Driftless Terroir: Driftless Champion Zahm Is New ‘Wisconsin Foodie’

Keith Burrows

By Keith Burrows

The new season of the PBS program “Wisconsin Foodie” begins this month. For the last 11 years, the show has been telling the stories of the people who feed us. And though it is something of a venerable institution these days, when it started its approach was fairly revolutionary for a local program: the artistic visual style, the nuanced tone, the savvy presentation. It would not have looked out of place on The Food Network or Travel Channel alongside shows like “No Reservations” or “Good Eats.”
This year will see a significant change in the show as Luke Zahm takes over from the original host, Kyle Cherek. Zahm is a chef, and likely already a familiar face to “Wisconsin Foodie” viewers, having been featured on the show multiple times. He opened his restaurant, the Driftless Café, in Viroqua in 2013. Since then it has become one of the most award-winning restaurants in Wisconsin, and he one of the best known chefs, culminating in his 2017 nomination for a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. Zahm is certainly remarkably talented, and his restaurant’s admirable focus on high-quality local ingredients is clearly heart-felt. Farm-to-table, but not in the slick, branded way of a big-city gastropub. Rather, Zahm and his team genuinely know, and love, their vendors.
Zahm is also an old-school raconteur. Eating at his restaurant always felt a bit like being in his home as he effortlessly moved from table to table, chatting to regulars and charming visitors. In a way, it almost seemed wrong to confine him to that one room, so I am excited to see what he brings to the role of “Wisconsin Foodie” host. That being said, we can expect a lot of continuity with the previous seasons of the show since “Wisconsin Foodie” founder and executive producer Arthur Ircink is still behind the camera.

Luke Zahm, founder of the celebrated Driftless Cafe in Viroqua, Wisconsin, will take over as host of “Wisconsin Foodie,” replacing Kyle Cherek.

While production for this season has been going on, Zahm has out of necessity stepped away from the restaurant somewhat, but he is unworried as he says he has been “blessed with an amazing staff” and that his wife, who runs the restaurant with him, has been key to keeping things going smoothly. The kitchen is in the hands of newly hired chef Mary Kastman. Zahm adds that it is particularly exciting for him that the restaurant is “providing a platform for a young female chef to cook the food she believes in.” He’s still heavily involved in running the restaurant, but it sounded like he’s still searching for the right balance between his various roles.
Zahm says that he has always viewed his job as being a storyteller. In his restaurant he is telling the story of his community. Now, with the television show, he says it is his mission to celebrate the upper Midwest, and dispel the notion of Wisconsin as fly-over country for food. After all, he asks: “Where do people think their food comes from?”

Wisconsin Foodie Season 12 starts 1/16/2020 on Wisconsin Public Television, now starring Luke Zahm.

Both of Zahm’s roles, restaurateur and TV host, are types of creative placemaking. Through food he tells a story about people, and through those people he tells a story about a place. This is important work, particularly for the Driftless Area. There is no shortage of dedicated farmers, fantastic cheesemakers, innovative chefs and other food professionals out here. But what we haven’t quite figured out is how to tell the story of our place. There’s no one solution to this problem, but the answers lie in the direction of increased coordination and cooperation between people, companies, cities and counties. Places like Mineral Point, Viroqua or La Crosse needn’t lose their unique identities when they team up to tell a story about the Driftless. And we need good storytellers. “Wisconsin Foodie” won’t save the family dairy farms that are closing every day, but if the show can get more people to care about them, then it will have helped. And if can promote the idea of Wisconsin and the Driftless as unique places, with strong traditions and vibrant progressivism, then it will have succeeded.
When we spoke, Zahm could not reveal exactly who will be featured in the new season, but I’ve heard of them filming at several locations in the area, so I expect the Driftless Area to have a strong presence in this season. We won’t have to wait long to find out. The first episode of the 12th season of “Wisconsin Foodie” will be broadcast on PBS on Jan. 16, and all the past episodes are available to watch on the PBS website.

Keith Burrows is a scientist with Cardinal Glass and lives in Mineral Point. He and Leslie Damaso publish the popular Driftless Appetite blog at www.driftlessappetite.com.