Leayra Thornton is living proof of the adage life is what happens when you’re making other plans.
From the moment she first strapped on an apron, TAFE NSW has been a staple ingredient in Ms Thornton’s stop-start cooking career.
Her journey started in 2007, when as a fresh-faced first-year apprentice chef she enrolled in a Certificate III in Commercial Cookery at TAFE NSW Bega.
Two years later, life intervened when Ms Thornton fell pregnant with her first child and put her career – and her studies – on pause.
Another child followed two years later but despite mounting pressure at home, she was determined to finish the TAFE NSW course she had started.
“The flexibility TAFE NSW offered me was incredible,” she said.
“They (teachers) were accessible anytime to help and having flexibility in study allowed me to work around the balance of study and family life.”
Five years after first enrolling in it, she finally graduated with her Certificate III, later adding a Certificate IV in Hospitality to her CV.
But her relationship with TAFE NSW wasn’t over.
In 2013, Ms Thornton opened her first café, named The Little Gourmet.
The location? The canteen at TAFE NSW Bega.
“It was just such a buzz,” she said.
“The public could come in and dine and I was doing catering jobs for TAFE.
“The Certificate IV really empowered me to make wise business decisions and this was one of them.
“TAFE has opened so many doors for me and given me so many connections.”
One of those doors took Leayra to the USA after the TAFE NSW Head Teacher of Tourism and Hospitality, Deirdre Jory, nominated her for a travel award through the Bega-Littleton Sister City Program.
Leayra represented TAFE NSW, and her hometown, as a senior ambassador in Littleton, visiting world-class restaurants and meeting some of Denver’s most respected chefs.
Ms Thornton, 30, said the personal touch from teachers and the focus on hands-on experience were TAFE NSW’s secret recipe for success.
“They do far more than deliver training courses, they recognise the potential in students and really mentor them,” she said.
“The teachers are so passionate and inspiring and they just support you every step of the way.
“They even have a restaurant at Bega TAFE where students can have a real life, hands-on experience.”
Ms Thornton is now running a successful catering business called Valley Katering.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Former TAFE NSW Commercial Cookery student Leayra Thornton says her time at TAFE was the launchpad to a successful career
For more information on courses for Semester 1, 2018, visit www.tafensw.edu.au or call 131 601.