African-American cooking is more than just soul food.
That’s the message JJ Johnson and Alexander Smalls want to get across in their new cookbook, “Between Harlem and Heaven” (out Feb. 6, $37.50, Flatiron Books).
“It’s so two-dimensional when you start to talk about African-American food, besides to throw it in a category of Southern food or soul food and keep going,” said restaurateur Smalls.
With “Between Harlem and Heaven,” the chefs want to continue a conversation they started when Smalls opened The Cecil, which focused on Afro-Asian-American cuisine, and next-door jazz club Minton’s in 2013, with Johnson helming the kitchens at both Harlem restaurants.
Upon opening, The Cecil made scores of best new restaurant lists, and Johnson got a James Beard Award nomination.
Since then, Johnson has left his post as executive chef, and The Cecil has been retooled as The Cecil Steakhouse. But its influence lives on in “Between Harlem and Heaven,” which pays homage to the food and cultural significance of the Afro-Asian diaspora.
As the name implies, it’s also an ode to Harlem, where both chefs also live. The likes of Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Toni Morrison get shoutouts by the chefs, and there is an essay by cookbook co-writer Veronica Chambers on Minton’s Playhouse, a former jazz club in Harlem that is the site of Smalls’ Minton’s.
“This is a community where so much of our history has taken place and a lot of what has shaped the city, either it be jazz or the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South,” Smalls said. “All of that is an incredible foundation.”
For Johnson, Harlem is “the melting pot.”
“East Harlem was the place of Puerto Ricans, in Harlem there’s a little West Africa; you go back in time and there’s places that were Asian,” he said. “The flavor — you’re thinking of the music, you’re thinking of the spices, you’re thinking of the fashion.”
Through its essays and recipes, the cookbook is a history lesson on the African diaspora, Johnson said, and how cuisine has been shaped by this migration.
“You can turn the page and say, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know I could make a tamarind barbecue sauce,’” he said. “We want to introduce people to what the real cuisine is. It’s more than just soul food.”
Added Smalls: “The goal was to really bring together the flavors of Africa in a global context.”
The recipes, which range from the West African-inspired cinnamon-scented fried guinea hen to an Afro-Asian-American gumbo to a collard green salad to oxtail dumplings, are inspired by both chefs’ travels through Africa and Asia, as well as their gastronomical explorations in NYC.
“Chinatown is always an inspiration — that’s what Ghana feels like, from a market standpoint and really big flavors,” Johnson said. “Flushing played a role; we would eat at Northern Chinese restaurants — Northern China and West Africa have a major connection through migration.”
In addition to introducing home cooks to a culinary style, Smalls hopes the cookbook is a source of pride for people of the African diaspora.
“It mirrors something about who they are in every dish,” he said. “It’s our pride, and it’s presented in a classic, elevated way that speaks to the value.”