Cooking is telling a story," bellows Alexander Smalls. The South Carolina chef best known for his Harlem restaurants The Cecil and Minton’s is a raconteur par excellence. Culinary expression is his scholarship. Through cooking, catering, and hosting, he reintroduced the Low Country cooking of his childhood as Southern Revival cuisine in New York City. This is the kind of cooking that tells the story of who we are as a nation and reinvigorates our ideas about African-American food.
His cuisine explores and pays homage to the African diaspora — literally the seeds and the stories that slaves and migrants carried (and, in many cases, hid) all over the world for centuries. Southern food has always been farm-to-table, has always been local, has always had an element of fusion, and has been enjoyed with an element of reverence.
Smalls ensures it has an element of fun, too. His Harlem home is a study in memory-making: Colorful rooms are delightfully crowded with sofas, parlor bar seating, and a baby grand for impromptu singalongs (Smalls started out as an opera singer). Countless mementos, souvenirs, art, and photographs are on display, alongside china cabinets stacked high with plates, cocktail glasses, and cooking gadgets. When crowds gather, as they often do, he turns out the cornbread and turns on the Southern hospitality. His special occasion dish is smothered shrimp and grits, an heirloom recipe from his father served in big batches to be celebrated and revered and above all ravenously devoured.
On a making a meal of many lifetimes:
"Shall I talk about shrimp and grits? Whooo! You know, one of the things unique to Low Country cooking and that uniquely centered around special occasions and celebration was my father’s shrimp smothered in crab meat gravy over grits. It was the meal that I felt told the story about who we were as Southern African-American people more than anything, because it was the meal of his childhood. The meal of my childhood. And the meal of my grandfather’s childhood. It’s generational. Nothing says Southern — or Low Country Carolina — like smothered shrimp."
On auspicious beginnings:
"I grew up in a Low Country household in Up Country. My grandfather, city farmer that he was, would plow the fields in the spring and we’d work in that garden. I remember I had to do time in my grandfather’s vegetable garden and time in my mother’s flower garden, which I hated! But my grandfather’s garden was a whole new territory of great interest. What it taught me as a child was first and foremost the value and understanding of where the food came from. The expression ‘tending my garden’ was so extraordinarily a part of the cultural expression in an authentic way. So I grew up with the pride of that garden every summer."
On his father's signature dish:
"Now this was the only dish my father made. My mother would make it on rare occasions, but most of the time this was my father’s dish. The one time he would take over the kitchen. And my mother would say, ‘This is his specialty.’ And I think the only thing mother would do was make the grits. That was back in the day when people got lumps in the grits. Today people don’t use old-fashioned or stone ground grits, so they don’t have to worry about lumps. But mom would prepare the grits and put them on low, and — the thing about good grits is that you can just add a little water and they are fine — we would have them for breakfast. Seafood for breakfast is not uncommon. It’s part and parcel [of being in coastal Carolina]."
On African American culinary influence:
"When I set out on this mission to unearth the contribution of African people throughout the five continents where they were enslaved … The whole idea of talking about the legacy and the treasure of the foods of the African diaspora means you have to talk about slavery in order to mirror the goodness of that part of it."
On the majesty of corn:
"Cornbread is this iconic side dish, if you will, I’ll give it that much importance. ‘Cause it’s not really an accessory. I’ve seen people make a whole meal from cornbread. One of my aunt’s favorite things to do was to burn cornbread and throw it in a bowl with buttermilk. I grew up eating cornbread and buttermilk just like that. With a little sugar and cinnamon, oh my god! See what you’re missing?!"
On knowing when your shrimp-and-grits brunch is a success:
"I had a bunch of high-powered women over for brunch because another high-powered woman was visiting from South Africa. I laid the table and, you know, six bottles of champagne and some several hours later I was able to get them all cars. They were just moving in!"
On making a family dish:
"What would come out of the crab boil would be crab meat for the Southern shrimp and gravy. I was allowed to clean shrimp, so you know, basically pop the heads off, move the shells. This was a dish [the whole family] truly participated in. From when they were live to when they were prepared in a pot and put on a flame. I really feel like this dish epitomizes coastal Carolina cooking like nothing else."
On secret ingredients:
"I do something my father would have never done. What I do is I add a little sherry to my smothered shrimp. When you make she-crab soup, you add a little sherry. If you make turtle soup, you add a little sherry. There’s something about sherry and Southerners."
On silver linings:
"I fully believe that out of every horrible situation, there is some silver lining. There is some light — because you are still talking about the preservation of people. Both spirit and soul, and people don’t stop contributing. They don’t stop creating."
Photography by Zach DeZon