Wisconsin Cheese uses its Top Chef moment to tell a bigger story

Top Chef Season 21, Wisconsin Cheese challenge
Top Chef Season 21, Wisconsin Cheese challenge / Bravo

When Top Chef announced that Season 21 would head to Wisconsin, certain foods instantly came to mind. Beer, brats, and the always delicious Wisconsin Cheese had to be part of the challenges. As seen in episode 3, some of the state’s artisan cheesemakers were highlighted. Even though the episode will air over and over again, Wisconsin Cheese appreciates that this moment is a “grate” opportunity for a larger audience to better appreciate the flavor and craft of its cheesemakers.

With over 1,600 licensed cheesemakers in the state and a few Master Cheesemakers who have earned the higher certification, Wisconsin Cheese is more than just a stamp announcing its origin to consumers. It is a symbol that care, craft, and creativity infuses every bite that people consume.

During the Top Chef Wisconsin Cheese episode, the chefs had to incorporate various local cheeses into their dishes. While just a small sampling of the robust offerings from around the state were highlighted, the reality is that the various cheesemakers do more than dream of cheese. They find new ways of transforming the local sourced food into innovative flavors using classic techniques.

Wisconsin is more than cheese curds and cheddar. From award winning alpine cheese and gouda to even the most pungent limburger, there is a bounty of cheese to cut for that abundant board.

Recently, FoodSided spoke with Su Fanning of Wisconsin Cheese about the Top Chef partnership, how the exposure will bolster the state’s cheesemakers, and what might be on the horizon for cheese lovers to experience.

Su Fanning Wisconsin Cheese
Su Fanning, Wisconsin Cheese / Wisconsin Cheese

Although Wisconsin Cheese might want to reach out to Top Chef’s Chef Dan and offer him an invitation to experience to the second Art of Cheese festival after last night’s episode, the reality is that Wisconsin Cheese has a significant market share and has become many people’s preferred cheese choice. While there can be laughable moments about donning that Cheesehead during a Packers game or humorous takes on always having cheese as part of every gathering, it is more than just a meme moment. People really do crave, dream, and devour all that cheese.

When this Top Chef opportunity arose, Fanning knew that it would be the storytelling, not just in a single episode but also around the state’s food, which would endear every morsel to the audience. As Fanning mentioned, Wisconsin has a bevy of cheese awards to its name, but it is more than just the accolades. It is the farms, the farmers, and the people that bring those amazing flavors to the table that make Wisconsin Cheese a slice above the rest.

Specifically Fanning shared that during the Top Chef production process, the team “was blown away by the stories, the authenticity, the farmstead, and the people. All those things make Wisconsin this incredible cheese making area and Top Chef fell in love with it just like everyone does.”

While Wisconsin might be the only place outside of Switzerland that offers a Master Cheesemaker certification, it is more than just that designation which makes the state’s offerings the epitome of cheese. The artisans, who brought the traditions from the homeland and their willingness to continue to push the craft in innovative ways, have people seeking out those cheeses when they want the best product.

One of the elements that the Top Chef episode highlighted is the breath and depth of the Wisconsin Cheese offerings. Even Last Chance Kitchen highlighted the pungent limburger cheese. As Fanning mentioned, that idea is another layer to the overall story. “Wisconsin has a diverse ethnic heritage and really is a melting pot.”

That wide reach is one element to the Top Chef effect that happens when a brand or locale is highlighted on the series. Fanning said Wisconsin is buzzing about people wanting to try the food, visit the area, and eat at the restaurants. Wisconsin Cheese is in 98% of grocery stores across the country. That Proudly Wisconsin Cheese badge can be found everywhere.”

Now even more people will seek out that food because they crave the food and brands featured on the popular NBCUniversal program. That "shop the episode" moment endears the long running series to its fans and keeps viewers hungry for more.

Although Fanning is focused on celebrating the bounty that is Wisconsin Cheese, she understands that the people and the farms are vital to that delicious food. She mentioned a comment made by Tom Colicchio during a special event. She referenced that Colicchio said, “Wisconsin has a great farm culture and where there is farm culture, there is food culture, where there is food culture, there is restaurant culture. He thanked all the farmers in the audience, which is rare. It shows how the team made that connection and everyone appreciated the sentiment.”

While there are many more examples of Wisconsin food, culture, and diversity waiting to be discovered during Top Chef Season 21, Fanning knows that this food television opportunity is just the start of a bigger conversation. Whether it is the upcoming second Art of Cheese festival in 2025 or showcasing how cheese lovers dream of incorporating their favorite cheeses into creative food pairings, the Wisconsin Cheese community is rising to the occasion. This conversation is not just a few months in the making. It will go on for years to come.

The goal of the Top Chef collaboration is more than just a culinary competition moment. If it gets one person to discover a bourbon and cheese pairing, a cheese and coffee connection, or another new pairing that has yet to be discovered, the story of the cheese, the artisans, and the farmers gets another chapter in a flavor book that is never ending.

Wisconsin Cheese offerings can be found in many stores and retailers across the U.S. The "Proudly Wisconsin" badge denotes the cheese's origin.

Top Chef Season 21 filmed in Wisconsin airs Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo. Episodes can be streamed the next day on Peacock.