Chef shares West African family recipes with students

Behind some of the delicious dishes served to Cornell College students is a woman with a unique food history.

Austina Smith, Executive Sous Chef for Bon Appétit Management Company at Cornell College, grew up in Sierra Leone, which is a country on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in West Africa. Her family came to the United States through a United Nations refugee program in 1998 when the country was experiencing civil war, and she brought with her a lot of food knowledge from the time she spent in a restaurant owned by her grandparents.

She says, however, that she never liked cooking.

“It was too much work and too much stress,” Smith said. “I promised myself I would never be involved with anything that had to do with food.”

Austina Smith frying black-eyed peas.
Austina Smith frying black-eyed peas.

After she arrived in the U.S. she says one thing led to another and she was surprised to find herself getting a culinary degree.

“And here we are,” she said with a laugh.

Smith started working at Cornell College in 2012. She says at first she stayed away from cooking West African food for the students, fearing they wouldn’t eat it.

“Then, I started trying things little by little,” Smith said. “I thought let’s try things that are fried, first, and see how that goes. We did a banana and rice fritter which is vegan and gluten-free. It’s rice flour, bananas, sugar, baking powder, vanilla, and nutmeg. I did a small batch, and it quickly disappeared. We went from using 10 pounds of flour at the beginning to using 25 pounds of flour when we make them now!”

Her grandmother used to make the fritters at the family restaurant, calling them rice akara.

“My grandma would be proud,” Smith said.

Since then, she has continued to increase the amount of West African food she cooks for the students and works each day to teach others in the kitchen to work more efficiently. Every time she tries putting out something new she’s often surprised by the outcome.Austina Smith working in the kitchen at Cornell College

“I really like working at Cornell, because it is so diverse,” Smith said. “I have been to other places where I’d put stuff out and nobody would try it because it’s different. Not at this college. Here, there’s a line. They are going to try it once. If they like it, they are going to tell everybody else about it. I love that about the students.”

She says she wants students to create new memories with the foods they are eating here. One day, years down the road, maybe they’ll try something that reminds them of a day in the Cornell College Hilltop Café.

“For me, I’d love if when students leave here and go wherever they’re off to next, that they’re not scared to try new things,” Smith said. “I’m not talking about just food, but in their lives as a whole. Just try something new! You may not like it but you at least had the courage to try–that is a powerful lesson.”