It has been a month since the six-month Expo 2020 Dubai drew to a close, but some thoughts linger, some concepts stay and some flavors remain.
In the diverse melting pot that is Dubai, home to as many as 200 nationalities, Africa had its moment under the Arabian sun, in a two-floor facility opposite the central Al Wasl Dome that anchored Expo 2020 Dubai.
By the landmark waterfalls at the expo site, this 22,000sqft facility threw its doors open to a composite and immersive African gastronomic experience led by world-renowned African chefs.
This creative confluence, Alkebulan, an African dining hall, was a magnet through the expo – apparently a million clients and customers passed through the sprawling outlet with its colorful contemporary outdoor terraces and indoor spaces.
And Chef Alexander Smalls, a restaurateur and award-winning author based in New York, is the man who brought the bespoke chef-led concepts of Alkebulan under one roof.
When we meet Smalls at the venue, he is wearing bright yellow-rimmed spectacles and a big smile.
He had dreamed up the concept many years ago, and can’t conceal his excitement at seeing it as a reality with the help of the team at Expo 2020 Dubai.
“We have created a whole environment that contains the food of Africa and speaks to the African diaspora. I have put together a collection of extraordinary chefs who have reimagined African cuisine for the new age and it’s the first African dining hall in the world and it has been received so well,” enthuses Smalls.
The success of this outlet will lead to more in New York and London, he says, and set off a global expansion for Alkebulan.
“It speaks to the wealth of African cuisine and its people. We are having a revolution,” he adds.
A lot of the work was conducted during the pandemic, through video calling and a team on the ground who were Smalls’ eyes and ears.
“We created nine food concepts and two bars. I created all the concepts myself, but then for the authenticity, I needed to bring in culinary practitioners from around the world who were doing what I was, and bring special talent to make it a unique concept.”
But with 54 countries on the African continent, how difficult was it recreating all of those culinary experiences?
“It was extremely challenging,” admits Smalls. “At one point, I stopped thinking about 54 countries and started thinking about essentially the topical conversations around African food. The net had to be cast broadly, but they all have their particular footprint. The idea was to mirror the landscapes we are in… It was the perfect time to bring back the authenticity of Africa. It has given us an opportunity to enlighten and inspire and have people’s mindsets change about the African experience.”
Amongst the guest chefs presenting their offerings: TV personality Kiran Jethwa, Chef Coco, Mame Sow, Glory Kabe and Pierre Thiam.
Thiam, also a cook book author, chips in.
Originally from Senegal and having lived in the US for three decades where he has two restaurants in New York and a food company directly connected with farming communities across West Africa “through products relevant in times of climate change”, he calls himself a restaurateur, chef and social entrepreneur.
“Dubai has been incredible,” Thiam begins. “What Chef Alexander has realized here is telling the story in a more complete way and that to me is part of my mission being West African. Just the name, Alkebulan, takes us to the time before colonization. That’s that we are doing. We are more than just serving food – we are serving the whole, we are telling our own story.”
He says he studied West African cuisine and specialized in “the food of our memory” realizing that African cuisine was quite absent.
“This is the most successful of all venues at the Expo. This is telling the truth to the Dubai population,” says Thiam, who cites his roasted beans pickle carrot salad as being one of the most popular dishes at the event.
Also on the table, modern African street food, and such varieties as oxtail fried rice, Afro dim sum, barbecue goat ribs, buttermilk fried chicken, rotisserie duck and devil quail.
Chef Sow, one of the female guest chefs at Alkebulan and also originally from Senegal and living in New York, had African sweets on the table: “We are mostly wanting to showcase and represent Africa with the desserts and flatbreads we do. People don’t generally think about Africa when they think desserts. We have a lot of amazing ingredients we are showcasing through the desserts we have at Shoebox.”
This is Sow’s first trip to Dubai, as a sous chef and the owner of Shoebox Bakery in New York, adds that the female chefs working with her are “beyond amazing”.
And what will now happen to the dining hall that took center stage at Expo 2020?
“This outlet will remain and the transition [of the expo site] from amusement park to a bustling residential retail business community will take form and we will come back after the summer,” promises Smalls.