

EL: Wow.

AS: And who looked like me.

EL: Yeah.

AS: Who had my color. They were of great concern. But I’ll tell you, my aunt and uncle, who my uncle was a chef, lived in Harlem for many, many years. My aunt was a classical pianist. When I was born, I was the first son, and as it turned out, only son of their generation. They moved back from Harlem to Spartanburg, South Carolina, to oversee my education.

EL: Thank goodness for you.

AS: Thank goodness for me, because he was the cooking and she was the classical music.

EL: Yeah, so there you go, man.

AS: There it is.

EL: Were food and music interwoven at your house growing up?

AS: Yes, I got my first piano at seven or eight. My aunt and uncle bought it for me. My parents turned my bedroom into my music studio, which meant get right out of the bed, couch bed, desk. The piano was moved. They figured out if they could get the piano out of the living room, I wouldn’t be in there banging on it all the time. They were more than happy.

EL: Wait, are you telling me you had your own studio?

AS: You’re absolutely right.

EL: In your house at seven?

AS: Seven years old. I was commanding things.

EL: Wow, that’s impressive. Even though your parents weren’t encouraging and didn’t think you could really make a living through being an artist, thank God your aunt and uncle sort of came to your rescue.

AS: But let me explain.

EL: Yeah.

AS: It wasn’t that they didn’t encourage, they were frightened. But the best thing they did was didn’t discourage.

EL: Got it.

AS: They never said no. The point is that I had a very, very loving and supportive household. My parents, my aunt and uncle, even my grandfather. When I decided that I needed a different kind of music influence, my grandfather paid for the new piano teacher.

EL: Wow.

AS: They were all engaged in this, and they supported it.

EL: And it was classical music.

AS: Classical music.

EL: You didn’t really get familiar with jazz at that point.

AS: No. I mean, I knew it was there. My parents listened to jazz and gospel, other types of rhythm and blues. It simply wasn’t part of my cultural vernacular until it was.

EL: Got it. When did you figure out that you were going to try to sing for a living?

AS: Well, the best way to explain that is to understand that everything I’ve done in life, I’ve approached as an artist, because I am an artist first and foremost. Whether it be cooking, singing, writing music, I’m an artist. Whether it’s picking out setting the table, or picking out artwork for my home, I do it from a perspective of being an artist. In those early years, my instrument was piano and voice. Then I got to a point where it was clear that the voice was the front runner. Then I understood that I wanted to be this opera singer, that I was preparing for it. I was studying, I was in drama and operata productions. I got a scholarship to the pre-college school when I was still in high school, then a scholarship to a conservatory.

EL: In South Carolina, or…

AS: Well, once I went to music school, the first stop for music school after preschool in South Carolina was North Carolina’s School of Performing Arts. That’s where I got my undergrad and really prepared myself for professional work.

EL: Right. That’s where you started to learn the craft of becoming a singer.

AS: Absolutely, in undergrad at the North Carolina School of Performing Arts.

EL: You graduated in 1973, 1974.

AS: Something like that, ’74.

EL: I know it’s so long ago, I’m the same way. Then what did you think you were going to do?

AS: Then, I went to the Curtis Institute of Music. Oh yes, which was a very, very prestigious school, the best in the country. If you got in, they paid all of your expenses. It was essentially one of those schools where they had a gazillion applicants and took a handful. There was this wonderful story about Nina Simone, who had attended Julliard, applied to Curtis. We all, well, her family all knew she was going to get in, so they all moved to Philadelphia. Because Nina Simone, a lot of people don’t know this, was the most amazing classical pianist.

EL: Wow, I didn’t know that.

AS: You didn’t.

EL: And I know a lot about Nina Simone. I didn’t know that.

AS: I know. Well, she was this child prodigy. She was studying to be a classical pianist, and she didn’t get in. It wasn’t her talent, it just wasn’t the right time. Had she gotten in, we would’ve had a black female Van Cliburn.

EL: Wow.

AS: The fact that she didn’t get in, we got the most amazing artist on the planet.

EL: Right, certainly one of the most significant artists.

AS: Without question.

EL: Of the 20th century.

AS: Absolutely, absolutely.

EL: Yeah.

AS: But then Paul Robeson also went to Curtis.

EL: Wow.

