By Dudley Brown and Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89
Alexander Smalls ’74 is a storyteller.
He’s told stories through song on some of the world’s biggest stages as a professional opera singer for 20 years. His three cookbooks tell stories ranging from memories of his youth to the ways enslaved Africans made culinary contributions on five continents.
Publications, including Food & Wine, have written about the dinner parties that he hosts at his Harlem, N.Y., apartment. An invitation to these parties — for the food, music and the stories — is prized by celebrities around the globe.
Every meal at the five critically acclaimed restaurants he has opened over the past 30 years has told a story as well.
“My uncle was an extraordinary chef, and he taught me the language of food and how to dream up cuisine,” Smalls says. “If you’re not cooking your story, you’re not cooking.”
Smalls’ story began in Spartanburg. He became interested in opera as a child thanks to his uncle, the chef, and 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.
Smalls graduated from Spartanburg High School in 1970 and was recruited to come to Wofford by Dr. Paul Hardin, the college president at the time.
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 of the Arts.
Smalls returned to Wofford in October to share the stories of his life and the wisdom he’s gained along the way with the Wofford and Spartanburg communities.
He is believed to be the only person to have won a Tony, a Grammy and a James Beard Award. He 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.
Smalls’ visit to campus included meeting with students in the Career Center, an interview with the Old Gold and Black student newspaper and a cooking demonstration with Stephan Baity, director of culinary operations for Wofford’s culinary partner AVI Foodsystems, “TODAY” show co-host and Wofford Trustee Craig Melvin ’01 and President Nayef Samhat. They followed a recipe from Smalls’ “Between Harlem and Heaven” cookbook for an egg roll stuffed with smoked brisket, sauteed onions and cabbage.
The day ended with Melvin interviewing Smalls on the stage in the Rosalind Sallenger Richardson Center for the Arts about his career, his childhood in Spartanburg and his time at Wofford. At the conclusion of the event, Smalls was presented the Key to the City by Spartanburg City Council members Erica Brown ’00 and Jamie Fulmer ’92.
Smalls entered the restaurant business after feeling disrespected when he was offered a role beneath the one that he auditioned for with the Metropolitan Opera House. He had been performing professionally in Europe and returned to the states for the audition. At Wofford he discussed that disappointment and how he decided to pick up the pieces.
“I realized I didn’t need to have a seat at the table; I needed to own the table,” says Smalls.
He opened his first restaurant with the intention of preserving and celebrating Black culture, even when people questioned his desire to open a fine dining establishment featuring 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.
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 is in discussions to open similar concepts in several major U.S. cities.
Smalls’ latest cookbook, “Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from my African American Kitchen,” explores the relationship between music — still a passion — 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.
He recently signed a book deal with Phaidon Press for a fourth cookbook.
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.’”
Sarah McClure’s family opened Southside Smokehouse in Landrum, S.C., during her final year of high school. The family also worked catering and concessions.
“My dad cooked and made change out of an apron, so he would bring my tuition money to Wofford covered in grilled onions,” says McClure ’08. “When I was in college, I worked in the restaurant business a lot, so I didn’t want to follow in that path. I wanted to get out of my small town, travel and see the world.”
At Wofford, McClure fell in love with art history. She spent a semester in Rome and Interims in Greece and Southern Italy, then in Spain. While abroad, she filled her days in museums studying art and her evenings in restaurants and bars experiencing the culture through food.
One of those Interims was with Dr. Peter Schmunk and Dr. G.R. Davis. Not too long ago, they visited Southside and McClure. Rabbit pasta was on the menu, which brought back memories of an eye-opening meal in Greece.
“The first time I ever ate rabbit was with them,” says McClure. “I was 20 and didn’t want to look like I didn’t know how to order. Let’s just say I was surprised when a whole rabbit curled up in a pot came out. But I ate it, and it was delicious. Peter Schmunk also introduced me to prosciutto and melon, and I’ve loved the combination ever since.”
For McClure, travel and food go hand in hand, and she travels often for work and pleasure, which seemed unlikely, if not impossible, in college. After graduation, she began a master’s program in art history at the University of Georgia and started working in restaurants in the Athens area, first front of house before picking up kitchen shifts.
“I don’t know how to not try to do something better, so I asked my boss at this little BBQ restaurant what he thought was the best restaurant in town, and I applied there,” she says. McClure landed the job at The National, a Peter Dale restaurant, and that’s where she fell in love with cooking and regained her love of work in the hospitality industry.
Now McClure is celebrating a decade as chef and co-manager of Southside Smokehouse, where she works with her dad, husband and some of her best friends. In 2018 she was nominated for the South Carolina Chef Ambassador program. She represented the state at food events across the southeast and at a New York media dinner. She’s also been a contestant on “Guy’s Grocery Games.”
“It’s all about hospitality, about making sure everyone around you is comfortable and that their needs are met,” says McClure.
Satisfaction. Joy. Second helpings. Empty plates.
That’s how Richard Brewer ’98 and his wife and business partner Shannan Brewer measure success when they’re cooking and serving for Brewer’s Catering.
“God gave us a love of providing, of sharing kindness, food and hospitality,” says Shannan, who left a career as a chemist to develop the business and do what she needed to for family, including their three children, Rebekah (16), Ryan (14) and Rachel (11). Richard gives weekends and holidays to the business while continuing to work as an executive with Michelin North America.
Richard, who is the genius behind Brewer’s Catering’s rubs, spice mixes and sauces, will only divulge one secret ingredient. “Love’s the secret ingredient. We put that in everything we do. We delight in exceeding expectations,” he says.
