I’ve never before had the pleasure of visiting the great state of Wisconsin. Never sampled the region’s farm-to-table, much-heralded dairy products; never, in fact, found reason to venture into America’s bread basket at all. Then I was invited to attend the Kohler Food & Wine Experience in the town of Kohler, an hour outside Milwaukee, and home of the bathroom fixture magnate and a PGA Championship. I consented, because why hold a grudge against corn-fed Middle America – and its corn-fed livestock. I pictured “weird but cool” with world-class cuisine to sweeten the deal. Miraculously enough, after a weekend, “weird but cool’”remains the most fitting description of Kohler.
At first glance, it’s a one-horse town. Kohler Village is populated by 2,200 inhabitants, most of whom are in some way involved with Kohler Co. – which sounds pretty terrible if you’re picturing Detroit autoworkers living and breathing factory life, shopping at the company store, drinking the Kool Aid. But Kohler’s got charm. The company runs operations from a collection of ivy-blanketed brick buildings reminiscent of Northeast prep schools. The residential architecture measures up in quaintness.
The Kohler headquarters sit across from the Kohler Design Center and historical museum. It’s a haven for contemporary interior design and home to bathroom and kitchen models designed by industry heavy hitters. I wanted to pitch a tent and move into the new Jonathan Adler-designed “Barococo Futurism” bathroom. Plus, I wouldn’t mind finding a new home for the “Great Wall of China,” a side of the gallery comprised solely of Kohler porcelain fixtures and multi-colored commodes.
The Kohler Food and Wine Experience celebrated its 10-year last weekend, and much like the Chinati Open House Weekend in Marfa, Texas, it felt like every Kohler-ite came out of the woodworks for the event. The village’s two hotels sold out, shuttles transported patrons to and from events around the clock. The American Club, The Stella Artois mainstage and every available conference room and venue hosted tastings, pairings, and demonstrations by Food & Wine seasoned pros: Anne Burrell, Sara Moulton, Graham Elliot, Aida Mollenkamp, and Bryan Voltaggio among them. The Grand Tasting on Friday and Saturday attracted nearly all the wine distributors in the state of Wisconsin and covered most of the West Coast. The greatest part about the event, for me, was that the talent mingled with the spectators—there aren’t really that many bars in town.
Aida Mollenkamp’s peanut brittle
I took notes and learned a number of useful Food & Wine tidbits. For instance: strawberries and balsamic vinegar go together well; you can chill a bottle of champagne in 12 minutes if you add Kosher salt to ice water; the difference between pancetta and bacon is simply that bacon is smoked; crème fraiche can be substituted for sour cream; Dogfish Head beer has an unexpectedly high alcohol content; and light olive oil is a sham.
The rest of the weekend was spent at The American Club—home to every bar, restaurant, and luxury amenity that a festival-goer/presenter could ask for. The hotel was once the dormitory for immigrant workers in the Kohler factory, but now holds the title of the Midwest’s only AAA Five Diamond (it also pays homage to its roots with The Immigrant fine dining establishment). The hotel embodies old-world charm, with grand staircases, Oriental rugs, overstuffed Louis chairs, cozy fireplaces, and luxe B&B touches. The spa specializes in water therapy and Vichy treatments, to ease the stress of wine-drinking and excessive eating.
Welcome to Kohler, where everyone’s shopping at the company store, but at least it’s the Bergdorf Goodman of company stores.