AS: Just to name a few, but Curtis was the most incredible, interesting school. In fact, the Curtis Bach Foundation that founded Curtis, Bach Publishing, they decided that musicians were uncouth. On Wednesdays, we had a mandatory tea at the Curtis mansion on Red House Square every Wednesday. We all had to go. There was one particular tea where… and they would always bring in a famous celebrity musician to set tea with us. We walk in, sitting behind the tea table helping the chancellor, who was Rudolf Serkin, the great classical pianist.

EL: Wow.

AS: Was none other than Joan Sutherland.

EL: Jesus.

AS: Joan Sutherland was pouring tea. Now, this is significant for me because growing up as a kid, we only had about three or four stations, The Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan had everybody on that show, from Van Cliburn to Marian Anderson.

EL: To The Beatles.

AS: Every Beatles, The Supremes. But he also had Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne. They were my idols, and they so influenced my youth and my singing, and my desire to sing opera. There was Joan Sutherland serving me tea.

EL: Wow.

AS: In the early ’70s.

EL: That’s amazing. My friend and mentor, one of my mentors in jazz, Jimmy Heath.

AS: Yes.

EL: Went to the Heath brothers.

AS: Yes.

EL: Some of them went to Curtis and grew up in Philadelphia, went to church. Very close knit family, there were three Heath brothers, right? Albert, Percy, and Jimmy. But I heard a lot about Curtis and the Philadelphia music scene from Jimmy.

AS: Yes, oh my God. Yes, the Philharmonic, the best in the country.

EL: Yeah. So you graduate from Curtis. Did that mean it was a straight shot to making a living as a singer?

AS: Well, prior to graduating, the Houston Grand Opera came along with the production of Porgy and Bess. By a stroke of luck, a young lady that I had gone to high school with was studying at a competitive conservatory around the corner, The Philadelphia School of the Arts, I believe it was called. Her date couldn’t go with her to see Porgy and Bess, and she called and asked me if I wanted to go. Well, it was starring Clamma Dale, who was a bigger than life superstar, the most gorgeous woman under the sun. She was playing bass, and I had met her as a young kid auditioning in New York prior to that, and spent the night under her piano. That’s another story.

EL: Whoa, I have to think about that, but proceed.

AS: Proceed. She was starring, and I leaped at the opportunity to go. We went, the performance was incredible. I said to my friend, “I’ve got to get backstage. I’ve got to remind this woman who I am and how nice the view was under her piano.” We managed to find our way. I kept saying, “I’m a good friend of Clamma Dale. I’m a good friend of Beth’s.” I get backstage and I see her, and she gives me a wonderful warm welcome, and then invites me to the cast party, which was being held downstairs. We go, she introduces me as a young singer. I tell them I’m at Curtis. I was in an audition the next day.

EL: Whoa, and you got the part.

AS: I got the part and it changed my life.

EL: That’s where you won the Tony and the Grammy, from Porgy and Bess.

AS: The cast recording of Porgy and Bess, absolutely.

EL: That was in 1977, I believe.

AS: Yes, I made my debut in Porgy and Bess at the Uris Theatre, I believe it was at that time.

EL: Wow, that’s incredible.

AS: Which is now the Gershwin Theatre.

EL: I mean, that doesn’t happen.

AS: Well, I was the youngest member of the cast, absolute youngest.

EL: By the way, I don’t know how to break it to you, but it wasn’t just luck. You are and were a really good singer.

AS: Well, thank you.

EL: That’s a pretty amazing thing because you were 25.

AS: Yeah.

EL: Then you ended up traveling all over Europe singing.

AS: All over Europe, all over the United States. Not just once, but a couple of times, because there would be different tours and I’d go out on them.

EL: As a solo voice, or as part of a company?

AS: Well, as part of the Porgy and Bess company.

EL: Got it.

AS: But then while all of that was going on, I moved to Europe.

EL: You moved to Europe?

AS: I moved.

EL: Of course.

AS: Well, it made perfect sense to me. I moved there, I turned down a contract at the Castle Opera in Germany. Because at the time, I was living in Rome, and Germany did not compare to Rome cuisine-wise. I mean, what would I eat?

EL: It’s true, man.

AS: Of course, I’m in Rome eating the most incredible food.

EL: There’s only so much currywurst you can eat.

