Both of restaurateur Alexander Smalls’s life-long loves—music and food—are deeply rooted in his Southern childhood. His first career, touring the world as an opera singer, was marked with both a Grammy and a Tony for the cast recording of Porgy and Bess. And as a boy growing up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, he would watch for his grandfather’s car when he drove up from the Lowcountry, box of crabs in tow. “He would pull out this big black pot to cook them in, then start telling stories about his life,” Smalls says. “Our conversations and his memories were all centered around food.” In 2013, Smalls found the perfect way to combine those two passions: Minton’s, the restaurant and jazz club he opened inside a landmark Harlem playhouse where Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald all played. “All those extraordinary artists, writers, and musicians were a part of the legacy we now serve,” he says.
With an improvisational style reminiscent of jazz, Smalls’s new cookbook, Between Harlem and Heaven, co-authored with the James Beard-nominated chef JJ Johnson, celebrates the many influences that have shaped Southern cooking. (Click here to pre-order.) The recipes carry the tune of Smalls’s Carolina youth, with riffs on West African ingredients, notes of Asian flavors, and the rhythm of Harlem, a place that has long been a cradle for African-American culture—and cooking. Find dishes such as crab, shrimp, and chicken gumbo; chili inspired by Charlie Parker; and a West African peanut punch. “I make the cocktail with a little touch of honey and chile,” Smalls says. “I’ve got a great love for the earthy taste of bourbon against those peanuts. Yes, I’m a child of the South in every way.”