The Brewers and their staff catered the Black Alumni Summit Tailgate during Homecoming Weekend. They served over 100 people, and Richard’s signature barbecued chicken, the mac and cheese, potato salad and baked beans all received rave reviews. The Brewers have catered the event, which has grown every year, for the past decade. They’re also famous for their award-winning shrimp and grits and for creating food “from the heart for the soul.” They’re getting a reputation for offering a wide range of vegetarian and vegan selections as well.
“We are truly thankful for our team that helps us at each event or delivery,” says Shannan. “Our experiences are possible because of the synergy of our team.”
Richard started grilling outside of Wightman Hall with his roommates back in the late 1990s. When he met Shannan, who graduated from Clemson, they started tailgating at both Wofford and Clemson football games. One thing led to another, and their business grew out of this tradition. Continuing a legacy of entrepreneurship is important for the Brewers as they grow and teach their children the significance of owning a business while doing what they enjoy.
“I want our food to remind people of home and family,” says Richard. “I want them to leave satisfied. That’s what it’s all about. This is what we are called to do.”
At Wofford, Kait Roberts ’05 was an English major on the pre-law track, and she enjoyed cooking for friends in the residence halls.
“Cooking in the dorms was ill-advised back then, so the dean of international programs suggested maybe I should consider culinary school,” says Roberts. “She knew I had enjoyed my time abroad in Rome and helped me find a postgraduate program in culinary arts in Italy.”
Roberts returned to the states in 2006 and founded Easy Entertaining in Providence, R.I. The company just celebrated its 16th year in business with almost 50 employees and a feeling of invincibility after surviving COVID-19.
“Food is the only thing left in the world we all have in common. It is not divisive. It brings people together,” says Roberts. “All good memories begin and end with food. I want to be a part of that. I want to bring food and hospitality to folks and make it easy for them to host and entertain.”
Roberts was executive chef of Easy Entertaining for the first decade. Now she focuses on growth strategy, new services and client development.
“I have built a company with a work culture that I am immensely proud of. We have very low attrition and support our employees and have a vested interest in seeing them grow and develop,” says Roberts, who is also proud of the company’s dedicated program to give back to the community with a focus on feeding the homeless and hungry. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, Easy Entertaining donates hundreds of meals to local shelters.
“That’s important to me,” she says.
David Andrews ’00 smiles every time he walks into D’Andrews Bakery & Café, the modern restaurant and gathering spot with a Southern sensibility that he opened four years ago in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn.
“I’ll never forget that emotional first year,” remembers Andrews. “This guy walked in and ordered a cookie and a glass of milk. I watched him sit at the table and dip his cookie into the milk before eating it. When I saw the look on his face, I knew I was in the right place. I like being in the happiness business.”
And that’s what it is for Andrews, who spent his first few years after Wofford working in his family’s clothing store before pursuing his dream and attending the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. He studied pastry while working retail in the city to make ends meet. Andrews has worked in some of New York’s top restaurants: Gotham Bar & Grill, Merkato 55 and Xie Xie, where his dessert — the 1,000-year-old ice cream sandwich, inspired by the 1,000-year-old egg, was named one of the best desserts of the year in 2009 by both Time Out New York and New York Magazine. He joined the Kimberly Hotel as the executive pastry chef in 2010, then switched to savory, becoming executive chef, for the next six years.
“Working at the Kimberly was a great experience. I learned all aspects of the business,” says Andrews, who did everything from reviewing balance sheets to writing menus to motivating staff. “I also really honed my people skills, and dealing with people is about 75% of it.”
Andrews, his husband, Matt, their French bulldog, Daisy, and the staff of 12 at D’Andrews have developed a community around what he calls “a restaurant masquerading as a bakery.” And the team appreciates the opportunity to give back. In 2022, the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce named Andrews its Business Leader of the Year, and in 2021 D’Andrews was recognized with the Diversity Small Business Award.
“I know what it takes to do this work, and I enjoy it. There’s a lot of pride, satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. I expected all that, but I didn’t understand how much I’d grow to love and enjoy our customers and this community,” says Andrews. “That was a pleasant surprise.”
Kim Adams Nelson ’84 sold her first cake when she was 10 years old. It was a yellow cake with chocolate icing, and she sold it for $7 in 1972.
“My mom and I always baked cakes for people. That’s how I got my start,” says Nelson.
Now Nelson is a chef, entrepreneur and owner of Daisy Cakes, a company that makes and ships hand-sifted, scratch-made, smallbatch cakes nationwide. Starting this semester, “Daisy’s Cake-in-a-Jar Minikins” are on Wofford’s campus as well.
“I absolutely love it and the opportunities that have come my way and that I have nurtured because of cooking,” says Nelson, who’s been on “Shark Tank,” “Chopped Sweets” and “Cutthroat Kitchen.” She won two of the three.
Nelson started catering and cooking professionally with Sophie Copses ’83 after graduation from Wofford. Since then, Nelson has owned a restaurant, run a cooking school and managed a career on her terms.
“I’m a worker and a creative person. I’m also persistent,” says Nelson, who now splits time between Spartanburg and Las Vegas. She started a Daisy Cakes production facility in Las Vegas four years ago to provide better shipping options to the West Coast. The move has also meant that Daisy Cakes has expanded into the vegan market as well as into larger venues.
Find out how to order and discover several family recipes at ilovedaisycakes.com.