AS: Well, what I would say to you is the only thing that has ever interrupted my musical career was food.

EL: When you were embarking, and you were probably one of these people like I am.

AS: Yeah.

EL: Even when I was in the music business, I still took every meal really seriously.

AS: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Food is in and of itself a currency and a language.

EL: At what point did you think, I could maybe make some money cooking?

AS: Well, in the back of my mind, I always thought, I’m going to have this amazing operatic career. Then when I’m ready to retire or when it’s time, I’m going to open a small, intimate, seasonal restaurant. I always thought that. What I didn’t count on was the glass ceiling that didn’t allow me as an African American male to go further in opera.

EL: Fascinating.

AS: African American women were exotic, and they were able to transcend and find their way on the major stages. But African American men had to, essentially to have careers, they had to go to Germany. Germany, the rigid schedule, most people left those opera houses having sung two or three times a day full operas, with no voice at all.

EL: Wow.

AS: African American men, as a rule, and I mentor young African American classical opera singers even now. The conversations haven’t changed that much.

EL: That’s what I was about to ask you.

AS: There’s still such a narrow space for black men in opera. For me, the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I was being represented by Cammy Management, which you know is the best…

EL: Yeah.

AS: Classical management in the city, in the country.

EL: Columbia Artists Management.

AS: Absolutely.

EL: Yeah.

AS: Columbia Artist Management. My last audition at the Met, and this is after a seasoned career. My good friend, Kathleen Battle, arranged this audition for me. This was only my third audition. Mind you, I had sung all over Europe and I had sung opera and European literature, not just Porgy and Bess. I do my audition, I do two arias, they like it. They ask if I had something prepared that was more secular. I started in with one of those. They interrupt me. “Well, it’s wonderful. I can tell you’ve grown so much. I’ll tell you what, we are planning a production of Porgy and Bess. We’d like to consider you for chorus and some bit parts.” You have to understand, having sung a major role in Porgy and Bess and recorded it.

EL: That was a serious insult.

AS: I was slapped down. Really, I was insulted. So much so that basically, that was the end of my operatic career.

EL: Wow.

AS: I left there, I went home, didn’t return any of Cammy’s calls for weeks.

EL: Wow.

AS: I figured this thing out, and I decided that I needed to own my seat at the table, if not the table. I couldn’t own an opera house, but I could own a restaurant, which was my great love. Eighteen months after that disappointment, I was essentially looking for my restaurant.

EL: Wow, which was Café Beulah.

AS: Which was Café Beulah, which opened early, in the early ’90s.

EL: You ended up singing and making a living at it.

AS: Yes.

EL: For 15 years?

AS: Well, let’s see. I started at 25, so I would say in my late 30s, early 40s is when I decided to pull back. I mean, I stopped the opera first, and then I did concert work and smaller things, recital stuff. Then I was done. Once the restaurant pulled itself together, that was where I was going.

EL: That was Café Beulah.

AS: That was Café Beulah, my first restaurant.

EL: 1994.

AS: 1990, yeah.

EL: I remember that restaurant. It was on 19th and Park Avenue South.

AS: Yes, absolutely.

EL: I read in one of the other interviews that you did, that you had some amazing investors in Café Beulah.

AS: Oh, so many incredible… Well, first of all, you know what they always say when you get ready to try to do something. You turn to friends and family.

EL: Right, I know about turning to friends and family. I just kept going to the well once too often with Serious Eats.

AS: Listen, my parents had swung from the chandelier with me on many occasions. But from South Carolina, when it came to talking about restaurants… because my dad had a nightclub and a restaurant growing up. But when it came to restaurants in New York City, there was no reason to be knocking on their doors.

EL: Right.

AS: That was real money that I needed.

EL: Yeah.

AS: I turned to my friends. I’m really happy to say that, thank God for really good friends. Toni Morrison, author, was basically the first investor.

EL: Oh yeah, she was also an investor in Serious Eats. No, I’m just kidding, but come on, dude. Toni Morrison.

AS: Toni Morrison.

EL: That’s not a minor figure.

AS: No, no.

EL: As an artist.

AS: No, no, no. But I mean, I was blessed with great friends, Phylicia Rashad, Percy Sutton from Harlem.

EL: Manhattan Borough president.

AS: I mean, they saw the promise of what I was trying to do.

EL: Wow.

