Kayla Harper has never liked to stand still. From an early age, she has been working her culinary magic and making big plans for her future. Her passion for cooking led her to culinary school before gaining chops in several restaurants where she worked hard to make a name for herself in the industry. Her journey brought her back to where it all began at Lakes Region Community College (LRCC) where she found a new passion for teaching.
Her excitement began before high school. Kayla recalls that she had set her sights on attending Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI to pursue culinary studies after graduating from Spaulding High School in Rochester, N.H. “I thought this was the only place for me and that I had to go there if I was going to have a successful culinary career,” she said.
Financial realities derailed Kayla’s dream of enrolling at Johnson & Wales right out of high school. Instead, she juggled two and three jobs in commercial kitchens, working nonstop for a year and a half and saved money while planning her next step.
“I asked myself how I was setting myself up for the future. I needed a challenge that work wasn’t providing.” Kayla signed up for a few classes in the Liberal Arts program at LRCC and found the experience was just what she needed. “I thought ‘all right, this is a growth opportunity. This will push me,’” she explained.
Kayla enrolled in a class dedicated to Italian cuisine and loved it. After her LRCC professor encouraged her to enroll in the Culinary Arts program, Kayla embraced an ambitious schedule attending LRCC part-time while working full-time. “If you want something to happen, you have to be willing to work for it,” she said.
Kayla graduated from LRCC with an associate degree in Culinary Arts. Thanks to the educational and financial foundation she had created by working and attending LRCC, she was able to transfer her credits and continue her education at Johnson & Wales, her original dream school. Kayla graduated in 2015 from Johnson & Wales, with a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts and Food Management and a concentration in Sommelier Management.
“There are the same tools in the toolbox at LRCC as at Johnson & Wales. You learn just as much but in smaller classes and with the chance to work one-on-one with professors. I encourage everyone to take advantage of community college to get where they want to go. I speak with a lot of pride about my LRCC education.”
Kayla worked as the assistant manager of a noted farm-to-table restaurant in Providence for almost two years before her need for new challenges and a desire to return to New Hampshire led her to a position at Surf Restaurant in Portsmouth. Kayla joined the staff as a Sushi Chef, quickly working her way up to Sous Chef and Executive Chef by 2020. After weathering the rocky months of the pandemic, business was back to normal at Surf when an enticing new opportunity came along.
“Teaching at LRCC fell into my lap,” Kayla said. She had stayed in touch with Bill Walsh, Associate Professor of Culinary Arts at LRCC. When an adjunct teaching position opened, Chef Walsh thought of Kayla and asked if she wanted to try it.
Kayla jumped at the chance to share her expertise with LRCC students. She taught her first class in November 2021 and has never looked back. “I love teaching! It is a lot like managing a kitchen. You are working with people and coaching them through the challenges of learning new skills.”
Kayla is now a full-time faculty member serving as Associate Professor of Culinary Arts. Her full circle from student to faculty member has made it clear that the best route to a successful, rewarding career is not always a straight line.
“I’m really happy where I decided to go in life and how I got here. Attending LRCC was the right decision, both financially and in terms of the quality of education. Community college is a great stepping stone that shouldn’t be overlooked.”
Kayla may be a professor now, but she is committed to continuing to learn. “Tackling new challenges and growing is important for everyone, regardless of age. Community college offers great opportunities to try something new and continue to grow. I encourage everybody to consider it.”
For more information on Lakes Region Community College, visit lrcc.edu.