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Class begins at WSU Tech’s downtown culinary school

Kylie Cameron
Chef Lexi Michael tastes her students' jian bing, or Chinese breakfast crepe, during their Cuisines of Asia class. Michael is also the department chair at NICHE.

The former Henry’s department store in downtown Wichita is getting a second chance at life.

WSU Tech’s newest facility, the National Institute for Culinary & Hospitality Education, or NICHE, opened this semester in downtown Wichita.

The former Henry’s department store space at William and Broadway will not only offer culinary classes, but will soon have a food hall, rooftop event space and more.

“The main focus right now is on students and making sure that everything is set up and ready to go for our students,” said WSU Tech President Sheree Utash, who remembers going to Henry’s as a kid. The company left the building in 1984.

“Being in a new building, we have a mile-long punch list that we’re working through.”

Students said they’re already enjoying the new class space and kitchens at NICHE. The program was formerly housed at the Boston Recreation Center near Woodlawn and Harry.

“Trying to get used to this much space … and it’s really nice,” Michael Nguyen said. He’s in his final year of the school’s culinary program.

Nguyen’s cooking partner, Yang Vu, agreed.

“This is tons more space … In the old space, you would constantly hear, ‘behind,’ ‘swinging,’ the occasional ‘Oh, no.’”

Even after classes started, last-minute touches were being added to several other parts of the building, which will open later this year to the public.

“One of the biggest things we found is all of the nicest culinary schools all had ways of generating revenue,” said John Michael, the school’s director.

While the new food hall and dining spaces are meant to be revenue-generating areas, they’re also meant to bring in other parts of the community.

NICHE Food Hall
Kylie Cameron
Final touches are being made on NICHE's food hall and bistro.

“The goal is to be the number one food destination in the States, one of the top tourist destinations in the city, and then also to be kind of maybe a little bit of a linchpin for the arts community,” Michael said.

The school says it’s already working on partnerships with the city’s arts community to host events. It’s a no-brainer for the new school, with food being the center of entertainment, according to Michael.

“Any time you do anything, you can always bring in a food component to it,” he said.

While Michael oversees the several projects the school is currently working on, Lexi Michael – his wife – is in charge of the school’s curriculum and instruction.

Lexi Michael said allowing the school’s culinary students to work events at the building will create applied learning experiences.

“Events are the things that the students remember the most, and they really learn a lot from,” she said.

The students also learn from each other, Lexi Michael said. Many of the students come from different backgrounds or age groups.

“We have a lot of mentorship … that goes both ways,” she said.

“Young people who are super excited about the next cool thing in food … then we have older people who are kind of … helping them understand, what does it mean to be an adult and how to behave in a professional capacity in a professional space.”

Back in the classroom, Nguyen said the new space and kitchens will also help better prepare students for their culinary future.

“Just getting used to everything and sort of like, more like bigger-scale productions, will be really helpful for everyone to get used to that.”

Kylie Cameron (she/her) is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, Kylie was a digital producer at KWCH, and served as editor in chief of The Sunflower at Wichita State. You can follow her on Twitter @bykyliecameron.