AS: What you have to understand is that prior to this point, I had never owned a restaurant. I had never owned anything.

EL: Right, and you’d never been to cooking school. You’d never even worked in a restaurant.

AS: Well, let me put it this way. I went to cooking school, but not as a degreed person.

EL: Got it.

AS: I went to La Varenne in Paris. I studied at a renaissance cooking school in Italy, but I did not have a real classic education.

EL: Right, got it.

AS: Systematically, nobody graduated me. Also, I had only worked in a restaurant as a singing waiter.

EL: Of course.

AS: At a place in Massachusetts, it’s called Seven Hills where… oh, this is such a great story. Beverly Sills used to deposit her mother for the summer. The name of the resort was Seven Hills. It was in Tanglewood, and I worked one summer as a singing waiter there. That’s the bulk of my restaurant experience prior to opening what I feel is one of the most…

EL: That’s all you need. Be a singing waiter for a summer, you’re ready to open a restaurant.

AS: I’m ready to go, and I had something to say. Interestingly enough, Café Beulah was the first African American fine dining restaurant experience.

EL: I remember.

AS: In Manhattan, which would blow your mind, opened by someone who just had a great idea. Essentially, I took my living room public. I was entertaining people at a large loft in NoHo. I had a table that would go from seating 12 to seating 24. It just was on wheels, and it would just slide open. I would give these amazing dinner parties. I started catering prior to opening the restaurant, so I was ready to go. Essentially, someone else had to pay for dinner.

EL: Right.

AS: So, I opened my own restaurant.

EL: Got it. Was this at the time that Edna Lewis was cooking at Gage and Tollner’s?

AS: This was a little bit after that, I think, because I went out to see Edna. We were friends.

EL: We should say that Edna Lewis is incredible.

AS: Oh, she’s the godmother of…

EL: She’s the godmother of American cooking, yeah.

AS: Farm-to-table cuisine, absolutely. I mean, she is the farm-to-table image.

EL: Yes.

AS: Her books, get them. They basically tell you essentially who we are as a people who prepare food.

EL: Right.

AS: Absolutely.

EL: People of color, everybody.

AS: Absolutely everybody.

EL: Yeah.

AS: Alice Waters swears by her, she was the real thing.

EL: Yeah. You open Café Beulah.

AS: Yes.

EL: It’s doing okay.

AS: Doing good. Overnight, it became this sensational place for the sort of trendy, fashionable artist theater community. Those were my customers.

EL: Got it. Then like all restaurants, it sort of ran its course?

AS: Well, we prepared. When you do restaurants, preparing for success sometimes slaps you in the face when something is successful. Also, we really didn’t know what we were doing.

EL: There is that.

AS: I opened a restaurant that cost probably twice the amount that I raised. The week before we opened, I had run out of money completely and had to buy groceries. Kathleen Battle wrote a check, loaned me money to fill the lauder.

EL: Wow.

AS: We had to be a success from day one. I didn’t have a PR person. I didn’t really know what they did. I didn’t have anybody except the fact that you know some people knew who I was, and friends rallied. That restaurant, day one, we were packed. I don’t know where the people came from.

EL: How long did it stay open?

AS: About five years.

EL: That takes us to around 2000, right? You wrote your first book in 1997, and then from 2000 to when you opened The Cecil and Minton’s with J.J., 14 years. Were you making a living as a caterer?

AS: No, no, no. First of all, we left out two restaurants.

EL: Two restaurants, got it.

AS: Okay, because right after Café Beulah, well during Café Beulah’s part, about halfway through, I opened Sweet Ophelia’s in Soho. But I also closed Sweet Ophelia the same time I closed Café Beulah.

EL: Got it.

AS: There was a year later that I started working on Shoebox Cafe in Grand Central Station.

EL: I remember that place.

AS: Then 9/11 happened to us, and we didn’t survive 9/11. There was a 10 year hiatus where I traveled and developed what is now known as Afro-Asian American cooking.

EL: Which you describe as the food of the African diaspora.

AS: I do, it is the footprint of the enslaved people on five continents. How through slavery, Africa changed the global culinary conversation.

EL: Wow. You opened The Cecil and Minton’s, and you…

AS: With Dick Parsons.

EL: With Dick Parsons, Richard Parsons.

AS: Absolutely.

