Chef Alexander Smalls is nearly seven thousand miles from his home in Harlem, but he’s holding court like he’s hosting one of his famous dinner parties in his beautifully decorated dining room.
Smalls, who is a James Beard Award winner, cookbook author and former professional opera singer, is happy to show me around his latest project, Alkebulan. It’s an impressive dining hall that features seven chefs from all over Africa and is part of Expo 2020 Dubai, which started in October and will run through the end of March. The venue seats 613 people across its ten counters and attracts a mixture of both locals and tourists.
“I have handpicked chefs representing all parts of the continent to ensure we showcase the rich diversity the countries have to offer,” Smalls told me on a recent visit to Alkebulan.
From the second I entered the vast room I could tell it was more than just a food hall, but truly an immersive experience. The sounds and the smell of Africa came alive as if I had just landed in the motherland. Upbeat music from Africa played in the background and artwork by Nike Davies-Okundaye, Theresah Ankomah and Rufai Zakari decorated the venue.
Sitting on an elevated deck inside Alkebulan, I tried an array of the food available from the different stands, including an African swizzle cocktail from the Bar Cane stand by Chef Coco Reinarhz. The drink is a delicious mix of rum, white cacao, lychee, banana puree, tamarind paste, aloe water and rhubarb bites.
I then headed over to Penja and I couldn’t wait to taste Chef Glory Kabe’s Afro-vegan food. The Red Red Green was a comforting mix of savory black-eyes peas, palm oil stew and plantains. Chef Glory also offers an array of bites to choose from such as a vegan spin on fried chicken. The food hall also has a bakery called ShoeBox from Chef Mame Sowe that serves delectable treats such as Peanut Opera, which is a lavender cake, and Sombi, a traditional rice pudding from Senegal.
There was seriously no shortage of creativity and diversity within the dishes offered by the chefs.
“It’s a celebration of Africa,” Smalls told me.
Read on to find out more about this pioneering food hall and what Smalls has planned for the future of Alkebulan.
Where did you get the idea for Alkebulan? “It grew out of the need to understand the heritage and history of my African American kitchen where the food of my ancestral trust came from, which lead me on an odyssey of travel throughout African and Asia, culminating in following the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It became this journey around the world on five continents. I had always dreamed of a place where people from everywhere could come and share the amazing story of the food of the African Diaspora, which could be told with authenticity and celebration.”
What can people expect when they enter the food hall? “We are taking visitors on a journey. From the moment you enter Alkebulan, you are hit with regional African food. With some of the best culinary practitioners who are really celebrating the food of their heritage and bringing it into a contemporary expression.”
How did you get connected to Expo 2020? “Dubai had the foresight to make Alkebulan a reality. Alkebulan is also the Arab word for Africa, so everything feels like it came full circle. I got connected to Expo 2020 during the pandemic when all my projects had come to a halt. I jumped with joy at the opportunity to bring this concept to life.”
What’s one thing you want people to know about African cuisine? “As an opera singer, I traveled all over the world. I went to fine dining restaurants, and I didn’t see my heritage and culture being presented. It was more like African food was perceived as unhealthy and toxic. Alkebulan is not only good food, but it’s also education. I hope it shows people how diverse, creative and healthy African food is.”
What chefs are featured in the food hall? “Cooking is a language and artistic expression. Through my travels, I found people in the field who were innovative. I grabbed a handful of the people that I thought could help express the vision of Alkebulan. So, there are numerous African chefs spearheading their own concepts at Alkebulan, which includes Chef Kiran Jethwa of Seven Seafood; multi-award-winning Chef Coco Reinarhz the mastermind behind Choma BBQ; Chef Moos Akougbe the French Ivory pastry chef extraordinaire; vegan chef Glory Kabe; famous Cameroonian Chef Pierre Siewe; Chef Mame Sowe of sweet treats Shoebox Bakery; and Chef Davisha Burrowes.”
What’s next for Alkebulan? “It is our dream to open these all over the world! So, there will be an Alkebulan London and an Alkebulan Harlem.”