YOUNG chef Leayra Thornton says she feels inspired after taking part in the Bega-Littleton Citizens Exchange.
Ms Thornton and teenager Kirsty Mackinnon were among the 25-strong party that travelled to Bega’s sister city.
While some of the group remains in Littleton, Ms Thornton and Kirsty have made the long flight back to Australia.
Ms Thornton, 25, was selected after receiving the exchange’s travel award.
The mother of two was nominated as a “senior ambassador” while Kirsty was the junior equivalent.
During her stay, Ms Thornton gained a great insight into the US hospitality industry.
She also made the front page of the Columbine newspaper!
Ms Thornton said she visited 13 restaurants and a couple of education facilities.
“It was really good as a chef,” she said.
“I had an absolute ball, it was a real eye opener.
“It’s the way all the different cultures come together and affect different flavours of cuisines.”
For Ms Thornton, the Littleton exchange offered her an opportunity to learn and absorb more about cooking.
Ms Thornton obtained a Certificate II and Certificate IV in Commercial Cookery at the TAFE Illawarra Bega campus.
During her time at TAFE, Ms Thornton completed an apprenticeship at Morrisons on Lamont restaurant, Bermagui.
She now works at the Commercial Hotel, Bega.
While in the US, Ms Thornton was able to check out the kitchens at the prestigious Chinook Tavern and The Wooden Table, Denver.
“Chinook Tavern was very special, they could fit in 600 people [in the dining room],” she said.
“Both places were very inspiring – The Wooden Table didn’t even have a deep fryer!”
Ms Thornton had the opportunity to brush up on her skills and learn about the management side of hospitality at the Colorado Culinary Academy.
She then visited the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management at the Daniels College of Business.
Ms Thornton also benefitted from the chance to check out local food markets in the US.
She said the markets had a big range of products, which broke “some stereotypes” about the American diet.
However, there was plenty of fun to be had away from the kitchen.
Ms Thornton said highlights of the trip included tours to the Colorado Springs, the Garden of the Gods and Glenarm Castle, where the group enjoyed a grand tea.
Participants checked out the US team’s Olympic training centre, where the likes of world champion swimmer Michael Phelps have trained.
Back in Littleton, the Bega delegates also enjoyed taking part in the Western Welcome Week Parade.
“No-one does a parade like America,” Ms Thornton said.
“There were school bands and cheerleaders, and we were high-fiving kids.
“Bega was right up the front and part of the VIP treatment – it was very humbling.”
Ms Thornton said the exchange had taught her invaluable lessons.
“I’m so thankful for the award, I could never have afforded it otherwise,” she said.
“I felt like a leader and I feel more inspirational for young people in Bega, particularly young mums.
“I want to be someone that people look up to.
“But I couldn't have done it without the support of my partner, who looked after the kids.”