EL: If you didn’t really know all these people, I’d say you were the greatest name dropper in history, but you really knew all these people.

AS: Well, fortunately I did.

EL: Yeah.

AS: Because Richard essentially put together an incredible team to finance this venture. We both were working quite a lot in Harlem. I had moved to Harlem in 1998. We wanted to do something really special in that community, and we put our interests together. His was jazz, jazz club. He played the trumpet in college.

EL: Wow, I didn’t know that. Of course, Minton’s was a famous…

AS: Minton’s was the place of bebop, absolutely.

EL: Bebop jazz club, yeah.

AS: He was tickled to be able to get his hands on Minton’s, and so we ended up, we started off wanting to open up one restaurant. We were fortunate enough to get that space, and we opened two. Minton’s was Southern revival cooking of The Cecil and my other restaurant, Sweet Ophelia. Then this new concept, Afro-Asian American cooking, became the platform for The Cecil.

EL: That’s when J.J. Johnson became your mentee?

AS: Yes. Well, prior to opening, I’ve always done a tremendous amount of research looking for other dynamic African Americans in the food space that I can work with, mentor, and bring on this journey. I happened to be researching and came across this old show that he had done. At this point, he was working in corporate dining.

EL: I remember.

AS: He did some show that Rocco DiSpirito had on I think Bravo or one of those channels, and he won. What attracted me to him was his determination, his warrior spirit, and he looked like my father. And the dish he made was my father’s dish.

EL: Wow.

AS: Smothered shrimp over grits, that was the dish he made.

EL: That’s awesome, yeah.

AS: I found this chap and I brought him in, and told him what I was planning to do. He was just blown away. A) I was talking about a cuisine he’d never heard of, B) I was talking about doing not one restaurant, but two in Harlem that he couldn’t imagine anyone would be building something that big and intense. He really expected me to just be somebody that was just doing a whole lot of talk, and he’d never hear from.

EL: Right, that’s so interesting. Then you guys opened those restaurants, and you won, Esquire called you one of the best new restaurants of 2014.

AS: In America, yes.

EL: Which is pretty awesome. Then that led to the last award, at least that I know that you won, which was the James Beard award.

AS: Right, for the book.

EL: For the book.

AS: Right.

EL: Between Harlem and Heaven, that you wrote with J.J.

AS: Right.

EL: And Veronica, right?

AS: And Veronica Chambers.

EL: Your co-author on your new book.

AS: Right.

EL: Which we’re going to get to in a second. The first book being Grace the Table.

AS: Yeah.

EL: Then 21 years later, you won the James Beard award for the second book, Between Harlem and Heaven.

AS: Right. Well, certainly the second book published.

EL: Right.

AS: There was another one in between.

EL: Got it. Wow, what a journey you have been on.

AS: It’s been a full ride.

EL: You got your money’s worth, dude. That’s all I have to say. Alexander, we have to leave it right here for this episode, but you’ll be back next time to tell us all about your new book.

AS: Okay.

EL: Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen. Thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with us.

AS: It was wonderful being here.

EL: What a life Alexander Smalls has lived, unlike anyone I’ve never known or interviewed. Now, without further ado, we bring you part of the interview we recorded this past Wednesday.

EL: I’m thrilled to have you back on, I really appreciate you taking the time to do this. I think your hug that you and I shared was my final hug on March 11th.

AS: That hug.

EL: It was the last day I think we were allowed to hug. I feel it’s only appropriate that we pick up our conversation from that hug. So let’s start by acknowledging that our conversation took place on March 11th, and then the world started to fall apart. How did the pandemic affect what you were doing, and if you’re comfortable sharing, how were you feeling?

AS: Well, the pandemic affected my life first and foremost because I just released a book, and I was on book tour. I was making the rounds and promoting the book, which meant that I was traveling and engaging with a lot of strangers, people I didn’t know as well as people that I knew. That abruptly came to a stop, and my physical book tour became a virtual book tour full of interviews, podcasts, Facebook, Instagram live, and Zoom room chats. But it also sent me home to quarantine and gave me a lot of alone time, which became a lot of creative time. I have spent the bulk of the 80 plus days of being in lockdown in my house writing, creating. I’ve been cooking a lot, and I’ve been doing something that I haven’t had the opportunity to do in years, which was working on my plating.

