With more than 100,000 employees working in eating and drinking establishments throughout Kansas, programs to train these individuals are gaining momentum despite the pandemic.
Starting this fall, WSU Tech begins its first full-scale culinary arts degree program. The associate degree track will train a variety of chefs — from those heading off to cook at restaurants or country clubs to individuals who want to become line cooks, managers or buyers.
Culinary Institute of America alumni Lexi and John Michael, who met at the institute, will lead this newly designed program. Both Lexi and John have worked throughout the U.S. at restaurants, country clubs and vineyards. They also have experience in education.
“The program maximizes hands-on learning in both simulated and real-world environments and with over twice the hours spent in the kitchen compared to other similar programs,” said John Michael, director of Culinary and Hospitality at WSU Tech. “We designed the program around maximizing lab hours.”
Why culinary arts?
With more than 5,000 restaurants and bars spread evenly throughout Kansas’ four congressional districts, according to the National Restaurant Association, jobs are available in a variety of pockets in the Sunflower State.
This more than $5 billion statewide industry is expected to grow by slightly less than 10% by 2029, the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association reports. This increase would add approximately 13,000 jobs.
“Everyone has to eat, so the world is your oyster,” said Lexi Michael, executive chef at WSU Tech. “You couldn’t have a better time to go into the industry. For many of our students, it’s (obtaining a culinary degree) often a lifelong dream.”
The National Restaurant Association reports that for every dollar spent in a restaurant or drinking establishment, $1.73 is contributed to Kansas’ economy.
Where can you get a culinary degree?
Several community colleges offer a culinary degree. Some, like WSU Tech, Flint Hills Technical College and Johnson County Community College, focus on hands-on learning. Other programs specialize in certificate programs.
Along with WSU Tech, Flint Hills, Johnson County CC and Butler Community College also offer an associate degree.
This fall, Flint Hills will be accredited by the American Culinary Federation, a worldwide professional culinary accrediting organization. They will join Johnson County CC in being the only two schools in the state possessing this accreditation. Kendra Smith, a chef and the program’s director, just received her ACF accreditation.
“I am one of 600 people in the world that have that license,” Smith said. “By the end of next year, we (the program) will have ACF accreditation in our kitchen. We want to send out chefs everywhere in the world.”
Flint Hills starts its fall program in full throttle, doubling last year’s numbers with 30 students who are able to sauté and bake in the school’s newly remodeled facilities. Students come from Garden City, Pittsburg and Hays, as well as outside of Kansas.
WSU Tech, on the other hand, is building a state-of-the-art facility from scratch.
“We are developing what our dream culinary school would be,” John Michael said. “We have what it really takes to be a really top-notch school.”
From food trucks to serving the public
Each chef brings their own specialty to the students. From a program with one chef to one with more than a dozen, there is a place for every palate and learning style.
For the Michaels, serving the public, whether it’s in charity work or schools, is essential. John Michael said serving others is the time that presents incredible comradery for culinary students.
“Some of the most valuable, and memorable moments in a student’s time in a culinary program are those when they get to serve the public,” Lexi Michael said.
Flint Hills is the only school in Kansas to have its own food truck.
“We are the first ones in the nation that have a food truck practicum,” Smith said. “We (also) have a running restaurant with three to four courses. This gives students a real-life application, and the community loves it.”
Students at Butler, Johnson, Kansas City CC and WSU Tech have the advantage of finding internships in Wichita and Kansas City.
Bringing the farm to the table
John Michael of WSU Tech is striving to bring farm-to-table cooking into the classroom as much as possible. He is already reaching out to farmers.
In addition to stand-alone restaurants, hotel restaurants like the Harvest Kitchen at the Hyatt Regency in Wichita boast farm-to-table meals.
Flint Hills has tower gardens and several plots of land to grow vegetables on. In addition, students from all the programs add creativity to the Kansas restaurants, catering facilities and food trucks.
“The partnerships are going to be great,” said Lexi Michael. “We are most excited for what it’s going to do for the local dining community.”