Expo 2020 Dubai: Meet the chefs behind worlds first-ever African dining hall

Renowned chefs and culinary experts from the African diaspora come together to pioneer authentic African cuisine at Alkebulan


Somya Mehta

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Published: Thu 14 Oct 2021, 6:33 PM

Last updated: Wed 1 Feb 2023, 8:48 PM

With Expo 2020 opening its doors only two weeks ago, the world has already been able to get an up-close and personal view of what Dubai is really made of. With magnum opus spectacles, live performances, exquisite cuisines and over 190 country pavilions displaying their personal best, the Expo site is bustling with innovation, opportunity and entertainment. But the central driving force of the experience remains rooted in the coming together of cultural forces from around the globe, embodying the spirit of “unity in diversity” in its truest form.

The launch weekend of Expo 2020 Dubai saw the world’s first ever African dining hall, Alkebulan, come together to pioneer authentic African cuisine in a way never seen before in the emirate. Bringing world-renowned African chefs and culinary experts the dining hall brings forth untapped flavours of Africa, catering to a variety of international palettes that define the global audience of the UAE.

Led and hand-selected by James-Beard-Award-winning chef Alexander Smalls, the dining hall comprises bespoke food concepts aimed at re-educating the world on African culinary experiences in a modern setting. An African-American author and restaurateur, Smalls started his journey with opening the first African-American fine dining restaurant in New York City, which was subsequently named “best new restaurant” by Esquire in 2014.

Laying the foundations of critically-acclaimed African restaurants, such as The Cecil and Minton’s, located in the heart of Harlem. “After opening three restaurants, I started to think, where did the African-American food really come from? What was the story that needed to be told?” he added.

“I discovered there was a unique foundation of African food in every country. I studied the history of African foods extensively and put together a flavour profile that really spoke to a new discipline in understanding the cuisine,” says Smalls. Travelling across the world for over ten years, the award-winning chef traced the footprints of African diaspora, following the slave route across five continents, to uncover the pivotal forces that shaping African culinary experiences. “It was when my cookbook Between Harlem and Heaven won the James Beard Award, I realised I was onto something bigger than I ever imagined,” the restaurateur-author recalls. “The dream is really to build a foundation for African food. And fortunately, this opportunity came knocking at the right time. It gave a home to my dream, here in Dubai, of bringing this unique concept to life,” he added.

Located in Al Wasl Square on the Expo site, the dining hall features a mix of artists, musicians, DJs and celebrity chefs from different parts of the African diaspora, to give diners an all-encompassing insight into the heritage of not only their food but also their rich history and culture.

Amongst the other notable culinary experts coming together for the one-of-a-kind dining journey are celebrity chefs Coco Reinhartz and Kiran Jethwa; chef Moos, chef Pierre and chef Glory Kabe of Penja, a France-based dining concept that tells the story of gastronomy and how it has evolved the landscape of food; chef Mame Sow, an award-winning pastry chef known for her unique juxtaposition of sweet and savoury flavours; and Davisha Burrowes, the executive chef of Alkebulan.

Plant-based chef Glory Kabe, who’s the first chef to bring Afro-vegan food to Dubai, tantalising the taste buds of the growing plant-based community here, thrives on combining modern vegan recipes with her African origins, to create new dishes, showcased at the dining hall.

“My aim as an African chef is to broadcast veganism as far and wide as possible. We forget that most of our recipes were plant-based initially. And I think now, more than ever, we need to move back towards a more conscious and sustainable approach to eating,” says Kabe. “There needs to be a greater understanding around plant-based foods not only here at Alkebulan but also within our culture — and meat doesn’t have to be at the centre of it,” added the French-Congolese vegan chef.

A third-generation Kenyan of Indian descent, chef Jethwa, who grew up in East Africa, is also hosting two of his famous concepts at the dining hall. “The dishes I prepare are an Indo-Afro fusion, if you’d like to call it that. I don’t really try to create them that way, my food just naturally gravitates towards a cultural blend,” the celebrity chef added. “I love Indian spices and I love using authentic, home-grown East African produce to create dishes that have their DNA rooted in East Africa.”

According to chef Jethwa, the richness of African cuisine lies in the diversity of culinary norms that run across the African continent, all the way through to its diaspora. “Each of the chefs at Alkebulan have come in with their own perspectives on how to showcase their food. It’s dangerous to put a blanket over African cuisine,” he added. “It’s a diverse continent and we all come from different places. It’s like saying “I want to try European food”, which is baffling because the Spanish and the Italians will go to war over their different foods,” says chef Jethwa, adding that people can come and have a conversation with the chefs to really understand where the roots of the dishes originate from.

“It opens up a conversation, giving way to an exchange of knowledge and this is exactly what we’re here to do. We want to educate people about African food. I hope that Dubai is the beginning of this new movement we’re trying to create,” chef Alexander Smalls added.

Giving a peek into the eclectic flavours that comprise their rich, diverse cuisine, the executive chef, Davisha Burrowes, added, “We love chillies and nutmeg. We love a lot of sweetness as well in our dishes. There’s a lot of palm sugar. And besides the spices, you can also expect peanuts and plantain used generously in different variations of African cuisine,” she mentions, as only some of the many flavours you can expect to taste while dining at Alkebulan.

And what better place to launch this unique initiative, re-educating people on the rich history of African diaspora and its foods than Expo 2020? Delighted for this opportunity, chef Alexander Smalls says, “I’ve brought together some of the best chefs in Africa, representing contemporary African food, which no one has really seen before. There’s this incredible movement of young black chefs, gifted chefs from all over the world making African food their focus,” he says. “There are no chains and shackles between the world and this food anymore. We can’t wait to welcome visitors to showcase Africa in all its glory,” the African-American chef signs off.

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