A Harlem Renaissance

A new cookbook from Harlem restaurateur Alexander Smalls and chef JJ Johnson seasons the pot with history—from Senegal to South Carolina

Photo: Beatriz da Costa

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.”

Bebop Chicken Chili

A hearty crowd-pleaser, inspired by the jazz pioneer Charlie Parker

Makes 4 to 6 servings


    • 1 tbsp. olive oil

    • 1 large onion, diced

    • 2 tsps. kosher salt, or more to taste

    • 2 tbsps. minced garlic

    • 2 red bell peppers, diced

    • 1 poblano pepper, diced

    • 1½ lbs. ground chicken

    • ¼ tsp. ground cayenne

    • ½ tsp. chili powder

    • ½ tsp. garlic powder

    • ½ tsp. onion powder

    • 1 tsp. dried oregano

    • 1 tsp. dried thyme

    • 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained

    • 2 tbsps. dark brown sugar

    • 1 bay leaf

    • 2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

    • 1 (14.5-ounce) can stewed tomatoes

    • 2 cups chicken stock

    • ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste

Fans of the great Charlie Parker know that great chili is synonymous with the birth of bebop. It was during a 1939 jam session at Dan Wall’s Chili House in Harlem that Parker hit the upper chord improvisation that many credit as the lightning bolt moment that became bebop. In honor of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Minton’s in Harlem makes its chili with chicken. It’s a great game-day meal for a crowd, but it also works as a family meal. —From BETWEEN HARLEM AND HEAVEN


  1. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven and add the onion when the oil begins to shimmer. Sprinkle with ½ tsp. of the salt and sauté for about 3 minutes, until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic, bell peppers, and poblano and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.

  2. Once the vegetables are soft, add the chicken and spread it out in an even layer on the bottom of the pot. Stir to crumble the chicken as it cooks.

  3. Once the chicken begins to turn opaque, after about 3 minutes, add the spices, herbs, and the remaining 1½ tsps. salt. Stir to coat and toast the spices and cook for about 3 minutes.

  4. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat to medium and cover the pot. Simmer the chili to let the flavors meld and the sauce thicken, about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally to make sure the bottom doesn’t burn.

  5. Season to taste. Let cool and store in an airtight nonreactive container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, if you’re not serving it immediately.

  6. Kitchen Tip: Some dishes taste better the next day. Making and storing the chili a day in advance gives the flavors a chance to meld and blend together to develop a more complex quality.

Excerpted from BETWEEN HARLEM AND HEAVEN by JJ Johnson and Alexander Smalls. Copyright © 2018. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.

West African Peanut Punch

Ice and fire, courtesy of chile-infused honey, come together in this bourbon-based sipper

Serves 6


    • ¾ cup roasted peanuts

    • 1 ½ cups bourbon

    • ¼ cup chile honey (store bought, or you can make your own by warming 1 cup honey with 1 tbsp. chile powder for 5 minutes and then letting it cool)

    • Roasted peanuts, for garnish

You’ve never had anything like this rich bourbon cocktail. The peanut base makes it creamy, spicy, and salty.


  1. Put the peanuts and 2 cups water in a blender. Blend on high until the mixture is completely smooth.

  2. Strain into a large chilled pitcher. Stir in the bourbon and honey, making sure the honey is completely dissolved.

  3. Serve over ice and garnish with roasted peanuts.

Excerpted from BETWEEN HARLEM AND HEAVEN by JJ Johnson and Alexander Smalls. Copyright © 2018. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.

Afro-Asian-American Gumbo

A crab, shrimp, and chicken sausage take on the classic stew

Makes 4 to 6 servings


    • 4 tbsps. salted butter

    • ¼ cup vegetable oil

    • ½ cup all-purpose flour

    • 1 cup minced onion

    • 4 cloves garlic, minced

    • ¼ cup minced celery

    • ½ cup minced red bell pepper

    • ½ cup grape tomatoes, halved

    • ½ cup whole dried shrimp

    • ¾ cup Gumbo Spice Mix (see below)

    • 1 tbsp. tomato paste

    • 5 cups chicken stock

    • 1 cup okra cut into rounds

    • 2 tbsps. fresh lemon juice

    • 2 tsps. Worcestershire sauce

    • ½ cup Chinese chicken sausage

    • ½ cup lump crabmeat

    • 1 cup whole fresh Gulf shrimp

    • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

    • 4 cups cooked jasmine rice

  • Gumbo Spice Mix (Makes about 2/3 cup)

    • 1 tbsp. dried oregano

    • 1 tbsp. dried thyme

    • 1 tsp. powdered bay leaf

    • 1½ tbsps. garlic powder

    • 1 tbsp. onion powder

    • ½ tsp. red chile flakes, or more to taste

    • ½ tsp. ground cayenne, or more to taste

    • 2 tbsps. sugar

    • 2 tbsps. smoked paprika

    • 1 tbsp. kosher salt

    • ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

This gumbo dish is another story of migration and change. It starts in Senegal and then moves on to South Carolina and Louisiana before coming up to Harlem. The roux is at the heart of every good gumbo, and this one uses dried shrimp, which is a touch of Senegal. The shrimp gives it an oceany umami flavor that you wouldn’t traditionally get in a Southern gumbo or a Louisiana gumbo. Louisiana comes out in the richness of the roux as you add spices. But unlike Louisiana gumbo, this dish is more about the soup than the rice, so it’s poured on top of the rice like it’s done in South Carolina. —From BETWEEN HARLEM AND HEAVEN


  1. In a heavy 4- to 5-quart pot, heat the butter and oil over medium heat. Once the butter begins to bubble slightly, add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon to form a smooth paste.

  2. Cook the mixture for about 10 minutes to make a chocolate colored roux. While the roux cooks, make sure to stir continuously, scraping the bottom and sides of the pot to avoid burning. It is important to keep a very close eye on the roux during this step. The roux can go from a complex nutty color and aroma to burnt beyond repair in a matter of minutes.

  3. After the roux turns from a smooth peanut butter color and consistency to one resembling rich chocolate, add the onion, garlic, celery, bell pepper, and tomatoes; this will stop the roux from overcooking and burning.

  4. Lower the heat and cook the vegetables over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add the dried shrimp, spice mix, and tomato paste and cook for 5 minutes.

  5. Slowly whisk in the stock and stir until the stock is completely blended with the roux and vegetable mixture. Add the okra, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, sausage, crabmeat, and shrimp and let simmer for about 1 hour over very low heat, stirring occasionally with the wooden spoon.

  6. Season the gumbo to taste with salt and pepper and serve over the rice.

  7. *For the Gumbo Spice Mix: 

    Stir together and store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Excerpted from BETWEEN HARLEM AND HEAVEN by JJ Johnson and Alexander Smalls. Copyright © 2018. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.