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The Art of Cheese Festival: Part I

Elizabeth Maske October 16th, 2023
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Zahm at Taliesin Preservation’s 2018 Shining Brow Awards

Transforming Sentiment to Structure

Host of Wisconsin Foodie, co-owner of the Driftless Café, and James-Beard Award nominee, Luke Zahm, is widely celebrated for his charisma, culinary prowess, and fervent support of local producers. Recently, the Viroqua-based chef returned to Taliesin to take center stage for “Breaking the Mold in Cheese and Architecture,” an event artfully blending the seemingly incomparable worlds of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Wisconsin’s dairy farmers.

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Carrie Rodamaker greets arriving guests.

The day began with a tour of Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, producers of the award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Afterwards, festival attendees made their way to rural Spring Green to the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center at Riverview Terrace, the only-Wright designed restaurant in the world.  Upon arriving at what Wright affectionately referred to as the “gateway to Taliesin,” guests were warmly met by Carrie Rodamaker, the Executive Director of Taliesin Preservation. The building’s iconic spire, low, sweeping roofline, muted red furnishings, and picturesque views of the Wisconsin River provided an idyllic setting for the carefully curated lunch. The bustling event harkened back to the building’s vibrant pre-pandemic past as a culinary epicenter for aspiring food artisans, a title that Taliesin Preservation plans to reclaim in 2024.

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The table setting for the event

After some final touches in the kitchen, the first courses were brought out by Luke, his wife Ruthie, and cherished culinary team from the Driftless Café in Viroqua. Guests savored family-style dishes featuring Wisconsin treasures like Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Roelli’s Dunbarton Blue, and Willi Lehner’s Cave-Aged Cheddar. Zahm’s lively commentary revealed the unique stories behind each cheese, showcasing the dedication and artistry of each of the cheesemakers. From Monroe, home of the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, to picturesque Blue Mounds, the artisan cheeses echoed the diverse character of the Driftless Region. 

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The Driftless Café Team finalizes preparations before the guests arrive

Luke, an advocate for Wisconsin’s rich culinary heritage, started his presentation by rooting guests with a sense of place, diving into the formation of the Driftless Region and the history of the Ho-Chunk Nation who were here long before Wright’s Welsh ancestors. He shared Wright’s journey from modest upbringings to architectural prominence, noting how Wright came from a frame of reference of “not knowing material wealth.” Zahm showed a particular interest in Wright’s remarkable talent for transforming emotions into architectural forms: “Taliesin and the reason that house was built up there was because it was a way for [Wright] to translate sentiment into structure. I started saying about 5 or 6 years ago that Frank Lloyd Wright was the alchemist of his time, you know, alchemy, the idea that you can spin lead into gold. And with Frank, it was understanding a sense of place. A lot of his Prairie School architecture that you’re going to see today was taken from the hills and valleys that you see all around you.” With this, Zahm not only paves the way for a closer examination of how Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture is intricately linked with his affinity for the Wisconsin landscape, but he suggests this trait is shared by other Wisconsin creatives. Whether architect, chef, or cheesemaker, those who can derive inspiration from their emotions and this environment have a unique capacity to create something truly worthwhile.

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Zahm presents to the group during lunch

Underlining the connection between Wright’s architectural philosophies and the craftsmanship of local dairy farmers and cheesemakers, Zahm reiterates the importance of having a strong sense of place: “Prairie School literally was kind of defined by the idea that you can’t tell where the architecture begins and the organic elements stop. That was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s gifts to the world. He needed this sense of place in order to better understand who he was and how he created. And I like to draw this analogy between that and my dairy farmers and cheesemakers. That farm that you toured today, Uplands. That cheese can only be made—Where can it be made?” Luke interjects, pointing to Uplands’ Andy Hatch, who replied, “Ten miles down the road.” Zahm, turning to Hatch, continues, “You tried to make it in other places, and it failed. It doesn’t work unless it is in the aging cellars at Uplands. There is a sense of identity and place. There are pockets in Wisconsin and America and all over the world where you see these shining artisans coming together and really drawing inspiration from the world around them and transforming that sentiment into structure.”

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Guests enjoying the ambiance of Wright’s Riverview Terrace while awaiting the first course

As the meal unfolded, Zahm showcases the resilience and ingenuity of local farmers he regularly collaborates with and those whose food he featured in the day’s dishes—among the many he highlighted was one producer from an Amish community that, with a greenhouse heated by sawdust, managed to grow greens year-round, challenging conventional farming practices through innovation: 

“He actually came and visited me at the cafe and said, ‘Luke what can we grow for you?’ and I was like ‘Ah, that’s not how I work. I like it when you grow what works for you and I will buy that and bring that into the restaurant because I want that menu to dictate your love and your passion because it only fuels mine.’ But being that the weather here is not like this 6 months a year, I was like, ‘If you can figure out how to grow greens in the winter, I’d be a happy man.’ One year later, he shows up, the first week of December, ‘Your greens are ready, Luke. I’ve brought 100 pounds with me.’” 

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Breaking the Mold in Cheese and Architecture menu

Throughout the conversation, Zahm championed the Midwestern identity and the importance of celebrating it. He encouraged attendees to recognize the significance of the Art of Cheese Festival in preserving and promoting the region’s culinary heritage, urging the audience,

“If you don’t talk about it,  if we don’t love it, and if we don’t protect it, it’s going to go away. And under my watch, that can’t happen. There is far too much identity in every single bite of this food that is too important for me and the people that I live with, my friends and neighbors, and farmers, and community. I’m begging you, try and see it through that lens this weekend.”

Zahm’s impassioned appeal echoed the sentiment that every bite of locally-sourced food carries a piece of Wisconsin’s history and culture.