Alexander Smalls with his three-course menu: hot dogs, fried rice, and fried dumplings.
Illustration: Eliana Rodgers
Over the course of his 28-year-long career the chef, cookbook author, and former opera singer Alexander Smalls has opened a string of Manhattan restaurants, starting with Café Beulah in 1994, that served what he called Southern-revival cooking. In 2013, he debuted the Cecil and a revamped Minton’s, the historic mid-century jazz club. (He is no longer involved in either.) Now, he’s busy with his most ambitious project: a string of African food halls called Alkebulan, including one in Harlem. For Smalls, hosting is what it’s all about. “That’s all a boy wants is a dinner party,” he says. “The rest of it, it’s a lot to go through just to host some people for dinner. But hey, we all have our ways to get there.”
Thursday, January 13
Breakfast is by far the most inventive meal of the day for me. I got into making breakfast a real feature of my life because of the pandemic. Actually, prior to that, I often skipped breakfast or grabbed something on the go. But when life went indoors, most of my activity centered around being at home. I started cooking more than ever, and the meal I cooked for myself that I most enjoyed was breakfast.
This morning, it was smoked salmon, tomato, and baby kale on a cauliflower pizza with egg and cream cheese. I get my smoked salmon from Moscow on the Hudson, and yes, I use store-bought cauliflower pizza crust. I ain’t making that.
I eat a lot of smoked salmon. It’s something I got into when I moved to Philadelphia to attend the Curtis Institute of Music. Growing up in the South, I wasn’t necessarily exposed to a lot of what we consider Jewish food, that lox-and-bagels kind of thing. We would smoke whitefish but didn’t have any smoked salmon, I don’t think.
For lunch, I had chicken salad with microgreens, deviled duck eggs, and salted flatbreads. It had a somewhat traditional mayo base and sweet-pickle relish, but also a little bit of cumin and cinnamon.
I tend to put cinnamon with a lot of savory to give a kind of sweet, interesting flavor flare to it. It’s something I picked up when I went off to college and became very friendly with a girl by the name of Peggy Baroody, who was Lebanese. Well, her father was Lebanese and her mother was a Wasp. But she had grown up in Florence, South Carolina, where there’s a large Lebanese community. Her Lebanese father put cinnamon in their fried chicken, and I loved it. That’s how I got exposed to cinnamon in savory dishes, as opposed to sweet dishes.
I do love duck eggs. Why do I love them? That’s a good question. Everybody asks me that all the time. On my Instagram, I often say, “Big assed duck eggs.” And, “Get your big assed duck eggs. Get your fat duck eggs.” I got introduced to them somewhere along the way. Now, I didn’t necessarily grow up with duck eggs, but I grew up with quail eggs because South Carolina is big on quail. I was eating quail since I was a child, but I graduated from quail to duck. For me, it’s a more fertile taste.
Dinner with wine or a cocktail in hand can easily become a production of something fresh from the butcher, a one-dish wonder or an Italian pasta or a big pot of stew or gumbo, with attention to patting and presentation whether it’s for friends or myself. On this night, I made a mac-’n’-cheese casserole with smoked ham, fermented black beans, and caramelized spring onions. Everything for me is Afro-Asian-American cooking. I’ll bring in suya spice, chiles. And there’s nothing like the smokey flavor of ham or bacon in mac ’n’ cheese.
Since I’ve been back in New York the past month, I’ve only left home once. Since June, I’ve made about five trips to Dubai, three trips to West Africa and Europe, and a couple to Los Angeles. My body’s just like, Okay, whatever. We’ll sleep when we sleep. You just let us know. I’ve learned to stop fighting it.
I didn’t realize it until two weeks in. I haven’t been ready to be out there. I haven’t wanted to be involved. When Omicron broke, I was in Dubai. I came home and I stayed home, literally. But the other part is that when the pandemic happened, everything stopped, as you know. We all went inside. We might as well have been in a bomb shelter, except we were able to look out of our windows. I embraced it. What it allowed me to do is indulge in something I don’t get to as a chef-restaurateur-host, which is is plating food. To a lot of people, that wouldn’t mean a lot, but to a chef, part of cooking is putting it on a plate.
Friday, January 14
Stone-ground grits and greens with suya spices and smoked sea salt. I like red grits, I like blue grits — I’m all over the place. The only criteria is stone-ground. They really need to be stone-ground.
It’s a texture thing. I like my grits to really have body. I grew up on grits. When I saw some people cooked them in the microwave, I was frightened. Oh, no — you need a good 15-20 minutes for your grits. And I cook my grits in stock as well. I have friends who will cook theirs in milk, and that drives me crazy. People cook it in milk, or they’ll make it, then douse it with heavy cream and tons of butter, and that just changes the complexity of what grits are.
I’ll never forget: Growing up in the South, I had a good friend whose family moved from Long island. He was Italian American, and he spent the night one weekend when my mother was making grits. When he got his, he put cream and sugar on it. We were all horrified. He’s like, “What? What? It’s like Cream of Wheat.”
I’m a purist about my grits. I just am. Unless I’m going to basically create a North African or an Asian curry moment and I decide to cook the grits in coconut milk with cinnamon and cumin. That’s doing a whole different thing. But if you’re making basic grits? No milk, no heavy cream. For me, it’s about a really good stock.
For lunch, I had smoked eel with greens, cucumbers marinated in rice wine, and a scallion-ginger-soy dressing. I get my eel frozen and already cooked, from one of my fish purveyors. It’s like smoked salmon. I ain’t smoking no seafood up in here.
