An Alexander Smalls’s dinner party at his home in Sugar Hill is about more than the food, which, if you’re lucky, is prepared by Smalls himself, or, if you’re just as lucky, it’s made by an emerging chef in Smalls’s Black chef collective, bringing mentorship and visibility to up-and-coming cooks.
A New York City icon, Smalls is in the middle of opening the city’s first African food hall, Alkebulan, which will launch in Harlem in the coming months. Alkebulan will not only highlight ten food stalls from around the continent but will also feature music and art. The NYC food hall is the second location after the first one opened in Dubai, with stalls that include Shoebox Bakery, Chicken Coop, and Sweet Ophelia’s, an Afro-Asian wok bar. The team is also working on a London location.
Before this massive project, there was Smalls’s restaurant the Cecil and Minton’s in Harlem, where many New Yorkers first got to know his chef-de-cuisine JJ Johnson, now the force behind Fieldtrip. Smalls has spearheaded three others before them: Shoebox Cafe in Grand Central Terminal in the early 2000s; Sweet Ophelia’s, a Southern bakery in Soho, and Café Beulah in Flatiron, both in the mid-’90s. The latter is one of the early restaurants to introduce soul food to New York City’s fine dining scene, he says.
A chef, restaurateur, and opera singer — who won both a Grammy Award and Tony Award for the cast recording of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, with the Houston Grand Opera — Smalls throws some of the city’s most mythologized dinner parties, positioning him as a grandfather of New York’s Black culture.
Yet for all his accomplishments, hosting dinner parties remains front-and-center, his love for entertaining serving as a grounding force as well as a way to connect with others doing interesting things in the Black community.
In March, Smalls’s dinner featured Charleston chef Marcus Shell of French brasserie Rue de Jean. As Shell prepared an aromatic batch of littleneck clams, Smalls’s cousin, Marva Smalls, and family friend from Los Angeles, Maya Elizabeth McHenry, stopped by. While seven guests gathered around courses, Smalls remained at the center of the dining experience.
“Alexander orchestrates everything,” said singer, songwriter, and actor Shola Adisa-Farrar of Smalls’s dinners. “There’s an opportunity for a lot of cross-cultural connection, and that to me is the most exciting part of it.”
During the dinner, Smalls speaks to the symbiosis of his restaurant and music careers. “When I was doing the music, and I needed more, I would go into the kitchen, and they both kind of helped me get through life,” he says. Those languages are on display on Instagram where he captures his dinner party memories and smart musical excursions for more than 20,000 Instagram followers.
Smalls follows a line of hosts in the Black community, where dinner parties are a space for autonomy. In Jubilee, author Toni Tipton-Martin brings to light records of African American hospitality, evidenced in texts such as Beatrice Hightower Cates’s “Eliza’s Cookbooks,” a 1936 collection of refined recipes from members of the Negro Culinary Art Club of Los Angeles. Writer Mayukh Sen also documents “the secret radicalism” of dinners hosted by A’Lelia Walker, daughter of hairdresser and millionaire Madame C.J. Walker. The socialite and heiress was known to host a bevy of intellectual and artistic friends, many of whom were Black and queer, during the Harlem Renaissance. More recently, Korsha Wilson wrote about B. Smith as “the consummate host.”
Smalls’s start began in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, where his parents observed his predilection for hosting, and supported his interests — so much so that when he was about seven years old, his father decided to build him a clubhouse in the family’s backyard to host his first gatherings.
When Smalls relocated to New York in the 1970s, he lived in several neighborhoods, including Soho, the Village, and Upper West Side. In each, he hosted dinners and gatherings for a growing and eclectic group of friends. After moving into his Harlem apartment in 1998, he created a home that resembles a museum: An art collector, his walls are filled with images painted by artists spanning the Black diaspora, from Rwanda to Brazil. His bar is a holdover from his earlier restaurant, Sweet Ophelia’s. His refrigerator features photos of his experiences with Black Hollywood.
“The idea is that you’re not just here to eat, you’re here to have an experience,” he says of his dinners. “A night might start with cocktails... followed by some pageantry at the table.” The food is focused, but not the main event. “I want you to know something about the food that you’re eating, and what and why and what it’s called and what’s in it and how it influences and tells the story of who we are as Black folk.”
This article has been updated to include a link to “Alexander Smalls Hosts the Best Dinner Parties in New York,” written by Osayi Endolyn and published by Food & Wine in 2020, and updated in 2023.