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2020 Women of Influence Honoree: Maura Nelson

French/English professor, Des Moines Area Community College


Maura Nelson’s journey to become a French professor and internationally recognized advocate of French culture and culinary techniques began with a quick glance at a travel poster at age 19, as an English major at Northwestern University. She liked the idea of a 55-day European tour, and her parents supported the idea of Nelson traveling during her education. 

“I got to Paris, and after the first day there I sent my parents a postcard and I said, ‘I’ve fallen in love in Paris.’ I should have written, ‘I’ve fallen in love with Paris,’ because for the next eight weeks my mother thought I’d found a guy in Paris, and maybe I wasn’t coming back,” Nelson said, laughing. 

In her second week teaching as an adjunct for DMACC in 1986, Nelson served as a translator for two chefs visiting from Des Moines’ French sister city St. Etienne, who were leading a culinary techniques demonstration for students. Nelson was inspired, and told Chef Robert Anderson she would volunteer to help turn the demonstration into an annual event at DMACC. 

Since that time, as the lead marketer and fundraiser for the Iowa Culinary Institute’s French Chef Exchange, Nelson has assisted in bringing more than 50 chefs to Iowa, and the program has grown to send more than 100 students on a yearly two-week trip to France to study culinary techniques with the chefs of l’Association des Cuisiniers de la Loire. Nelson leads the coordination of both programs and private fundraising to sponsor the year’s top eight culinary graduates to participate in each trip for free. 

“We go to two-star Michelin restaurants, three-star restaurants, we go to the top wineries in France … and the reason we do that is because this is all about education,” Nelson said. “We want you to see what fine dining is all about. We want you to see what the possibilities are for innovative dining and creative cooking. We want you to see what’s out there, because we want you to come back to Iowa and make a difference in the culinary scene here in Des Moines. 

“When I look in 2020 and I see what we’ve done, and how this program has influenced Central Iowa’s dining scene, I’m very excited and very proud [that] I’ve had any small part in that,” she added. “It’s taking one of my favorite things in the world, which is education, and getting people out there and really thinking in a global perspective.” 

1. Nelson established the Iowa Culinary Institute’s French Chef Exchange at Des Moines Area Community College, and has been the lead coordinator over the exchange’s 35 years. 

2. Nelson’s advocacy of the ICI exchange directly influenced the Des Moines metro area’s fine dining scene, which claims many DMACC/ICI alums as owners, managers and chefs. 

3. Nelson is internationally honored for her advocacy of French culture and culinary traditions, including as a 2012 recipient of France’s highest academic award, Ordre des Palmes Academiques.

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