Award-winning Coralville chef adds another accolade to her resume

Austina Smith earns honor from National Restaurant Association Education Foundation

Executive chef Austina Smith prepares a gluten-free topping for a berry crumble dessert in the kitchen at Grand Living a
Executive chef Austina Smith prepares a gluten-free topping for a berry crumble dessert in the kitchen at Grand Living at Bridgewater senior living community in Coralville, Iowa, on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. Smith emigrated from Sierra Leone when she was young. Smith was selected to the inaugural list of 40 “Women to Watch” in hospitality by the Iowa Restaurant Association. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

In November, Austina Smith, 44, an executive chef in Coralville, received the American Dream award from the Iowa Restaurant Assocation, which also named her one of 40 Women to Watch last year.

The Gazette profiled the Sierra Leone native’s improbable life, escaping the war-torn West African nation, starting over with nothing in Cedar Rapids, and overcoming cancer to become executive chef at Grand Living At Bridgewater, a senior housing complex in Coralville. Through it all, she carried a contagious optimism and love of life and people.

What has happened since?

This month, Smith was one of three people to be honored with the National Restaurant Award, Faces of Diversity American Dream Award from the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation in Washington, D.C.

“The award celebrates individuals who have overcome significant challenges and still achieved great success in their lives and in business,” according to a news release from the association. “Her resolve to always see the best in every situation, even through cancer treatment, as well as her dedication to being a mentor to others in her culinary role, is why Chef Austina Smith exemplifies the Faces of Diversity achieving the American Dream.”

Jessica Dunker, president and chief executive of the Iowa Restaurant Association, noted 43 percent of restaurant chefs are immigrants, and the restaurant industry will be a place where people can build their American Dream.

The award also brings a $2,500 scholarship in her name, a $2,500 donation to the Iowa Restaurant Association Education Foundation in her honor, as well as a trip to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony and to observe the legislative process in action.

Smith said she learned more about the connection between policy decisions and real world impacts, such as workforce shortages that dog the restaurant industry, noting she attended a session with former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and another with Sen. Susie Collins of Maine.

“It was very inspirational,” she said. “It was great to go there and see the decisions that get made that we don’t think about. It was great to see that part in action.”


As for the award, she said it caught her by surprise given so many others in the industry with important stories, and the entire experience is a reminder there is more work to do.

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