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Cookery teacher 'scores' top teaching marks

TAFE Queensland cookery teacher Val Esposito has always had a love of teaching, revealing itself very early on in his career. A great number of students of all abilities are now benefitting greatly from his clear talent.

Originally from Sorrento Italy, Val Esposito grew up watching his mother and grandmother work in the family restaurant. After witnessing them work unsociable hours and deal with the ‘pressure cooker’ environment in the kitchen, Val was determined to take another path.

After initially pursuing economics, it wasn't long before he returned to the kitchen, first in London and then on the Amalfi Coast where he began teaching cooking classes at his small bed and breakfast. After that, Val relocated to the Granite Belt where he ran a lodge, before moving again to work at the renowned Watermark restaurant in Townsville.

Fast forward to now, and after completing his training qualification and subsequently teaching hundreds of students, Val has been announced as North Queensland’s VET Teacher or Trainer of the Year at the 2021 Queensland Training Awards.

Val has a naturally supportive and approachable nature which saw him engage and train newcomers to the kitchen wherever he worked. This same nature makes him a welcoming and approachable guide to new students to the cooking discipline.

Empathising with the overwhelm people can feel when starting out in a new industry, Val makes cooking theory accessible for everyone, contextualising it to make the concepts easier to understand.

In the classroom, Val's visual presentations are dynamic and supported by Smart TV screens where theory and other audio-visual aids are used to reinforce techniques such as braising or stewing.

For off-campus students, Val regularly uses a webcam to capture and record them performing routine procedures, such as breaking down a chicken, to use a reference later and remind them of the steps.

For Val, one of the most rewarding parts of his role is when he gets to teach diverse groups, such as students with disabilities.

“When I started teaching at TAFE Queensland three years ago, the Springboard program [school-based students with disabilities] was one of the cohorts I was given. I found some amazing and passionate people collaborating with this program who were always committed to making a difference for the students," he said.

"Although Springboard only makes up a small part of my cohorts, these teachers are an incredible inspiration to me and a source of knowledge that I have utilised with my other cohorts, as quite often we come across students with learning difficulties in mainstream studies,” Val explained.

Students with disabilities often require special attention in a learning environment and Val approaches these classes in a way that addresses their different individual abilities. He finds work with these students especially rewarding.

“It's amazing what the students can do at the end of the course when we hold a function," he said.

"I had one student who was assisted by a very experienced support teacher in the kitchen with us. This student was so humble, and he understood his limits in many areas. He’s now enrolling in a Certificate III in Hospitality (SIT30616),” Val beamed.

But that's just one of Val's many teaching highlights from his inspiring students.

"In the first Semester of 2021 I had my first legally blind student completing a Certificate II in Kitchen Operations (SIT20416). I was blown away by the commitment and the strength that this young girl displayed, from the first to the last day,” Val said.

But for Val, it's hard to pick out just a few of his student's stories to share as they all achieve their greatness in different ways.

"I feel that every time one of my students is awarded their certificate, it’s a success story," he said.

Val is also known by his colleagues for his mindful and considered approach when teaching international students. According to TAFE Queensland International Student Support Advisor Katie Johnson, Val plays an important role in helping new arrivals feel at home.

“International students can experience loneliness in the first few months of living in a new country due to the loss of contact with family and networks back home," she said.

"Val bonds incredibly well with the students and often becomes a father or brother figure, which gives them the security they need to settle well,” Katie said.

But for Val, it's all part of the job and just another way that his students constantly amaze him.

“Cookery is work that allows students to travel and work anywhere, and I have much respect for these students and their courage to take on the challenge of undertaking training in a new language,” Val empathised.

“The most rewarding part of my job is to build other people’s skills and knowledge. From school-based students to international students or students with special needs, I have the chance to make a difference in their professional lives," he said.

“I can also safely say that at TAFE Queensland students will always find a solid structure — focused on the student’s need, and across all qualifications. We have amazing individuals ready to use all their skills and knowledge to make a difference in students’ careers,” said Val.

World experience, empathy, humility. TAFE Queensland and its students are fortunate to have Val.