Alexander Smalls Opened the World’s First African Food Hall — And He Plans to Expand Soon

published Jan 5, 2022
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Credit: Beatriz da Costa

At the top of 2020, James Beard Award-winning chef, author, and entrepreneur Alexander Smalls began working towards a concept he’s been dreaming of: a culinary destination he aptly named the Harlem Food Hall. As one of his goals throughout his 20-plus-year career, the chef — who was one of Kitchn’s star cooks for 2021’s Thanksgiving Food Fest — aimed to use the space to “tell the story of African food on five continents [and tell] how through slavery, Africans changed the global culinary conversation,” he told Food & Wine.

As so many in the food and hospitality industry came to find out, due to the onset of the ongoing pandemic, 2020 was not exactly the best year for dream projects to become realities. By the end of 2021, however, Smalls’ concept found new life in Dubai when he opened Alkebulan (which translates to mean “mother of mankind”) — the first food hall in the world dedicated solely to a variety of African cuisines. 

“I got a call from my business partner who said that he’d been meeting with a hospitality company that had been engaged to do major projects throughout Europe and the Middle East, including doing food and beverage for the Expo,” Smalls said.

The renowned Harlemite’s vision was introduced to the world as part of the delayed Expo Dubai 2020 — which actually ended up opening on October 1, 2021 due to pandemic-related delays and runs through March 2022. Within its visually striking walls, Alkebulan is home to 11 restaurant concepts personally curated by Smalls to offer something from each region of the continent. From Moroccan street food and West African bread cakes to South African barbecue and East African seafood, there’s something for every palate at the new dining hall.

 “It’s something that I probably could still be curating, except we had to get the show going,” he said. “I think we did a good job of highlighting regional food that people could not only identify with, but also understand from a geographic persuasion. It’s about cultural education and it’s about discovery.” 

Not local to Dubai or have no plans on visiting soon, but still interested in dining at the food hall? Smalls aims to turn Alkebulan into a chain that will next be introduced in Harlem, New York, then London before expanding to no less than eight more cities. Here’s hoping that your city is one of the chosen!