Expo 2020: Chefs Coco Reinarhz and Alexander Smalls welcome you to Alkebulan African dining

The son of a chef who learnt the trade by his mother’s side in her Kinshasa eatery, Reinarhz formally trained in Belgium

by David Light

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram


Published: Wed 27 Oct 2021, 3:02 PM

Last updated: Mon 30 Oct 2023, 3:46 PM

They’re two of the brains behind the African culinary destination the whole country is hurtling towards Expo 2020 Dubai to experience. Even before its opening a month ago, rumours surrounding Alkebulan Dining Hall and what would be on offer were rampant. Now most of us have witnessed the fantastic food representing an entire vibrant continent, we thought it’d be good to talk to two of the main players involved.

Burundian Coco Reinarhz is perhaps best known for his restaurant, Epicure, in Johannesburg. The son of a chef who learnt the trade by his mother’s side in her Kinshasa eatery, Reinarhz formally trained in Belgium before setting off to take his home cuisine to the world. Alexander Smalls established his insurmountable standing in the US: co-owning Café Beulah, Sweet Ophelia’s, and Shoebox Cafe, cooking at the James Beard House, being named one of Zagat’s ‘NYC Restaurant Power Players You Need to Know,’ and being honoured with the Amsterdam News’ Legacy Award. He is one of the most recognisable names in American cooking. Over the past 30 years, the restaurateur has travelled the world studying the dishes of the African diaspora and in 2019 was a recipient of a James Beard Award for his cookbook, Between Harlem and Heaven.

How does it feel being such a celebrated part of Expo and what are your ambitions for the dining hall? What do you hope people most take away from their visits?

Smalls: Foremost I am extremely grateful for the vision and generosity of Expo to invite me to be apart of this amazing event. My hope is this is the beginning of a movement that will expand throughout the world from Dubai. I want people to take away a new found appreciation for the brilliant food of the African people.

Reinarhz: I really want guests to experience my beautiful continent through the different dishes. I want them to feel the vibrant and warm energies of our people and be immersed in our rich culture.

What does the term ‘African cuisine’ mean to you? Do you think it is well represented around the world?

Reinarhz: We made sure to represent all corners of Africa by showcasing the multi-layered facets of our different cuisines. African cuisine is such an underrated/overlooked food genre that I am proud to humbly represent.

Smalls: It is the culinary currency of African people. When you consider through enslaved people African food is the foundation of modern cooking on five continents, it is one of our greatest resources. I think African food has been diminished, disregarded and held hostage by a campaign to undermine its brilliance and value. Institutional racism’s narrative of being unhealthy, a diet of people of poverty has stained and stereotyped African food and created an unfounded prejudice.

Which of the dishes you are serving in Alkebulan are you most looking forward to people trying and why this one?

Smalls: That is like asking which is your favourite child. A collection of culinary warriors have prepared some of the most interesting, delicious dishes you will find. The food is simply sublime and it will teach you so much about the African culinary experience.

Reinarhz: For me it’s the ‘CHOMAhawk’ from Coma BBQ. It’s a 1.2kg Tomahawk juicy steak, grilled to perfection and served with mixed peppercorns from around the continent in a creamy sauce. I recommend you share with friends to really understand the Ubuntu (“I am because you are”) philosophy of Africa.

What do you believe are the biggest misconceptions about African ingredients and how do you address those?

Reinarhz: The biggest one has to be that African cuisine is too spicy. Our dishes are spicy but not too hot, the spice simply adds the flavour. The other misconception is thinking that we all eat the same thing. The dining hall showcases the range of cuisines the continent has to offer and will really highlight the diversity of our dishes from the different areas of Africa. My cooking philosophy and objective is to take everyone by the hand and show you the wonderful and welcoming continent: from Cape Town to Cairo, Dakar to Zanzibar while making a stop-over in the beautiful mountains of the Great Lakes.

What are you most looking forward to seeing at Expo and in Dubai during your visit?

Smalls: I am fascinated by the city’s preoccupation with food and varied culinary concepts. Coming from New York where you can find any kind of cuisine you desire, Dubai is truly in the running, leading the way in this part of the world. My hope is to completely exhaust myself trying to eat my way through this amazing city.

Reinarhz: I really want to meet the rest of the world and be the best ambassador of my continent on the biggest stage. Most importantly, I want to connect with the minds of other African and world chefs to create the future of our gastronomy.

What is your message to people thinking of heading to Expo to take a trip to Alkebulan?

Reinarhz: It is the fastest, most cost-effective and tastiest way to discover Africa in the middle of Dubai. You will discover art, music, food and most importantly, the amazing people of Africa. We can’t wait to welcome you and wow you with our amazing food.

Smalls: My message is that you must come. You can’t get here fast enough. It is an experience you will not soon forget. Welcome to the African table, we have been waiting for you.

More news from UAE