Sometimes I’ll lay the eel out on some greens with some deviled eggs and add a little bit of caviar and have a moment like that, and that’s good. Sometimes I’ll want it on some seasoned rice. I’ll make emerald rice — which is basically rice that has been made green with turnip greens or collard greens or kale or other greens — and then I’ll put eel on top of that rice. I like to eat in a bowl. My favorite vessel is a bowl. A bowl of anything just tastes better.
Dinner was creole-spiced duck confit, black rice and sweet peas, and a pear-apricot-and-cabbage salad. I don’t know what I’m going to make for dinner ahead of time. First of all, I’m an artist, and food is my canvas. It’s how I have this experience, but I live in a New York apartment with three refrigerators. I keep getting those notices from ConEd saying, “Your bill is much higher than most people in your bracket.” Yeah, I know. I’ve got three refrigerators, I have three wine coolers, and I’ve got all kinds of gadgets. Leave me alone.
I’m always stocked up. Some of the best meals come when I’m sitting around with friends and it rolls into mealtime and we didn’t plan for it to. I can always go to my three refrigerators and find stuff to make happen. In my dry pantry, I’ve got every kind of pasta, every kind of rice you can imagine. All of that can turn itself into an incredible meal in 30 minutes.
I’m a host. I entertain. But the thing is, I also entertain myself. I don’t do it just for guests. I am my own biggest fan, which is why my Instagram is full of dish after dish, because I’m up in here. If I’m working on something and then I need a break, I immediately go, “What can I cook? I need a break. I’ve got stuff marinating in there now.” It’s not like I need to cook anything, but I cook to live. I live to cook.
When I host, it’s like a salon at my home. There have been so many evenings when we retire to the piano, any number of my musical friends or myself, because after a few bourbons I have no shame. When Michael Feinstein comes over — and those are always fun times, because he’s an old friend — we have this uncanny ability to improvise together. He will just start playing something, and I’ll start singing, and we’ll end up doing something that we have never done before and probably wouldn’t do again because I wouldn’t remember.
Saturday, January 15
Cinnamon-coconut-curry oatmeal with caramelized apples and glazed passion-fruit blueberries. I usually mix my oatmeal from quick rolled oats and steel cut, because it’s a texture thing. You got to get that texture right. That quick stuff? It disappears. It brings nothing. In fact, it takes away from everything else you do. I put my chiles in there, too. My chiles go in everything.
For lunch, I had a crispy-salmon-skin salad with microgreens and mango-ginger vinaigrette. I will cut the salmon skin and save it and then I will toast it up in the oven. I’ll put it under the broiler or salamander, let it crisp up.
Chili cheese dogs with coleslaw and crispy tater tots. All three of my cookbooks have hot-dog recipes in them. One of the first meals I ever made was beans and franks. I was about 5 years old, standing on a chair after I had prepared my ingredients and stirring the pot, putting in my molasses and my butter and my ketchup to create that gravy for my beans. Onions and bell peppers, all of it. Then, when it got to the thickness I liked, I threw the chopped-up franks in there, and my mom made a big pot of white rice. I was in heaven.
When it comes to hot dogs, I like a casing that pops when you bite into it. I like a firm hot dog. Right now, I buy my hot dogs at the Russian delicatessen. They have a veal frank that I love. Years ago, I used to go to the East Village to the Polish delicatessen down on Second Avenue and 7th Street. Oh my gosh. No supermarket grade. That’s not me.
Ate crunchy cinnamon spike granola with bananas, coconut chips, and black walnuts.
For lunch, I made chile-fried duck dumplings and mixed field greens tossed in a ginger-tomato-soy-garlic dressing. I’ll do chopped duck meat and lace it full of scallions and cabbage and put it in the little pocket, the little dough. And I have my little dumpling maker I fold over, and when I don’t have that, I just use a fork and pinch the edges. And then I steam them and fry them in duck fat. There’s always a tub of duck fat in my house.
Smothered shrimp in suya-spiced crab-meat gravy over stone-ground grits. This is my father’s recipe; the suya is my addition. My father could cook only one thing in my house growing up, and it was this dish. Otherwise, he didn’t know how to cook. My mother made everything. And this dish was made on special occasions, like Christmas morning or Thanksgiving morning. It was also made on select Sunday mornings, and it was something we looked forward to.
You make a roux, you get it the right color that you want, you add stock, and you keep whisking and cooking it until it arrives where you want it to be. And then you add crab meat to it. Depending on how I feel, in another pan I will dust-fry shrimp and throw them into the crab-meat gravy, or I’ll do skillet shrimp. Maybe with some thin-cut pieces of okra, some sweet peppers and onions. And then that gets folded into the crab-meat gravy, and it all gets served on grits.
Monday, January 17
More duck. I made spicy duck fried rice with Chinese sausages and a duck egg. Fried rice is one of the best dishes to make, especially when you have leftover duck, seafood, or ham in the refrigerator. It’s so easy to just throw all those ingredients in the skillet and then augment it with fresh ginger and garlic and some soy sauce and then you’re eating before you know it. Then, of course, you crack a nice duck egg on top. Man, that is living.
Lunch was smoked salmon and avocado toast with a grape tomato and red-onion salad.
For dinner, I made an emerald rice pilau with pistachio and truffle oil, sweet yams, and bourbon-brown-sugar lamb chops.
Bourbon and brown sugar, you can’t beat it. You cannot beat it. It glazes over meat brilliantly. Of course, lamb chops are cooked in no time, just a few minutes, and I like mine rare anyway. You hit them a few minutes on each side to get a nice little crust. It’s transformational. Again, these things don’t necessarily have to take so long, and you’re at it.