Kohler Food & Wine Festival 2021

A recap from Sara Haas



Kohler Food & Wine Festival

By Sara Haas

Travel sponsored by Kohler, but opinions are all my own.

Aspen, Charleston, Vegas and Austin are all well-known destinations for impressive food and wine festivals. But if you’re looking for something on a smaller scale, there’s another destination that should be on your radar. It’s Kohler, Wisconsin, home to the Kohler Food and Wine Festival. Smaller in scale, perhaps, but not lacking in culinary talent or extraordinary wines.

Sweet Home Chicago

As a Chicagoan, I spend a lot of time exploring my city. If you haven’t been here, you need to visit! Our culinary scene is legendary and isn’t just for those with deep pockets. In fact, some of the best food in Chicago can be found in our unique neighborhoods. Experience amazing dim sum in Chinatown or al pastor tacos in Pilsen. If you want authentic flavors from any culture, we’ve got it! But after almost two years of sheltering-at-home (oh hey global pandemic!), I was ready to explore beyond my usual borders. I was ready for great food and fabulous wine, and Kohler seemed to be my ticket.

Destination Kohler

A short two-ish hour drive from Chicago, is the lovely, quaint town of Kohler, Wisconsin. You’ve likely heard of Kohler before, but maybe you’re more familiar with it as a brand that manufactures faucets, toilets and other plumbing fixtures than an actual location. Or perhaps you’ve heard of Kohler because of its famous golf course, Whistling Straits. It’s the breath-taking, Pete and Alice Dye designed course that has hosted both the Ryder Cup and PGA Championships. Or maybe you know that Kohler is a prime vacation destination spot, home to the American Club, a five-star hotel and spa that was once, perhaps ironically,  a dormitory used to house Kohler’s European immigrant workers. Gorgeously maintained and renovated, it’s also on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Pandemic 

The past year and a half has been a testament to our will to survive, both personally and professionally. COVID has taken its toll on many, including the hospitality and restaurant industries. Those effects have trickled down causing lost jobs and the closing of businesses. But somehow, these industries especially, have persisted and survived. They gritted their teeth, dug deep and problem-solved each new obstacle thrown at them. Resilience is the word that comes to mind. And this festival was proof of their perseverance to succeed. 

The Chefs & The Stories

Of course I was here to sample the food, the wine and the beautiful, festive atmosphere. I was also here for a story, and I found one in every culinary tent I entered. The chefs, all so gracious and willing to perform and inform, even after the tumultuous year and a half we’ve had, felt more like good friends with awesome cooking skills than celebrities. And the tents weren't packed to the brim, making it a personal and intimate experience for anyone attending. I left each one feeling like I learned so much that I couldn’t wait to get back to my kitchen to experiment.


The Wine & the Food

Beyond the culinary events, there were also several sessions about wine, winemakers, coffee and spirits. It was like attending a school that only talks about the subjects you love. Between these events, you could also enjoy lunches and dinners hosted by a variety of wineries featuring chef-curated foods that were expertly paired with each wine. I attended lunch with LUKE Columbia Valley Winery in the Wisconsin Room of the American Club and had so much fun my face hurt from smiling and laughing. Troy Unruh, Head Chef at The Wisconsin Room started us off with a Roasted Baby Beets and Fontina Fonduta which featured celery, hazelnut, dark rye, clove, star anise and a cabernet agrodolce which was paired with LUKE Columbia Valley “The Companion” Red Blend, 2018. It was gorgeous and the pairing was perfection. The second course was Marionberry Braised Duck with smoked cannellini bean puree, braised red cabbage, dark chocolate and mint and was paired with the LUKE Columbia Valley Wahluke Slope AVA Cabernet Sauvignon, 2018. Let’s just say the duck was fabulous and the cabbage was everything! And the Cab - again, perfection! Finally, we were treated to a Pecan Cake with caramel and a dark chocolate mousse and I about lost my mind when I took a bite of that followed by a sip of the LUKE Columbia Valley Merlot, 2018. What I loved most is that the owner of LUKE Columbia Valley Winery, Thomas Vogele hosted the event and was there to explain the wines and answer all of my ridiculous questions. Which he did graciously.

The Events

After stuffing myself and learning everything I could about food and wine, it was time to drink more wine! This time, on to a larger-scale event, held in the Kohler Design Center which featured a robust selection of wines. Sipping and sampling my way through the Design Center was a lesson in wine and in remodeling my bathroom and kitchen. It was a smart move to have us imbibe and basically window-shop. It was a fun and unique way to meet the various winemakers and hear their stories. And I only managed to drop one glass of wine the whole time. Pretty good for me.

Until Next Year

Here’s what I enjoyed about attending the Kohler Food and Wine Festival - it was small, lending to a more relaxed and even personal experience. It was also approachable without any airs of pretension, which I certainly appreciated. The wine - there was great variety and yet there wasn’t an obnoxious amount. It was just enough. And to me, it felt as if the wineries were selected purposefully, which was a nice touch. The chefs - they were the highlight. The small-size of the event permitted a closer experience with these high-level chefs who made the event fun and engaging. 

So, would I go back? YES!

Chef Interviews

When the time came to interview two chefs from the event, I was sure to ask the most pressing questions. From what kitchen tool they can’t live without to what ingredient they think you should be stocking in your kitchen, here’s what they had to say.


