International cuisine is one of the most interesting markets in the United States. Whether it’s delicious pasta dishes offered by Italian restaurants in major urban hubs, or Chinese restaurants that rose to fame in the 20th century, plenty of self-declared “foodies” have found themselves associating with foods from various countries, declaring them in Yelp or Google: “best Japanese restaurants near me.”
One region that’s gone almost completely untapped, however, is also the one boasting the most diverse and interesting histories in the world: African cuisine.
While plenty of cute “fusion” restaurants have made splashes in various contemporary scenes–see various Ethiopian food mentions in ‘90s movies–food from Africa has often gone overlooked in the American scene. It’s a bit puzzling, considering the amount of history and culture the continent has to offer.
Alkebulan food stand at the Dubai Expo 2020
This is the challenge Alkebulan faces. The self-described African dining hall, founded by James Beard Award-winning chef Alexander Smalls, is a wonderland of African cuisine that boasts of food from every corner of the continent and a myriad of choices for people to enjoy. It debuted at Dubai’s Expo 2020, and it’s about to open two new locations in London and New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.
“Being a culinary practitioner, a bit of a historian, and–most certainly –an activist and an advocate,” Smalls says, “I delved into studying and visiting all those places to understand Africa's influence on these five continents and prove how, essentially, Africa changed the global culinary conversation. I brought in some of the most amazing chefs, and we started to create an environment.”
Food by Penja
At the Dubai Expo 2020 in October of 2021, Alkebulan was introduced as the “World’s First African Dining Hall.” With 10 chef-led concepts including traditional gourmet dishes and recipes straight from the streets, an “environment” does not begin to describe the ambiance one receives when visiting the dining hall.
Stacked wall-to-wall with food from various regions and countries, Alkebulan includes Smalls’ own eatery Chicken Coop and Afro-Asian fusion wok bar Sweet Ophelia’s. It also includes his Shoebox bakery, featuring Senegalese pastries.
Oxtail dumplings by Sweet Ophelia
As one walks through the halls, they are fully surrounded by culture in cuisine. Music is performed in various corners, and traditional dress can be found all over. In this exchange, Smalls is hoping to not only capitalize on the “food hall” model that succeeded pre-pandemic, but also introduce new ideas of African culture to customers.
“It’s a museum. It's a gallery,” Smalls says. “We are having conversations with food and drink, but also through art and music and fashion. There is an ambiance that is quite amazing … We are titillating all of your senses, from visuals to sights, sounds to smells—and there is this incredible opportunity to talk to authentic and often native (peoples) from these particular areas, about the food and about their experience and their love.”
This inviting setting was crucial to Smalls, because he wanted to make sure his audience did not feel intimidated nor uncomfortable when entering the food hall. Customers often enter such restaurants with stereotypes about what to expect, thinking African food may be “too spicy” or just “thrown into a big pot in the backyard. Alkebulan needed to be a perfect counterexample to these images, offering outside viewers a new perspective on what could be offered from the culture.
“African food, much like most things… has suffered institutional racism,” Smalls says. “It has always been thrown away, (deemed) not good enough… It's like the forgotten, undiscovered culinary experience.”
Undiscovered in its original form, perhaps, but Smalls says African cuisine is much more common than people realize. Barbecue has roots in African cuisine, cooked by those that brought the recipes from across the sea.
Food by Penja
“One could say that the foundation of cooking came out of the two oldest cultures, Africa and Asia,” Smalls says. “A lot of the cooking techniques–the stewing, the smothering, and also the grilling–comes out of the African culture. The reason you have Southern food the way that you do is because of the Africans; because they brought their seeds, their cooking techniques. They did all the cooking, and many of those are foundational for us today in all the foods. You look at the food in New Orleans, Charleston. This is not by coincidence. African cooking is really African-American cooking.”
While Alkebulan does operate under the guise of African cuisine, there is much more to explore. Meals offered come from every corner of the continent; from South African barbecue to the fish markets of Kenya, and even the delicacy of goat.
Much of the inspiration for Alkebulan came from Smalls’ own life. Born in South Carolina with three sisters, Smalls grew up with plenty of cooking experience. His father’s brother and sister were both chefs, as were his mother’s father and uncle. Despite being surrounded by food, Smalls always dreamed of being a professional singer; a dream, he explained, that was always supported by his family.
Smalls would eventually become a very successful singer, winning a Grammy and Tony with the cast of Porgy and Bess on Broadway, but he eventually hit :the glass ceiling.” He knew a number of Black opera singers who would only be included in companies for tokenism. Choosing instead to travel the world, Smalls began taking in the cuisines of different countries, noticing a disheartening trend.
“In all my traveling as an opera singer, at all of the fine, extraordinary restaurants I dined at in France and Italy and England, African Americans and African people were not part of the culinary conversation,” Smalls says. “The food of African Americans was considered soul food, heart attack food… not good for you, but also good. Essentially, it did not get the respect or recognition that it deserved."
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Smalls opened his first restaurant, Cafe Beulah, in the early ‘90s.
“I sought to basically create a place for the food of the African diaspora, into the marketplace with the French, Italian and everything else that was being touted,” he says. “I had a passion and a mantle picked out, and was on a mission to essentially bring us not only into the conversation, but bring the ancestors with me.”
These lessons are very much present in Alkebulan, as the dining hall constantly works to elevate up-and-coming Black chefs. Guest chefs are brought in and regular staff is elevated into new environments as Alkebulan hopes to provide these chefs with the resources and platform they need to rise and succeed.
“I want to keep it fresh,” Smalls says. “I want to keep it current, [and] I also want to give opportunity to [both] established and up-and-coming chefs, who basically may not have found a place to have a conversation about their food. We can do those things in the right space.
In true support of all his chefs, Smalls declined to recommend a favorite dish from the food hall, saying instead that customers should come hungry and ready to try anything.
“Go to as many outpost restaurants as you can,” Smalls says, “because you're in for the most amazing treat.”