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A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Top Chef’s Cheese Festival

America’s Dairyland hosts Season 21 of Bravo’s cooking competition show, and in episode 2103, cheese takes center stage

TOP CHEF – Episode 2103 – Pictured (left to right): Top Chef host Kristen Kish, cheesemaker Pam Hodgson, cheesemaker Andy Hatch, and Top Chef judge Carla Hall — (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

“We’re on the cheesemakers’ bus,” I quip to my seat companion, another local food writer, as we embark from a church near Milwaukee to a top-secret filming location for an episode taping of Top Chef, Season 21. It’s a weekday morning in late August and we’re already roasting. But we’re also giddy with excitement.

Sure enough, behind us are Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese, who has won so many awards for his cheese he’s lost count (and so have we—the number is in the hundreds); Joe Widmer of Widmer’s Cheese Cellars (his brick cheese will convert any skeptical fan); and Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese (when his two limited-offering cheeses—Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Rush Creek Reserve—are released each year, it’s akin to the new iPhone dropping).

There are a few rules we must follow as extras on this episode, which creates a faux cheese festival on a local farm with us as attendees. Number one: we must wear filming-approved clothing, which means no solid white or neon-colored shirts, no small print or super-fine stripes, and no logos. Number two: stickers are placed over smartphone cameras so we don’t snap shots that could be leaked on social media.

After a behind-the-scenes peek inside a red barn at the pastoral farm (where production crew are fixated on computers as they edit away), journalists, cheesemakers, and other special guests are led by a member of the media-relations team into the cheese festival. For this episode, each contestant is tasked with making a dish using Wisconsin cheese. Speaking to contestants, I’ve learned their cheese variety was selected by drawing knives, and not all were clued in about the creamery they drew.

A selection of Wisconsin cheeses the contestants drew from — (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

Each attendee is handed a ballot and tasked with voting for contestants we feel serve up the most delicious bite-sized, cheese-infused dish. Next, we’re told to stay away from a large bar-height table in the middle of the festival shaded by resort-style umbrellas. This is where the judges will evaluate.

Cameramen are everywhere and I’m pretty sure I’ll be on TV, which is why I’m wearing a bright blue dress so I can easily be spotted when I watch the episode this spring.

There’s a collective ooh and aaah as judge Gail Simmons and former Top Chef contestant Carla Hall saunter down the steps of the farm’s indoor event space. Simmons is dressed in a crisp white sundress and tan platform sandals. (Later, I stifle a giggle when an assistant takes the world’s tiniest comb and pats down her part just before being interviewed on camera.) Hall, always the fashionista, is sporting red pants. As new host Kristen Kish walks through the festival, she exudes calm as she asks contestants about what they’ve prepared for this challenge. She seems supportive, not mean—not the case for all reality-TV judges. Later, I recognize James Beard Award-winning chef Dane Baldwin (chef-owner of The Diplomat in Milwaukee) walking around and learn he’s a guest judge.

After being coaxed to the bar, where a glass of Rosé sounds parfait on a hot day like this, I check out the contestants’ stations, starting with Michelle Wallace, of b’tween sandwich co, a Houston, Texas, pop-up. “You have cheese three ways,” she announces to those clustered around her station, and begins handing out her dish with a smile and good energy. Next up is Kenny Nguyen’s (executive chef at The Expat in Athens, Georgia) ode to his Vietnamese grandmother highlighting Carr Valley Glacier Gorgonzola Cheese.

A selection of Wisconsin cheese (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

“Probably one of Wisconsin’s most famous cheeses,” says Rasika Venkatesa (formerly of Mourad, a Michelin-star Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco), pointing to her dish featuring Roelli Cheese’s Dunbarton Blue. “You get the cheddar notes in it. It’s like cheese on cheese but you get all these flavors.”

It’s a major juggling act for chefs to not only create their dish but work with a mobile cooking station and serve it up by the hundreds—all in the summer heat, with the hot air from the burners not helping. In fact, when I see Dan Jacobs of DanDan and EsterEv, a Milwaukee chef I’ve met in person many times as we live in the same neighborhood, he’s so consumed with his task I don’t think he really sees me. “I’m a little hot. I’m not going to lie. I’m staving off heat exhaustion,” he says, while serving up his challenge.

I’m bursting with pride that my Midwestern city has been selected for the 21st season and comments from these chefs affirm this region was a good choice. “You guys are so lucky and not too many people know how good it is,” says Acapulco-born, San Francisco-based chef Laura Ozyilmaz (Dalida, a Mediterranean concept) about Wisconsin cheese. Her cheese for this challenge was a Reserve Gouda.

“The cheese, the beer culture, the food culture is really emerging here,” says Venkatesa about Wisconsin.

Despite this being Manny Barella’s first time cooking with cheese curds, he’s eaten them many times and enjoys how they squeak. The Denver-based chef was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and as culinary director is opening Camp Pickle in Tulsa, Oklahoma (2025), and Jaguar Bolera in Raleigh, North Carolina (April 2024), and Atlanta Georgia (2025).

Top Chef judges tasting Wisconsin cheese – Pictured (left to right): Dane Baldwin, Gail Simmons, Kristen Kish, Tom Colicchio, Carla Hall (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

“Please vote for me,” Kaleena Bliss, the executive chef of Cindy’s at Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, announces gleefully as a group of us approach her station. Her weapon of hope is Sartori Cheese’s Merlot BellaVitano®. Sartori Cheese cheesemaker Pam Hodgson, one of only two female Master Cheesemakers in the world, is here today. “It has the flavor components of Parmesan—the aging, the nuttiness—and the brightness and fruitiness of the Merlot,” she says.

As I’m tasting what Charly Pierre (who runs a Haitian street-food concept in New Orleans called Fritai) has whipped up using Roth Cheese’s Canela, a Spanish-inspired aged cow’s-milk cheese rubbed with cinnamon and paprika, I overhear a Master Cheesemaker in Wisconsin offer up his verdict: “He did a nice job.”

Danny Garcia of Brooklyn, New York, and executive chef at Saga Hospitality Group, was thrilled to cook with a legendary Wisconsin aged cheddar brand. “I’m hyped that I have it. People tell me this is their favorite cheese,” he says, and he’s developed a dish that’s chock-full of the stuff. “Cheese four ways,” he declares, sliding the dish across the table. “It’s a cheese festival.”

Near the end of the day, I overhear an organizer ask Hall, “Under the umbrella?” and she promptly answers “yes,” the two heading to the judging table. I watch from a distance as she shifts the components of a dish and nods while scrutinizing a croquette.

As we’re ushered away so we can’t hear what the judges have decided, I sadly realize I’ll have to wait seven, maybe even eight, months to find out who won. I’ll learn along with everyone else once the episode airs. But at least I’ll have the memory of this day, my belly filled with Wisconsin cheese.

Tune in to Bravo on Wednesday, April 3 at 9 pm EST to watch the episode.

Kristine Hansen

Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Kristine Hansen is author of Wisconsin Cheese Cookbook: Creamy, Cheesy, Sweet, and Savory Recipes from the State's Best Creameries (Globe Pequot Press, 2019) and covers food and travel for outlets that include Milwaukee Magazine and the websites for Architectural Digest and Travel + Leisure.

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