Only one person is believed to have won Tony, Grammy and James Beard awards, and he’s a former Wofford College student.
Alexander Smalls ’74 says his work and awards are simply just him following his passions.
“My mother said if you love what you do, you’ll never have a job,” says Smalls, who lives in Harlem, New York.
Smalls, who also is an author, will return to Wofford on Oct. 12 for a campus visit. He’ll participate in “A Conversation with Alexander Smalls and Craig Melvin” that the public is invited to attend at 6 p.m. in the Jerome Johnson Richardson Theatre. He and Melvin ’01, a “TODAY” show host and Wofford trustee, will discuss Wofford, food and life in New York City. Smalls’ latest cookbook, “Meals, Music and Muses” will be for sale after the event, and he’ll have a book signing.
Smalls won a Tony and a Grammy in 1977 for the cast recording of “Porgy and Bess” with the Houston Grand Opera. He won a 2019 James Beard Award for his groundbreaking cookbook “Between Harlem and Heaven” and his restaurant The Cecil was named “Best New Restaurant in America” in 2014 by Esquire Magazine. He recently signed a new book deal with Phaidon Press for his fourth cookbook, and he’s opened five critically acclaimed New York City restaurants over the past 30 years. In June, he released his first solo recording.
His latest restaurant concept, Alkebulan Dining Hall, is 20,000-square-feet, and it opened in Dubai earlier this year. It has 11 restaurants that showcase the African diaspora’s influence on the global culinary landscape. He’s in discussions to open similar concepts in U.S. cities.
Smalls grew up in Spartanburg and graduated from Spartanburg High School in 1970. He became interested in opera as a child thanks to his uncle, a chef, and his aunt, a classical pianist, who exposed him to the world of classical music. Seeing Black performers, including Marian Anderson, on the “Ed Sullivan Show” led him to know that he wanted to sing opera.
His family supported his dream, and his bedroom became a studio where he received voice lessons from a Converse College music teacher. As a teenager, he performed across town and was profiled in the newspaper.
Martha Cloud Chapman, an avid supporter of the arts in Spartanburg who died in 2014, took an interest in Smalls while he was a teenager. The art gallery in Wofford’s Sandor Teszler Library is named for her. Smalls says she’d take him to performances and often visited his family under the radar during segregation.
“She helped me navigate being a little Black boy traveling into a world that was not like my own,” Smalls says.
Chapman’s daughter, Dorothy Chapman Josey, was a catalyst for Smalls’ upcoming return to Spartanburg.
“He’s just so special,” says Josey, who was a high school classmate of Smalls. “To come out of Jim Crow Spartanburg and to have such a variety of accomplishments, he was destined for greatness.”
Smalls had scholarship offers to colleges outside of South Carolina and intentions to leave Spartanburg, but Dr. Paul Hardin, Wofford’s president at the time, persuaded him to consider the college, and he enjoyed visits with friends on campus.
Smalls focused on academics at Wofford and went to Converse College for music education. During the spring of his sophomore year, he decided to transfer to the University of North Carolina School for the Arts.
Smalls quickly found success on the stage and spent 20 years as an opera singer. He turned his focus to food after he was offered a lesser role than he auditioned for with the Metropolitan Opera House. He felt it was an insult to his ability and training.
“I realized I didn’t need to have a seat at the table, but I needed to own the table,” says Smalls, who describes the rejection as a pattern of slights experienced by Black opera singers, especially Black male artists.
Becoming a chef and restaurateur, however, was about more than providing excellent food and being in business. It also was about preserving culture. People questioned his intent to create a fine dining restaurant that celebrated Black cuisine from South Carolina’s Lowcountry.
“I wanted to do things I felt were needed or part of advancing African-American culture and dismantling systems of racism,” Smalls says.
In interviews and in his cookbooks, he often discusses the importance of food in his family and how he embraced being his mother’s helper in the kitchen as a child. Dinner parties at his Harlem home, long before he opened a restaurant, were legendary and included celebrities.
In 2020, Food & Wine magazine wrote that if you receive a dinner invitation from Smalls that you “make whatever schedule adjustments necessary to be in attendance,” because of the food, storytelling and to view his art collection.
Music remains one of Smalls’ passions. His latest cookbook explores the relationship between music and food in Black culture. To promote the book, he curated the “Alexander Smalls’ Dinner Party Playlist” on Spotify for Food & Wine Magazine, which includes jazz, soul, opera and gospel with artists ranging from James Brown and Beyoncé to Giacomo Puccini.
In June, Smalls released the album “Let Us Break Bread Together.” It’s a collection of spirituals recorded as a jazz album. It’s another endeavor to preserve culture.
“My plan is to create a curated archive celebrating music I consider endangered repertoire,” Smalls says. “I don’t have to record them all, others will be selected to participate as well. African-American spirituals are often misunderstood and lost in the boughs of the church.”
Smalls, who serves as a mentor to chefs, describes himself as being a bridge builder and a connector. He also recognizes his ability to inspire.
“Awards are moments of appreciation, but I don’t work for them,” Smalls says. “They’re compliments and are tools to help young people recognize what they are capable of doing. I love to exemplify, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”