Melanie Ewalt, 32, Cedar Rapids
Assistant professor/chef @ Kirkwood
Community College Culinary Arts Program
The smells of Cuban food — sofrito, in particular — lured culinary arts professor Melanie Ewalt into her grandmother’s kitchen when she was a girl growing up in Miami. She’d slip past busy family gatherings to join her grandmother at the stove, where green peppers, onion, garlic, and tomato simmered with pork
“Cuban food is more about flavor than spice,” Melanie says. “You could smell it
as soon as you walked into the house.”
Melanie developed a love for Cuban cuisine and everything Latin during those early years surrounded by an extended Cuban family in Miami, where she learned Spanish alongside English. When she was 8 she moved to Iowa City but returned to Miami every summer to stay with her grandmother, where “everything centered around food,” she says.
In 2000, Melanie graduated from the Kirkwood culinary arts program. She worked as an assistant kitchen manager
in charge of catering for Hy-Vee planning events at Hancher Auditorium and for the University of Iowa Athletics program.
Then six years ago Melanie began subbing for a former Kirkwood instructor, Amy Wyss, now co-owner of Zins, and began her transition to full-time chef instructor.
Kirkwood’s culinary arts degree is a two-year program. First-semester students learn the basics, such as how to handle and sharpen a knife, perform various cuts and work with different foods. Theory, taught in classrooms, explores topics in depth. Second-semester students train in international cuisine with David Horsfield, a chef from Australia.
Melanie focuses on third- and fourth-semester students. The third-semester cooking lab is the college restaurant,
Class Act, where students prepare meals for the general public.
Twice each semester Melanie organizes large events that bring together the entire culinary arts program — students and instructors — to plan and prepare five-course themed meals. The most recent event focused on locally grown and harvested foods.
“I actually went out and picked all of the eggplant at a local farm,” Melanie says. Students found pears in Marion and spinach in Mount Vernon.
“It’s a lot of fun to be able to see students grow and see the different things everybody can bring to the table,” she says.
She’d rather see students be creative and fail than say no to trying new ideas.
This type of training is preparation for the fourth-semester capstone class, where students cater an event from start to finish from working with customers to planning the meal.
At work and at home, food plays a pivotal role in Melanie’s life.
Her season tickets to Iowa football games morph into food-charged events as she prepares dishes for pre-game. And family gatherings — something Melanie and her boyfriend, Isaac Fisher, make a priority — always center around food.
“Latin cuisine is my specialty,” Melanie says. “But, I’m also a big fan of Mediterranean food.”
— MICHELLE SILLMAN