It seems that opera singer-turned-restaurateur-turned-author Alexander Smalls has lived more lives than a particularly lucky cat. He has performed on stages in Europe and cooked for luminaries, won a Tony and a Grammy and a James Beard award.
We caught up with him at a dinner in Washington last month at the Swiss ambassador’s residence, at which he was the featured guest, in honor of Black History Month. Before he worked the room, mint julep in hand, we chatted about his precocious childhood, his new book — and why even people who can’t carry a tune should sing while they cook.
Edited excerpts of the conversation (which was frequently punctuated by Smalls’s baritone laugh) follow.
In your new book, it’s clear that music and cooking are conflated for you — they are one. How did they come to be so interwoven in your life?
It’s like having two imaginary best friends when you’re growing up as a kid, and they stay with you. They’re there when you need them, and they console you, and they also delight you. That’s what cooking and music have always done for me.
My aunt was my piano teacher — she was a classical pianist — and [my uncle] was a chef. They introduced me to Shakespeare, introduced me to opera. To English literature. And all of that became a part of who I was, an extension of me. I took to it as if it were bread and butter. And none of my friends were doing that. I would make time to play ball with them, but then I would disappear into the embrace of my aunt and uncle. I would cook with them, I would have tea with them, I would take piano lessons — and all of these rituals were elevated and interesting and different.
You use the same language for cooking and music — for instance, you talk about recipes as playlists and the pantry as a jukebox. How do you think about that language?
First and foremost, I’m an artist, and I approach life as an artist. Everything for me is curated, and there’s vision and purpose and passion that comes with the embrace of those two disciplines. Growing up, I didn’t know they were disciplines, I just knew they were places I felt safe and where I loved living. When I was 5 or 6, I had my mother and father turn my bedroom into my studio. I got rid of the bed …
You had a studio at age 6? I love that.
Yes, I put my piano in there … it was this big old upright, mahogany, with all these carvings. I got rid of the bed and put in a sofa bed. I got rid of the chest of drawers, and I had a desk so I could create. I could be in there for hours, banging on that piano, screaming and hollering, and carrying on, and when I got exhausted I would throw myself on the couch, and then I’d write poetry.
Then they would unleash me in the kitchen. My favorite times with my mother were preparing Sunday dinner. Sunday dinner on the side porch, I lived for. We would start preparing that meal the Saturday before — making pie crusts, making fillings, trimming the green beans or preparing the okra, shucking the corn. I was extreme, meaning I always wanted my favorites all the time. And Sunday was the day when my mother didn’t say no. But she would make me learn to do the prep work for all the dishes that she didn’t want to prepare.
So many people think of preparing food as a chore, but it seems that you see the beauty in the work.
Look, if you don’t love to cook, don’t cook. I feel that way about most things. It’s the creative process — look at anyone who is an artist. The chores you have to do even before you get to the canvas — the mixing of the colors, the stretching of the canvas — all those things before you actually get to paint. You have to love the process.
So I embraced it. It delighted me, and it also was my safe space to be creative and to exercise that part of me that belonged to only me. I played sports, too, and in sports, you depended on other people — it was an ensemble. But when you cook, it’s just you. When I sang opera or played piano, it was just me. The reward was not only the freedom but the way it made me feel.
And how did it make you feel?
Special. And a bit powerful. When I was a young boy, I realized that if you cooked well, you had power. I knew that when Miss Patty’s fried chicken or Miss Mead’s pound cake was the most-talked-about thing, that was pride. Swollen pride. And I wanted that. I wanted to be that person who made the dish that everyone went crazy for. And then you go, ‘Oh, it’s nothing!’
For people who don’t have a biography like yours, how do you suggest we make a connection between food and music? Is it as simple as playing music while I cook?
Oh yes! The reason I created the playlists [in an appendix to his book] is that I wanted you to somewhat imagine what it’s like for someone like me. A particular song can change my mood. It can cause me to put more fire in that dish than I normally would. If I’m listening to Wagner, I might put some real special stuff in there. Music is inspirational. Imagine that you’re eating something that’s your favorite, and you’ve just discovered that someone makes it better than you ever thought, and you’re just like … [pantomimes opera singing].
I don’t know that feeling of wanting to break into song over food — maybe because I’m a terrible singer. What’s it like?
It’s just sublime. You just max out. It’s a high. And if you made that food, it takes you even further. Luciano Pavarotti and I used to sit around and talk and eat and cook together, and we would be singing in the kitchen because the response to all that incredible food was to just sing.
I don’t know if I should try that — I’m not sure my neighbors would appreciate it.
It’s the way it makes you feel, not the way you sound! Who cares? If it puts a song in your heart or a beat in your step, experience that. Because that feeling gives you a positive association with cooking and eating something unique. You know, dance like nobody’s watching.
What story did you want to tell in your new book?
I’ve lived long enough to have a view, and I’ve had some experiences I think are worthy of sharing. I’ve always sought to inspire people through what I was doing, whether it’s the music or the food. Particularly now in my life, I am also working hard to reposition African American cuisine and African American culinary contributions. Not only in this country but in five continents, where enslaved people laid the foundation for agriculture, hospitality and cooking.
Your dinner parties sound pretty epic. Who are your dream guests?
I’d do anything to have dinner again with my dear, dear friend Jessye Norman, who just left us this year. This year, I lost three icons. I lost Toni Morrison — who was like Aunt Toni to me, she was the first investor in my first restaurant — and I lost Jessye, and I lost Dianne Carroll. These were three iconic women in my life. And if I could set the table for these three women and just sort of faaade into the tablecloth while they carried on … god, that would be just amazing.
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