Food & Drink

Coralville chef's rags-to-riches ordeal earns honors

Having fled war-torn nation, Austina Smith now one to watch

Executive chef Austina Smith prepares a gluten-free topping for a berry crumble dessert Dec. 19 in the kitchen at Grand
Executive chef Austina Smith prepares a gluten-free topping for a berry crumble dessert Dec. 19 in the kitchen at Grand Living at Bridgewater senior living community in Coralville. Smith emigrated from Sierra Leone when she was young. Earlier this year, she was selected to the inaugural list of 40 Women to Watch in hospitality by the Iowa Restaurant Association. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CORALVILLE — Surrounded by trays of roasted acorn squash, scratch sauces and soups, grain salads and sour cream raisin pie, Austina Smith leads the kitchen at Grand Living At Bridgewater, a senior housing complex with bistro, cafe and fine dining venues in Coralville.

Cooking always came naturally — she learned herb identification and meat fabrication at an early age because of her family’s background in food service, despite trying her hardest to get away. Smith, 44, wanted to go into international banking, following the path of her mom, who was a 27-year civil servant for the Ministry of Finance in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa.

“Restaurants were too much work,” Smith said with a laugh. “I was going to go into banking. I would dress up, have my nails done, look nice. Not all of this hard work.”

Instead, those around her at Kirkwood Community College, where she studied, and professional kitchens in Cedar Rapids recognized her talent and leadership and coaxed her to stick with it a bit longer. Twenty years later, Smith proudly acknowledges her choice of a culinary career.

She has led an improbable life, escaping a war-torn nation, starting over with nothing in Iowa, and overcoming cancer to become an executive chef. Through it all, she’s not bitter.

Instead, she carries an optimism and compassion that draws people in, those close to her say.

Earlier this year, Smith, who lives in Cedar Rapids with husband Simon and children Eddie and Nicolaus Becu, was named one of 40 Women to Watch by the Iowa Restaurant Assocation. At an awards ceremony in Des Moines last month featuring Gov. Kim Reynolds, Smith also received the American Dream award.

Jason Elliott, a salesman for Loffredo Fresh Produce serving Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City markets, has been calling Smith the “celebrity chef” since her award.

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Elliott nominated Smith upon getting to know her after she took the position with Grand Living in summer 2018, about when the center opened.

During his weekly visits, Elliott noticed she created a welcoming environment. Even when she was gone, her staff followed the lead.

“She was a super positive person even though she has been through so much,” Elliott said. “She is just an amazing person, and I want people to know.”

Smith is three years cancer-free, she said. While executive sous chef for Bon Appetit Management Co. at Cornell College, Smith was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and spent two months in the hospital and nine months with a feeding tube. She recalled going between radiation treatments and work, passing out and getting taken back to the hospital by ambulance.

“I went back to work because I was tired of feeling sorry for myself,” she said.

Refugee’s mother in 1998: ‘I feared for my life’

Smith was focused on her career fairly quickly after a drastic life change brought her not to London — where the family expected to land but did not due to issues with immigration — but to Cedar Rapids.

Smith was 23 when she arrived at 3 a.m. in June 1998 with younger brothers Austin and Arnold Smith, mother Elizabeth Smith and cousin Shefumi Carew.

The refugees had fled a war-torn Sierra Leone in fear of their lives and spent a year with thousands of others in a Red Cross camp in Gambia.

Mom was a target because of her government job, and dad, Austin, who stayed behind initially, was on a hit list.

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”It was terrible. The schools, the government ... nothing was functioning,” Elizabeth Smith, who was 50 at the time, told The Gazette for an article about the family’s first Fourth of July in July 1998. “You could not stay out past six o’clock. There was killing, looting, burning down of houses. For no reason.

“To settle bets, they cut open the stomachs of pregnant women to find out if the baby was a boy or a girl. They would pluck out people’s eyes and cut off their hands and feet. And they would clap and dance while they did it. I feared for my life and for my children. It is just miserable there. I am afraid to go back home.”

Volunteers helped family get back on their feet

Mel, now 95, and Lee Kropuenske, now 89, were volunteers from Trinity Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids and remember the first night vividly.

Earlier in the day they had agreed to pick up the Smiths at the airport when another volunteer fell through.

After a delayed flight, the Smiths emerged in the early morning hours with two suitcases and a box towed by a rope, Lee Kropuenske recalled.

They drove them to their new home — a second floor apartment in a rundown, bug-infested building with no front door on Bever Avenue SE. Two mattresses were on the floor, and an electric stove sat in a spot designed for a gas hookup.

When they realized the Smiths had no food or access to it, the Kropuenskes returned after a brief sleep to take them to breakfast. Over the next year, the couple helped them get on their feet. They secured clothing and furniture and used two cars for all of the trips to the dentist, doctors, Social Security offices, grocery store and school for the kids.

“They had nothing,” Lee Kropuenske recalled, noting Elizabeth Smith managed to bring drapes among her minimal possessions.

Twenty-one years later, and Austina Smith still checks in “all the time” to see how they are and to tell them how much she loves them, Lee Kropuenske said. The Kropuenskes received an invitation to the restaurant awards banquet and proudly boast of Smith’s accomplishments.

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“It is fantastic she has worked herself up to this with all she’s worked through,” Lee Kropuenske said.

‘What matters’ is appreciating, valuing people

Smith walks with a beaming smile through the corridors of Grand Living, where she discusses her efforts to “put senior dining on the map” with from-scratch recipes rather than prepackaged fare.

She jokes with residents, many of whom just call her “Chef.”

“She is really good at what she does and really cares about us, which is important,” said Diane Mitchell, 80, who is one of the 130 residents.

Kim Emrich, executive director of Grand Living, which has about 80 employees, including 15 in the kitchen, said she thinks Smith’s challenging journey has helped shape her.

“It helps her keep things in perspective,” Emrich said. “She can look at the big picture instead of worrying about the small stuff. She has a really positive attitude and outlook on life.”

Emrich described her as “grounded,” “genuine,” and “passionate about not just the food itself but our residents and making sure their needs are being met.”

How far she has come is not lost on Smith, either. She doesn’t forget the kindness she’s received from people like the Kropuenskes.

“For me, compassion and kindness is why people are drawn to you,” Smith said. “You can be the Gordon Ramsay of the kitchen, but that doesn’t always work. If people feel seen, heard and valued, they stay. If someone appreciates what you do, as human beings at the end of the day, that is what matters. That is what we want.”

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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