Alexander Smalls gets Key to the City at Wofford lecture with Today's Craig Melvin
A couple of Wofford College alumni were back on campus this week and met up for a conversation.
Nothing unusual there, except that the alumni were NBC Today Show host Craig Melvin and renowned restaurateur, chef, singer, author and raconteur Alexander Smalls.
That, and the conversation took place on stage at the Jerome Johnson Richardson Theatre in front of an audience of more than 100 people.
At the end of the hour-long, wide-ranging conversation, Smalls was presented with the Key to the City of Spartanburg by a couple of other Wofford alumni, city council members Erica Brown and Jamie Fulmer.
“Mr. Smalls, the City of Spartanburg celebrates your career and commitment to preserving African-America culture,” Brown said in presenting the award. “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 biggest world stages. Welcome home and congratulations.”
Smalls, a Spartanburg native and Spartanburg High School graduate, attended Wofford from 1970 until 1972. He then went on to study voice at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on his way to renown as a Tony and Grammy award-winning opera singer.
He walked away from opera after a 15-year career and in 1994, opened Café Beulah, his first of several restaurants in New York City. All have been critically acclaimed and in 2019, Smalls was awarded a James Beard Foundation Award for his book “Between Harlem and Heaven,” which includes stories and recipes from his journey as a pioneer in Afro-Asian-American cuisine.
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, is a 2001 graduate of Wofford and member of the college’s board of trustees. He has won three regional Emmy Awards for his work in television.
Both men spent a lot of the day on Wofford’s campus, Smalls speaking with groups of students and participating in a cooking demonstration with Melvin and college President Dr. Nayef Samhat before taking the stage.
During a lunchtime talk with students at Wofford’s Center for Environmental Studies, Smalls said that 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 early culinary skills. They were childless and had moved to Spartanburg from New York's Harlem to be a part of young Alexander’s education.
His parents focused on the practical realities of raising a Black son - the only boy in the extended family - in the 1960's South.
“They were preparing me to be a doctor or a lawyer, a way to compete in the conversation,” Smalls said. “When I told them I wanted to be an opera singer, there was just nowhere for them to put that."
And while they told Alexander that they didn’t want to raise what they considered to be an entertainer, “They never said ‘no,’’’ he said.
Smalls said music, along with food, specifically the African-rooted food of the South Carolina Lowcountry, became the lenses through which he saw the world.
For Smalls, becoming a chef and restaurateur 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 African American cuisine, which had not been thought of in that context.
“Fine dining is a concept, not a kind of food. It’s techniques that we can apply to all kinds of food,” Smalls said. “My mission is to elevate the standards and the way people think about African-American food.”
Smalls has announced plans to bring his food-hall concept in Dubai, Alkebulan, to New York and other American cities. The varied restaurants in the hall showcase the African diaspora’s influence on the global culinary landscape.
At age 70, with his restaurants and a new book and a recently released album of African-American spiritual music in a jazz style, Smalls says his twin languages continue to animate and sustain 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 that I've been able to have a life that has allowed me to do those things that I love the most and make a difference."
Chuck Milteer is the editor of Spartanburg Magazine. Reach him via email at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Herald-Journal: Alexander Smalls gets Key to City at lecture with Today's Craig Melvin