Alexander Smalls gets the key to the city in a talk with Craig Melvin today
Two former Wofford College students were back on campus this week and met for a chat.
Nothing unusual there, except that alumni were NBC Today Show host Craig Melvin and famed restaurateur, chef, singer, author and storyteller Alexander Smalls.
That, and the conversation took place on stage at the Jerome Johnson Richardson Theater in front of an audience of over 100 people.
At the end of the hour-long and far-reaching conversation, Smalls was given the key to the city of Spartanburg by a few fellow Wofford alumni, city council members Erica Brown and Jamie Fulmer.
“Mr. Smalls, the City of Spartanburg celebrates your career and your commitment to preserving African-American culture,” Brown said during the award presentation. “You are an inspiration to this community and an example of how young people, growing up in Spartanburg, can perform and conduct business on the world’s biggest stages. Welcome home and congratulations.
Smalls, a Spartanburg native and graduate of Spartanburg High School, attended Wofford from 1970 to 1972. He then studied voice at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts before rising to prominence as a vocalist. Tony and Grammy award-winning opera. .
He left opera after a 15-year career, and in 1994 opened Café Beulah, his first of several restaurants in New York. All have been critically acclaimed and in 2019 Smalls received a James Beard Foundation award for his book “Between Harlem and Heaven”, which includes stories and recipes from his journey as a pioneer of African-American cuisine. Asian-American.
Smalls is the only person to have won a Grammy, a Tony and a James Beard Award. Not to mention the key to Spartanburg.
Melvin, who grew up in Columbia, graduated from Wofford in 2001 and is a member of the college’s board of trustees. He has won three regional Emmy Awards for his work in television.
The pair spent much of the day on the Wofford campus, with Smalls speaking with groups of students and taking part in a cooking demonstration with Melvin and university president Dr Nayef Samhat before heading upstairs. on the scene.
In a lunchtime chat with students at the Wofford Center for Environmental Studies, Smalls said his twin passions for music and food were nurtured by his extended family during his youth in Spartanburg.
An aunt and uncle were particularly strong influences, he said. His aunt, a classical pianist, taught him music, and his uncle, a chef, provided him with early cooking skills. They were childless and had moved to Spartanburg from Harlem in New York to be part of young Alexander’s upbringing.
His parents focused on the practical realities of raising a black son – the only boy in the extended family – in the 1960s South.
“They were grooming me to be a doctor or a lawyer, a way to be part of the conversation,” Smalls said. “When I told them I wanted to be an opera singer, they had nowhere to put that.”
And although they told Alexander they didn’t want to raise what they considered an artist, “They never said ‘no,'” he said.
Smalls said that music, along with food, especially food of African descent from South Carolina’s Lowcountry, became the lenses through which he viewed the world.
For Smalls, becoming a chef and restaurateur was more than providing great food and being in business. It was also about preserving the culture. People questioned his intention to create a fine dining restaurant celebrating African-American cuisine, which had not been thought of in this context.
“Gastronomy is a concept, not a kind of food. These are techniques that we can apply to all kinds of foods,” Smalls said. “My mission is to raise the standards and the way people think about African American food.”
Smalls has announced plans to bring its food hall concept to Dubai, Alkebulan, New York and other US cities. The varied dining options in the lobby showcase the influence of the African diaspora on the global culinary landscape.
At 70, with his restaurants and a newly released book and album of African-American spiritual music in a jazz style, Smalls says his twin languages continue to enliven and support him as they always have.
“When music was my focus, food became my outlet. When food became my focus, music soothed my soul. I feel rewarded for having been able to have a life that allowed me to do things that I love the most and to make a difference.”
Chuck Milteer is the editor of Spartanburg Magazine. Contact him by email at [email protected]