A Chat with Chef Rick Bayless

Rick Bayless is by far one of the nicest humans I’ve ever met and I consider him the best of the best when it comes to chefs. He has an incredible talent for educating and inspiring people to explore and learn about Mexican cuisine. Just sit down and watch his show, Mexico, One Plate at a Time or dine at one of his award-winning restaurants and you’ll know what I mean. And his accomplishments are many - Top Chef Masters winner, James Beard award winner, Frontera Farmer Foundation founder and co-creator of Cascabel, a theater production described on his website as “the story of a meal, told through flavor, memory, song, dance and amazing physical feats.” He’s also been an advocate for the restaurant industry and a bright light for many of us during the pandemic. Here’s what he had to say when I asked him my burning questions.

What’s your favorite ingredient?

When I asked him this, his immediate response was, “never trust the chef that will choose a favorite ingredient.” Touché! But when I pressed him, he told me ancho chiles were on his list - “they’re approachable and have a warm heat that’s perfect for fall cooking.

What’s one ingredient you recommend home cooks keep in their kitchen?

Without hesitation Chef answers, “canned chipotle chiles.” Why? Because they’re a versatile ingredient that can be added to many other foods, lending the perfect touch of smokiness and heat. Throw them into your favorite BBQ sauce or add them to your scrambled eggs, he suggests and you’ve instantly elevated both!

Favorite kitchen tool?

Again, no hesitation. Chef’s favorite tool is his 10-inch chef’s knife. “If you took everything else away from me, but left me my chef’s knife, I could still make a really great dinner.” I’d like to test his theory, but didn’t press him for an invite, so instead asked him more about this choice. Once you learn how to use a chef’s knife, he says, nothing in the kitchen will ever be that hard of a task. So practice and keep it sharp! Because, he adds, “when a knife is sharp, it’s FUN to cook!”

What does your family always ask you to make?

The look on my face must have been one of sheer surprise when Rick told me that his family always requests his Chocolate Devil’s Food Cake. I mean, I love cake too, but he’s RICK BAYLESS! He explained that during the pandemic his cakes are what saved him - and his family. Each Sunday of the week, for 52 weeks of the pandemic, Chef made a new cake. He rolled up his sleeves and tried everything from tiered cakes to rolled cakes. And they brought joy in a time when there wasn’t much joy going around. But the favorite from the bunch was that devil's food cake, which he topped with a cashew-butter buttercream frosting. Sounds good to me!

Thoughts on the pandemic and where we’re at now?

Chef told me he spoke frequently with others in the restaurant industry during the pandemic and many of them said they never pictured closing the doors the way they had to. It was sad and hard on everyone. And everyone is still struggling. Business is nowhere near what it was, but Chef is proof of his restaurant’s perseverance, “My job is to react to what’s around me and make the best of it.” He goes on to say, “all of us who have made it through are more lenient and open. We’re more willing to take a step back and make a bigger place for everybody around us and say, ‘What do we all want to eat?’” He hopes for more inclusivity. Acknowledging our neighbors and sitting down with them - getting to know them better through their food. And just when I was about to applaud him for saying this, he adds, “can we just open our arms to each other and share food?” I nod in agreement because I can think of no better way.

A Chat with Chef Melissa King

Chef Melissa King is a force. Not just in the kitchen, but in life. She’s a Bravo Top Chef winner and fan favorite and has been recognized as “one of the best female chefs in San Francisco'', and a “40 under 40: Rising Star.” She also works with non-profit organizations and LGBTQI charities such as Stop AAPI Hate, The Human Rights Campaign and Brave Trails. And now you can cook with her from the comfort of your home with her virtual cooking classes! Here’s what she had to say when I asked her my burning questions.

What is your favorite ingredient to cook with?

This question was met with a laugh - how could she pick just one? I kindly allowed her two. First up, Szechuan chiles for their heat and flavor. They’re delicious in stir fries, soups and stews. Her other favorite is fish sauce and puts it into everything for a little punch of umami. For those who are a bit timid about it, she recommends starting with just a couple of dashes. Over-doing it can just leave your dish tasting like fish.

What is one ingredient you wish home cooks would stock in their kitchen?

Again, how could she pick just one!?!  Instead, she recommends exploring the Asian pantry. There are an incredible amount of ingredients that many of us don’t know about. She recommends that if you’re unsure what something is, Google it and learn about it. Then just try it! Cooking should be a place for exploration and curiosity. 

What is your favorite kitchen tool?

Hands-down it’s a cast iron pan, she says. She loves that it’s affordable, conducts heat well and that there’s so much you can do with it! Fry eggs in it or make a stir fry, it’s an incredibly versatile kitchen tool.

What does your family ask you to cook?

Chinese sticky rice. Chef says she makes it for Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s her version of “sticky fried rice” and makes it with shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimp, Chinese sausage and oyster sauce. 

What are you most proud of?

For Melissa, it’s personal, “I’m most proud of sticking to my dream of cooking.” Which was challenging as she confirms that she had moments of doubt, coupled with the doubts of those around her. But she stuck with it. For her it was important to stay true to her dream.

Who inspires you?

“My mom! Any mom!’ She says, “Moms have to do so much and they don’t get enough credit.” She’s also quick to add that any powerful woman crushing her dreams is also inspirational. Yeah, I 100% agree Chef!

As always, remember to share what you cook, bake and drink by tagging #feedfeed.

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