EL: That’s funny because when we talked before, you mentioned that plating was an area that you thought you needed to spend some time on.

AS: Well, yes. In my restaurants early on, when I tried to be the chef in my kitchen, I was completely met with tremendous customers coming into the kitchen. They wanted to visit with me, they wanted me to sit with them and have dinner. I had to essentially get myself in front of the house, meet, greet, talk, and I missed out on actually, after cooking food, being able to plate it on a plate. During the pandemic, I have been cooking up a storm. If you go to my social media pages, particularly Instagram, I have been plating and cooking and plating.

EL: Was it disappointing? It must have been disappointing to have the book tour cut short. Obviously it couldn’t be avoided, but it sounds like it gave you the opportunity to do some things that you wanted to do. As you have no shortage of creative outlets or creative inspiration for that matter, it sounds like it’s been time well spent.

AS: I will tell you, Ed, initially I was very disappointed. It was a hard adjustment. Much of what I do is being with people, engaging people. Throwing dinner parties, having people over. I had planned the most incredible dinner party for the ambassador from Switzerland and his wife, who is East African, from Rwanda. I put together the most incredible party list, and I was so excited, and then it had to be canceled. I had to get over the sadness of not being able to entertain and feed people. But I took that energy, and I wrapped it into being creative and purposeful, and you know enjoying the time I had with myself.

EL: Yeah. Did you think about the pandemic on both a micro level and a macro level, how it was affecting the culture as a whole? Were you able to do that? Because I think we all were aware that it wasn’t just happening to us, it was happening to everybody. I found myself swaying back and forth between the micro and the macro.

AS: Without question. I mean, look, what turned out to be an inconvenience became an expose on the disparages and inequalities in our society. It kind of took the cover, if you will, the blanket off of essentially why more people of color, more people who live in challenged communities, people who essentially make up the essential workers, non-medical field, why they were contracting the disease and dying. That really weighed upon me. Then have that followed up with the murder on TV no less, the whole thing captured, of George Floyd. It really created a lot of contemplation, a lot of anger. I had to manage all of that, and I took to writing. I took to my Facebook, my Instagram posts, and I started to write prose and poetic thoughts expressing essentially how I felt. It was sort of my own way to protest and to bring attention, since I have somewhat of a platform, to these disparities and the inequality and injustice, that it’s so overdue for this country to really embrace and deal with, full stop.

EL: I thought about this when I was thinking about talking to you again, because so much of our conversation was built around your lifelong struggles related to race. I just couldn’t imagine how hard this must have hit you. It’s like hey, this is what you experienced. This wasn’t a hypothetical for you.

AS: First of all, I would call them probably more so lifelong challenges, because essentially, the struggle was a result of the challenges. The challenges were out of my control, or the obstacles that were put there to create the challenges. As a young black boy from the south growing up in the late ’50s and ’60s, essentially my generation was integrating everything. There was no one that really looked like me who was a little black boy, running around, singing opera, reciting Shakespeare in sonnets, studying the classics. Later to become an opera singer and travel the world, and do things that were not imaginable for a kid of that era.

AS: I also remember being a young child during the civil rights movement and watching my older cousins, and even my older siblings go out to sit-ins. My mother wouldn’t let me do anything because she understood the price on the head of a young black boy, and sort of the neck itself. The events of now brought all of that back for me. Hitting the glass ceiling in opera, not being able to break through as many female African American singers have been. Black men have always been shut out, or they have been a token system wherein if there’s one, we don’t have room for another. When you look at all of that, it’s kind of like a big gumbo, but it’s your life.

AS: When you say to yourself, these injustices, as they are apparent to me, why they are not apparent and necessary and important to address to the greater power structure in this country. That’s when you understand that white privilege is built on black pain. This is what we’re experiencing. I’m hopeful, I feel very good about the new movement. There were at times more white people in the streets protesting than black. I felt like a lot of people are really ready to finally say, “Look, I didn’t create this. I wasn’t alive when it was created, but I can do something about it.” When you are complacent, you’re complicit. It’s been an interesting time, to say the least.

EL: It certainly has. God, I mean, your whole life, as people will hear in the rest of the episodes with you, has been a reflection of what you just said.

AS: I mean, everything I want is in front of me.

