Despite 2020 being…2020 congratulations were still in order. Chef Austina Smith was awarded the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation Faces of Diversity Award, the Iowa Restaurant Association’s American Dream Award, and the Inspiring Women of Iowa’s Courage Award. Google Chef Austina Smith and YouTube videos and newspaper articles tell a succinct story bookended by two events. The first, her arrival in the United States as a refugee with little more than a box tied with string. The second, her battle with esophageal cancer. Both seismic events but neither are defining moments. Instead, Smith’s story is one of the lessons that carried her through what would have defined so many. Lessons taught by her mother and grandmother through food.
Smith grew up in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone or Serra Leoa (“Lion Mountains”) in Portugeuse was named in the late 1400s for the shape of the hills surrounding its natural harbor. As a major port, Freetown and Sierra Leone saw its share of Europeans as they colonized Africa. The British, French, Dutch and Danish all passed through. In the late 18th century the corporate entity of the British colony resettled so-called “Black Loyalists”, former slaves who fought for the British in the American Revolution. That resettlement also included runaway slaves from Jamaica and other slaves captured from slave ships. Their descendants were known as “Creoles” in Sierra Leone, and their presence and influence along with the effects of colonization and the existing culture of some 18 indigenous ethnic groups Freetown and Sierra Leone diverse.
Before a decade’s long war seared images of child soldiers on the international psyche, Smith and her family lived a comfortable middle class life. She attended private school. She grew up with both parents, siblings, her great grandmother, her grandfather and her grandmother. But her grandmother -Mama Smith- played an enormous role in shaping Smith’s life. “[Mama Smith] always said, God has given every single person a gift and her gift was to help take care of people. [God] gave her the resources so she had to use those resources to make other people smile. Nothing puts a smile on somebody’s face like a good word and warm food in their belly. Our house was the center for people to just drop by. I think that’s how she got into food. She figured [she] was feeding everybody so [she] might as well open a restaurant.” According to Smith from the outset, the restaurant was about more than food. Food was the vehicle to teach life lessons about compassion and accountability. “Everybody around our area knew that if you were thirsty, if you were hungry, if you didn’t feel good just show up on Mama Smith’s doorstep and she will take care of you. It didn’t matter where you were from. It didn’t matter what you were going through. No judgment at all.”
Although Smith admits her grandmother was a “teddy bear” that did not mean Mama Smith was a push over. Smith recalls a time her grandmother asked for help at the restaurant. A young Smith, with better things to do, half-heartedly agreed. When she did not hold up her end of the bargain, Mama Smith taught a lesson that stayed with Smith. “When you say ‘yes’ to somebody, it has to mean ‘yes’ and when you say ‘no’ it has to mean ‘no’. Don’t answer to stuff that you know you cannot do. My sister, my mom… we knew when you make a commitment, you have to keep it.” It would eventually become clear to Smith that her mother, Elizabeth, also followed Mama Smith’s examples of resourcefulness and compassion. Lessons that would pay off in a surprising way.
When the civil war started, Smith’s father worked for a private company but her mother, although a nurse, worked in the Ministry of Finance. As a government employee, Elizabeth would not be safe. A neighbor warned her that the rebels were planning to come to Freetown one night or within a few days. The neighbor told Elizabeth to take her children and flee.
In 1997, Elizabeth, Smith, and her siblings boarded a boat and fled north to Gambia. They arrived at a Red Cross refugee camp but did not stay for long. Shortly after their arrival a stranger approached Smith’s mother. The stranger knew Elizabeth’s name and explained that word had spread Elizabeth and her family fled Freetown and were arriving in Gambia. Unbeknownst to Smith, like Mama Smith, Elizabeth had been quietly using her resources to help others. “[My mother] had paid college [tuition] for some people,” Smith said, “This was one of those people she helped and she didn’t even remember them. This person took us to their home [and] took care of us. So instead of staying in the camp, we stayed in somebody’s house for a whole year and they took care of everything for us.”
Despite the good karma, the Smiths were still refugees. They were separated from Smith’s father, their close extended family, their culture and their routines. “I come from a family where food was very essential. It wasn’t just the eating of food. It was the creation of food. It was getting everybody involved to make this food. As you sat making these things, you started conversation. You talked about life. You learned from the older generation things they had gone through -how they went through it. It created those memories even before the food came to the table.”
