For the past 31 years in Little Chute, the beginning of summer has always been kicked off with the Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival, also known as Cheesefest, an annual event that brings families together to celebrate the start of June Dairy Month. The celebration features music, an animal petting zoo, a walk/run, parade and more — but most importantly, it features cheese, and lots of it.
It’s also where then-11-year-old Outagamie County 4-H member Troy Landwehr found his knack for cheese carving.
A cheese carver was always brought in for the festival to provide a demonstration for those in attendance. One year, a class in cheese carving was offered, with Landwehr and eight other 4-H’ers showing up to learn the basics of cheese carving.
“It was a one-hour lesson and I haven’t stopped carving cheese since,” Landwehr said. “I’m 43 now and have stopped counting how long I’ve been doing it.”
His talents have taken him all over the nation and even the world, sharing his cheese art with people in London, Hong Kong and Ireland, just to name a few. One of his most memorable carvings was completed in northern China as part of a dairy cow expo he and several UW representatives attended recently.
Back in the U.S., Landwehr participated in the Sam’s Club Roadshow for many years, amassing a following in some of the most backwater towns just a few exits off the roads more traveled.
“It’s been interesting to see that part of America,” he said.
Landwehr’s name can even be found in the Guinness Book of World Records after creating a 1,524-pound sculpture of a cheeseburger for the Los Angeles restaurant The Melt in 2015. The cheese art stood 45 inches tall and 38 inches in width, and was carved from a 1-ton block of Cheddar cheese that came from Henning’s Cheese in Kiel.
It’s a far cry from his very first cheese carving: a Batman logo.
The ideas are limitless for Landwehr, who typically receives a request for a design from a client, modifying it to make an eye-catching piece of edible art. Odd items carved into cheese usually catch the attention of a passer-by, with Landwehr using his creativity to design the perfect piece that will gather a crowd and require a quick snap from a cellphone camera.
It all starts with a line drawing, which he presents to the client for approval. When detailing the drawing, Landwehr needs to recognize where the shadows will fall on the sculpture and where to make cuts to allow for the most detail to show through. There is some engineering behind it, he said, as the art needs to also stand on its own and not tip over.
In his tool kit are mostly clay tools and knives, as well as wire, which he uses to cut the chunks of cheese. Those interested in cheese carving can make their own wire tool using dental floss wrapped around two pencils, he added.
Landwehr also uses olive oil sprayed onto the sculpture to stop the cheese from drying out and cracking and to help reflect the light for photos, showcasing more of the intricate details of the carving.
Landwehr said grocery stores and festivals are his favorite venues to carve cheese at because he gets to interact with people and answer questions from those who are curious about his art. Off cuts of the cheese are also cubed and people get to eat them while Landwehr continues carving, making it “a full sensory event,” especially for children, who really get into it, he said.
The most common question he is asked is whether the art can be eaten, and to that, Landwehr said yes.
“It’s meant to be eaten and enjoyed, and unlike an ice carving, it doesn’t melt,” he said.
He recalled one sculpture he created for a wedding; it was so unique and interesting that no one wanted to be the first person to take a piece out of it.
“No one would eat it or touch it, so I had to put cheese onto plates and hand it out,” Landwehr said.
While Landwehr averages between two and four carvings a month, June Dairy Month is especially busy with six to seven carvings scheduled. On the calendar is one sculpture to be created at a Winn-Dixie grocery store in Florida, two carvings to be done at delis in Minnesota, another will be highlighted at an upcoming Wisconsin Wine and Cheese Festival and a new Chalk and Cheese event in Platteville.
And of course, Landwehr was back on his home turf demonstrating his cheese carving abilities at the Little Chute Cheesefest, where it all began.
If you can’t find Landwehr at your local festival or grocery store, you’re sure to find him at Kerrigan Brothers Winery in his hometown of Freedom in Outagamie County. Landwehr started the winery in 2000 on the site of his grandparents’ farm; it was the 13th winery to open in Wisconsin almost 20 years ago.
It’s a small, one-man operation, he said, but it’s another fun way to interact with people, who come in for wine tastings and to hear Landwehr tell a bad joke.
On the wall in the entryway to the tasting room, visitors can browse the dozens of articles and photographs featuring Landwehr and all the cheese carvings he’s completed over the years.
“It sure beats digging ditches,” he said with a laugh.