When the village of Little Chute held its first Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival in 1988, Troy Landwehr was there as a novice 11-year-old cheese carver.
He was doing it as a project for the 4-H club he belonged to in the nearby town of Vandenbroek in southeast Outagamie County.
When the cheese festival observes its 25th anniversary this weekend (May 31-June 2) at Doyle Park here, Landwehr will be there under the shelter near the parking lot in the early afternoon on Saturday, June 1, as one of six carvers who will work on five 40-pound blocks of medium-aged Cheddar cheese.
Landwehr is a fixture at the annual event, which helped to launch his part-time career as a cheese carver on a national and international stage.
He averages about two-three carving projects per month but that number increases during the summer, as indicated by his five scheduled appearances during June of this year.
In addition to the customary appearance at the cheese festival here, Landwehr will be at the Piggly Wiggly supermarkets on Saturday, June 8, in Saukville (9 a.m.-noon) and Slinger (1-4 p.m.).
On the following day, he will be at Outagamie County’s dairy farm breakfast at Erickson Farms, N9602 County D near Bear Creek in the northern part of the county.
On Sunday, June 30, Landwehr will be a guest cheese carver for the first time at neighboring Calumet County’s "Sundae on a Dairy Farm." It will be held from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on the Jerry and Ann Lintner family farm at McHugh and Killsnake roads northwest of Chilton.
Later in the summer, Landwehr will be at the Taste of the Northwoods festival in Eagle River on Saturday, July 13, and at the annual Hamburger Days celebration in Seymour on Saturday, Aug. 10.
Another scheduled public cheese carving appearance will be at an anniversary observance at Neuske’s Meats in Wittenberg on Saturday, Oct. 5.
For his first carving venture in 1988, Landwehr recalls that he had about one hour of training with a woman from the Madison area. Since then, he has become one of the nation’s premier cheese carvers in what he describes as "a niche industry."
Landwehr carries out a great variety of suggestions, requests, and commissions for his carvings.
He ordinarily starts with 40-pound Cheddar cheese blocks but his list of accomplishments includes turning a 640-pound block into a Lincoln Memorial carving, a 1,200-pound Cheddar into the Statue of Liberty, various large blocks into replicas of the Presidential faces on Mount Rushmore, and a 2,000-pound block into a scene representing the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The latter project required several eight-hour days of working in a cooler with a temperature at 40 degrees.
Because of his carving prowess, Landwehr has made guest appearances on the national morning shows of all of the major television networks. He has also made trips to Hong Kong and London for carving assignments.
Regardless of that kind of attention, what Landwehr enjoys most is "interacting with people, especially children. I have the most fun at grocery story carvings."
While he is carving at public events, Landwehr readily takes questions from observers and answers them. To the critics who suggest that cheese carvings result in a waste of food, he points out that the snippings are immediately made available for snacking by anyone who is observing.
Once a carving is completed, Landwehr quickly sprays it with Pam cooking oil. This keeps the cheese fresh and from cracking and drying for five-seven days, he explains. "It’s 100 percent edible."
In addition to the public displays of his work, Landwehr obtains commissions from corporations and organizations for a specific carving such as logos or emblems. He usually completes those on his home turf, sometimes shipping them by air freight.
Landwehr also handles special requests. Holiday parties often fit into that category but one that he especially remembers was the carving of a cement mixer for a wedding reception because it depicted the groom’s occupation.
Because of the sizing, Landwehr explains that carving heads of animals is a much better choice than trying to sculpture the entire body. "But birds and eagles look good," he notes.
In many cases, he works from pictures, sketches, or drawings.
What might not be easily evident to casual observers is how important "the engineering" is to carrying out a successful carving.
By that he means that the finished product needs to have adequate support so it holds its shape, especially when the carving is being done in a warm setting over a three-, four-, or six-hour period.
For example, Landwehr cut a slab from the original 640-pound block used for the Lincoln Memorial carving. He then used that slab as a base for the large main piece.
Sometimes, the addition of color beyond the gold of the Cheddar cheese would embellish the carving, Landwehr observes.
For that reason, he says it is appropriate to use other cheeses such as blue, Pepper Jack, mozzarella, and Ricotta instead of artificial colors or to provide a special shape or texture such as lace.
Landwehr obtains most of his Cheddar cheese blocks from Simon’s Specialty Cheese at Little Chute or through Vern’s Cheese at Chilton.
For whatever he will carve at the Calumet County event on June 30, a 40-pound Cheddar block will be donated by Land O’Lakes Dairy Foods at Kiel, which is where the milk from the host Lintner farm’s Holstein cows is shipped.
For larger blocks, Landwehr works with Wisconsin Aging and Grading at Little Chute. Another specialty for carvings is a round wheel of cheese (75 up to 5,000 pounds) - made only by Henning’s Cheese of rural Kiel in Manitowoc County.
What Landwehr looks for in a cheese block for carving is a combination of high butterfat and a low pH. The cheese needs to be medium aged so it will have a combination of well-set curd (stability) while still being soft enough for precise carving.
For learning more about the traits of various varieties of cheese, Landwehr credits Pete Leuer of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB). He also works with the WMMB’s regional marketing managers for appearances such as one in Florida in July of 2012.
Landwehr attributes a significant portion of the public interest in cheese carving to "the foodie revolution." This has created support for "food sculptures" not only of cheese but also of watermelon and various other fruits, he points out.
There are also quite a few people who make carvings from butter but the community of cheese carvers, including "The Cheese Lady" Sarah Kaufman, is rather small, Landwehr observes.
One special appeal of cheese is the "full sensory experience" that it brings, he says.
Joining Landwehr at the Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival in Little Chute at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 1 will be Kristi Krieski and her twin daughters Ashley and Anna of Reedsburg, Jeremy Vosters, and Ben Vander Logt. All have some connection with the Little Chute area.
During business hours on most weekdays, Landwehr is at the Kerrigan Brothers Winery retail store along Highway 55 about three miles north of Kaukauna. He can also be reached by e-mail to email@example.com or by phone to 920-788-1423.