Smith’s mother found a way to bring her small family back to the table, and it started with a fish. A type of shad fish called bonga. Elizabeth noticed, unlike the Sierra Leoneans, Gambians did not eat bonga. So Smith’s mother started going to the fishermen and collecting the unused bonga for free. She cleaned it, seasoned it, dried it and began selling it to other Sierra Leoneans. Next, Smith’s mother began teaching people how to cook Sierra Leonean food. With the modest income, the small family found their way back to the table. “We were able to sit down. Whatever the day had brought on you, you were able to sit down as a family and talk about it. It was good to get back into some of those routines. We didn’t have the whole extended family – [but] it was really good to be able to do that.”
In 1998, the routines the family reestablished in Gambia would end. They were coming to America’s heartland. Smith was 28 years old when she and her family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa through a Lutheran Church refugee program. The church connected the Smiths with a local couple to help the family acclimate. Smith says their sponsors are still a part of her family’s lives some 23 years later. “What they did for us was they started introducing us to other Africans, but they didn’t get that those people were not from West Africa. They were from North Africa- completely different.” Regardless of any differences, the fellow Africans helped the Smiths find access to familiar food. They quickly learned that familiar and equal were two different things. “When we went to the store and my mom saw the box of minute rice. We didn’t know what that meant, so we just got the rice and took it home. We were trying to cook it like we would cook rice in Africa and it came out like rice pudding.” Smith laughs at the memory of eating fruit in the States for the first time. “[We were] coming from basically a tropical country – our first taste of pineapple and my mother said she didn’t think she was ever going to eat pineapple again. As you stay here your taste buds get adjusted to what is here. We had to adjust.”
They adjusted and they settled into their new lives. Eventually, Smith’s father, Austin, reunited with the family. Smith earned a degree in culinary and restaurant management. She got married and had two sons. Smith was working as an executive sous chef when she received devastating news. She had esophageal cancer. Barely, 40 years old Smith underwent an esophagectomy. A major operation where part or all of the esophagus is removed along with a part of the stomach. The remaining stomach is stretched into the chest or neck to connect to the remaining esophagus or to create a new esophagus. Smith spent two months in the hospital and she was placed on a feeding tube- unable to chew, eat, or drink- for nine months.
She readily admits this was a difficult time in her life. “Everything you take for granted gets turned upside down. It’s going back to basics. The basics for me was going back to my African roots”. Those roots were in food and once again, Smith’s mother would use food to help her daughter. “Once the feeding tube came out, a lot of times people think everything is done. Then the connection that I had in my stomach started closing so even though you can you can – you can’t eat. [People recommended I drink protein shakes] I would smell the protein shake and start throwing up which was bad because throwing up was bad for the connection that I had. So, my mom…started buying chicken bones and put all the vegetables in it, made it, skimmed all the fat off of it, froze it, and put them in cubes I could take one and microwave it and sip that.”
As Smith tolerance of food grew, her mother began reintroducing familiar African flavors. Smith began drinking ginger, turmeric and tamarind drinks. The tamarind drink helped combat nausea- a side effect from chemotherapy. Smith revealed the drink did more than help with nausea. “It has an after flavor that takes me back home… makes me think I’m sitting at the table with everybody surrounding me and everybody rooting for me. If everybody is rooting for you, the least you can do is root for yourself. It was getting all the ancestors all around me through the journey. They were saying, ‘Come on child’.” Smith has been cancer free since 2019.
In 2018 Smith became the Executive Chef at an upscale senior community called Grand Living at Bridgewater in Coralville, Iowa. As Executive Chef, she has made the lessons and the food from her journey the key ingredient in her kitchen. Starting with the food. Smith runs a scratch kitchen, so all the food is prepared from raw ingredients. “Sometimes, I’ll take pictures of bones …so I can show [that we do things from scratch]”. Smith and her team offer the Bridgewater residents three dinner options that change nightly. That is a lot of work, but Smith does not seem to mind. In fact, she sees it as an opportunity.
Smith began introducing a fourth nightly dinner option- African food. There was some resistance. She added vegetarian based items first, passed out samples and took time to educate the mostly white residents about African food. Smith’s commitment to her food paid off. African food is now a mainstay on the menu ,and Smith holds ongoing cooking demonstrations on African food for residents. However, she recognizes her role as an Executive Chef is about more than food.
“I’m going back to what my grandma said, we come through things for a reason. I look back and [realize] there’s a reason I went through that. Now this person that’s going through chemo, I’m able to help them. I’m able to empathize with people on a whole different level than before. That is what I teach in our kitchen. We empathize. When we look at it in that light, it gives us peace.”