EL: Yeah, and I’m sure, by the way, people will find out in the rest of these episodes that you were involved with really prominent African American intellectuals like James Baldwin. You were probably having very high level conversations for a long time.

AS: Yes. I mean, I used to have lunch with the extraordinarily wonderful and dear, dear close friend Toni Morrison twice a month. Interestingly enough, because my life had been pretty sheltered on a lot of levels, and that was because my parents really tried to shield me from the ugliness. Choosing the profession that I did, I was kind of in a capsule. But I would go to these lunches with Toni, who would lay it all out there, much like James Baldwin. I mean naked and raw. As James Baldwin said, if you’re half awake in America and you are not walking around in a state of rage, something is wrong with you. People are dead. But what was as eye opening is their knowledge, and also the state of the condition of white and Black America, was their intellectual ability to slice right to the heart and core of the rot in our society, of what was so wrong and broken. It was brilliant. I learned from some amazing people. I used to spend a lot of time with Toni. My time with Nina Simone and Jimmy Baldwin in Paris. Jessye Norman, who I also lost recently. Jessye and I used to have wonderful times in Paris on the Champs-Elysees. She loved the café life, and we would have these conversations about America in kind of the same way as with Nina Simone and Jimmy Baldwin at Café Flo. Because there was a mystique and an exotic ambience to Black folks in Paris. Paris welcomed African Americans with open arms in a way that they did not welcome their territorial and empirical countries, like West Africa and like the Caribbean. But I always felt like the French loved African Americans just to throw it up in white America’s face.

EL: Yeah.

AS: It was like, “We’ll take them,” and they did. I lived in Paris for several years. I kept an apartment, and it was the place. It was the place for interesting, artistic black people from Jimmy Baldwin through the ’90s to find themselves.

EL: Yeah.

AS: The most amazing conversations and situations. I’m so glad I didn’t miss that.

EL: I know something, as you know, because we share a relative who is a friend of both of ours, Robert Sadin.

AS: Yes. Speaking of our good friend and your cousin, Bob Sadin, who has done so much in that arena. I can’t remember if we spoke before about the fact that I’ve been working with him on my own new album.

EL: Which I think we talked a little bit about. When I talked to Bob, he talked about how you guys were still in the middle of it. If you could succinctly just say what it is, because it’s a fascinating piece of creative work that you have endeavored to complete.

AS: Well, interestingly enough, the recording project mirrors my last book, Meals, Music, and Muses. The album is called Meals, Music, and Muses. It’s my African American songbook. Essentially, what the premise and foundation of my focus is to, I don’t know if the word is save, but re-introduce the negro spiritual, which I consider a sort of dying musical form, to a contemporary public. I mean, essentially, once slavery was ended and all of those songs no longer had the same meaning and place in enslaved people’s lives. Negro spirituals were created for the African people to communicate with each other. Essentially, they weren’t allowed to do their dancing and their chants and all of that. They were only able to perform religious music. They cleverly took African melodies and took scripture and readings from the Bible and hymns, and they put it to that melody. But they used it to really communicate about what was going on in their personal lives, their struggle, the underground railroad. They could do that right on their master’s eyes without him knowing what they were doing. When slavery was finished, these songs went to the church. They kind of sit in that place, but they’re not really religious. So enter Bob Sadin and Ulysses Owens, my two great producers. They put together some amazing jazz musicians like Joseph Juber and Cyrus Chestnut. Because the idiom and the ambience of the spiritual works best in a jazz setting. We revamped it, and I got the cobwebs out of my voice. I hadn’t been in a recording studio in well over 30 years. We are almost finished this wonderful music.

EL: That’s great. Well, I think this has been amazing, and really getting reacquainted with you during the making of these podcasts has been such a pleasure for me, and more meaningful than you can know.

AS: Pleasure, Ed, pleasure.

EL: All right, man. Take care, Alexander.

EL: And just to whet your appetite, for both of his episodes, Alexander graciously gave us permission to use some of his about to be released music in this week’s Special Sauce and next week’s as well. That’s what you heard at the beginning of the episode and now.

EL: Next week, you’ll hear more about Alexander’s new book and recording. I think Serious Eaters will find both this week’s episode and next week’s to be must-listens. How lucky we are to hear Alexander Smalls’ story in its entirety at this moment. So long, Serious Eaters. We’ll see you next week.

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