Student Stories: Following Your Creative Dream

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This article is sponsored by TAFE SA

Ever dreamed of being a jet-setting fashion designer? How about working as a chef at one of the best restaurants in the world or becoming the CEO of a national bakery chain? While pursuing one of these careers might seem difficult, there are countless examples of students who have followed their passion, made it a career, and reached great heights. Insider Guides chatted to three TAFE SA alumni who did just that.

Hoang Nguyen – the budding international chef

Moving away from home as an international student can be tough. The culture shock, changes in language, lifestyle and education, and the need to make new friends, add up to a lot of pressure. But, for some students, the biggest challenge is just being able to sustain themselves without relying on a diet of instant noodles.

“I had to learn to cook because otherwise, I wouldn’t know how to survive.”

Meet Hoang, a now-chef who left Vietnam to come to Adelaide in 2014. He was studying a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing before his newfound independence uncovered an interest in food and cooking.

“As I tried different recipes, I became super curious, and eventually cooking became a habit,” Hoang says. “I thought I could change it from a habit to something more serious.”

Upon graduation, Hoang began researching culinary schools to find the perfect place to explore this growing interest. He started a Certificate III in Commercial Cookery at TAFE SA in 2016, which led him to become the innovative chef he is today.

“In class, we would be shown tips beyond the textbook, which pushed people to learn more and be creative,” Hoang says. “That’s really good for me because at the time I was so curious, but I was having my questions answered every class – I never skipped a class.”

On living in Adelaide, Hoang loves how relaxed the city is and how easy it was to settle into Australian life.

“I really liked the lifestyle in Adelaide because it’s laidback,” he says. “At the weekend, there’s always something to do. If not in the city, then you can go to a winery, you can go to the beach, you can pick strawberries, or you can just hang out with friends and get some food.”

After finishing his course, Hoang worked at award-winning Adelaide restaurant, Orana, which has won multiple ‘restaurant of the year’ awards. He then moved back to Ho Chi Minh City to start his first solo venture – a pop-up tasting menu experience highlighting seasonality and childhood memories.

“It’s a very interactive private dinner,” Hoang says. “I have to talk and explain my food, rather than serving the food and saying nothing. TAFE showed me a lot about this technique – about how to present in front of people.”

In 2019, Hoang will make the journey from Vietnam to Denmark, starting an internship at one of the world’s top restaurants, Noma in Copenhagen. The adventure came upon the recommendation of one of his previous sous chefs.

“Towards the end of my time at Orana, I just felt like I needed something a little bit more challenging,” he says. “Noma had just moved to a new location and it’s big, so I thought that they might need some more help, intern-wise.”

For international students looking to do the same, Hoang has this parting advice: “Obviously, you’re going to have to learn how to do everything by yourself, but I learnt that it’s just a matter of time before you figure everything out. Don’t give up – just keep doing what you want to do.”

Nikhil Mittal – the baker and CEO

Chef Nikhil Mittal may be responsible for popularising the humble lamington in India.

“People here love lamingtons,” says the man behind Nik Baker’s, a bakery chain with stores across India. “It’s a simple cake to make, but with the cake, the strawberry, the chocolate and the coconut… that combination, in India, they love. It’s a big hit.”

In the year 2000, following the completion of industry training in New Delhi, Nikhil moved to Adelaide from Chandigarh in North India to undertake a Certificate IV in Patisserie, Certificate IV in Food Technology, and a Certificate III in Food Processing at TAFE SA. For Nik, Australia was the perfect choice as an international student.

“Australia is a beautiful place,” Nik says. “I’d heard so much about it. I went online and checked a lot of reviews – a lot of students were praising the life and friendly atmosphere in Australia.”

Nik found settling in extremely easy – other than some struggles with Australia’s unique way of speaking. “The only hassle I had was the slang. It took me a while to get used to,” he says. “I still use ‘good on you’ or ‘G’day’ sometimes.”

Nik had been interested in food and cooking from a young age, so a career in food was a natural choice. Luckily, he had endless encouragement and support from his father.

“Since my childhood, I was a big foodie. My dad saw that passion in me and he insisted, ‘Why don’t you do something in bakery?’” Nik says. “My dad knew that bakery in India was going to be a big business. He told me that if Indians started eating bread – even 10% of Indians – we’d need thousands of factories to produce bread just for India’s market. That made [it] click – it’s going to be that big.”

Nik took his father’s suggestion on board and never looked back. After graduating from TAFE, he took his skills back home, and in 2006, he opened the first Nik Baker’s outlet.

“We had a lot of challenges because people in India were not ready for the European, expensive bakery culture. In India, it was localised bakeries selling local pastries. Then I started my bakery and we started to do croissants, baguettes, cheesecake, tiramisu,” Nik says. “At the beginning, we did a lot of free sampling for people to taste our products [so] they could feel that value for money.”

From that one small outlet, Nik Baker’s has grown exponentially. “In the next two months, we will have fourteen [Nik Baker’s] locations. In 2006, I had about 20 staff, including me and my family. Now, we have more than 600.”

Nik’s time in Australia has truly helped shape his career, and he encourages other students to pursue an overseas education.

“For me, without the international exposure, I would not have made it here. What I learnt outside my country, in Australia, is what has made Nik Baker’s my brand,” he says. “International exposure is very important. It builds a lot of confidence. You learn so many new techniques, [and] so many new ways to work.”

NI WANG – the promising fashion designer

Sometimes, a bus ride can change the course of your life. For Ni, an international student living in Adelaide, a simple bus journey took her from an accounting degree to pursuing a career in the demanding and exciting world of fashion design – something she’d never dreamed possible.

“I was living on Henley Beach Road, so I would take the bus every day, and I would see the Adelaide College of the Arts and the models inside,” Ni says. “I researched, and they had a fashion design course, so straight away I changed to TAFE from university.”

Studying an Advanced Diploma of Applied Fashion Design and Merchandising at TAFE SA was a move that Ni kept secret from her father for a long time. “My father didn’t think fashion was a suitable major for me. He has very old opinions – he thought that accounting is better for the future to find a job.”

In 2017, Ni proved she was meant to be in the industry when she won the Premier’s Design Award at the Adelaide Fashion Festival. Within the competition, she created a garment that utilised exactly three metres of Australian wool, highlighting an environment-focused, ‘no-waste’ theme. Ni was speechless when she won – but there was one person she wanted to share her achievement with.

“After I won the design award, I told my dad,” Ni says. “He’s so happy now. He thinks I made a good choice.”

Ni has since graduated from TAFE and started a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Fashion) at university. For her, TAFE was the perfect starting point from which to build her understanding and experience in the fashion and design world.

“When I first came to Australia [and did] the first class at TAFE, I didn’t understand a lot of the professional vocabulary about fashion, [but] the lecturers were very patient and explained every single word to me,” she says. “TAFE provides a lot of opportunities for you to join in on everything – like the Adelaide Fashion Festival – to get more experience for your future career. That’s very important.”

Ni is now working at BNKR fashion boutique in Adelaide’s famous Rundle Mall but is preparing to go to Italy for a three-month exchange program – an experience that comes as part of winning the Premiers Design Award.

“We’ll go to Rome first, then we’ll go to Florence for three weeks,” she says. “We have a course, we’re doing some photo shoots. We will also go to Gucci or Chanel – the big brands – for experience.”

For Ni, changing from a course she felt she had to take to one she wanted to take, has been an incredibly rewarding challenge. At the end of it all, she wholly encourages international students to pursue their interests.

“You should choose a major that you really love and that you want to become your career,” she says. “It’s just like the TAFE slogan: ‘turn your passion into your profession.’”