Minnesota Cheese Festival founder says wheels are turning for June 3 event

Minnesota is known for lots of things. Lakes, casseroles, and an intentional lack of eye contact immediately come to mind. What Minnesota in not particularly known for is cheese. That's been the hallmark of our neighbors to the east since the borders were drawn. Whitney McChane is on a one-person mission to change that. The first-ever Minnesota Cheese Festival will take place on Sunday, June 3, from noon to 6 p.m. at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds' International Bazaar. 

The Hot Dish sat down with McChane to discuss all things cheese and festival. 

Why cheese?

I've been obsessed with cheese for years and actually considered quitting my job in PR to become a cheesemaker. Instead, I chose to travel the more insane path of creating Minnesota's first festival dedicated to cheese.

How did the festival come about?

A few years ago, for our anniversary, my now-husband took me on a cheesemaker's tour of Wisconsin that ended at the Wisconsin Cheese Festival. The experience truly inspired me. More accurately, I was insanely jealous and knew I had to bring this type of event to my home state. After all, who in this great dairy state doesn't appreciate great cheese? The more research I did, the more I became convinced this would be a fabulous event for cheese-lovers and the state's cheesemaking community as a whole. Wisconsin has robust, state-funded programs to support their cheesemakers, but the resources for Minnesota cheesemakers are extremely limited. I found this to be surprising as we're the No. 6 cheese-producing state in the U.S. Ideally, this will be an annual event that will support and empower the cheesemaking community while fostering a sense of pride among Minnesota residents.

Who are the main people involved with the festival? 

I have some incredible partners that are supporting the event. From Rochester, ZZest Market and Cafe is providing us with the support and resources we needed to make the Festival happen. We're hosting a Wine & Cheese Culinary Excursion in partnership with ZZest, so Rochester residents can travel to the event in style while enjoying a light meal with pairings. Minnesota's cheesemakers have also been incredibly helpful, and I could never have gotten this far without the support of the folks at Caves of Faribault and Davisco. Michael Agnew and Leslee Miller are the official cicerone and sommelier for the festival, ensuring guests have the greatest beverages to pair with the world-class cheeses we'll have onsite. And the Fairgrounds, along with our concessionaire Shanghai Henry's, have helped to bring it all together and made this event possible.

What were some of the obstacles that people might not think of that come with creating a festival?

Learning and following a wealth of city and state laws has been an incredible challenge. There are so many considerations when it comes to making, handling, storing, and sampling cheese. The rules are so rigid, cheese is practically considered controlled substance, so there are a lot of challenges that come along with sampling and selling it -- particularly during warmer weather. Fortunately, the Department of Agriculture has been supporting me along the way and providing guidance to ensure we are following all state and city laws. When you add alcoholic beverages into the mix, things become even more challenging. I have local brewer Tod Fyten to thank for his connections at the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau -- they also have been essential to helping me understand the laws and ensure we're following them.

Gastrotruck and Chef Shack are participating in this festival. Will they be preparing anything special? 

They'll be preparing foods using some of the cheeses that will be featured at the festival. When I began to think about what would make this event truly fun and unique, food trucks immediately came to mind. Specifically, Gastrotruck and Chef Shack. Their gourmet, locally sourced approach to food is just what we need for the festival.

Tell us more about the contest on your website.

We have a sweepstakes that will be running in the month of May, where people can win tickets to the festival or Boska tapas fondue sets. Those who attend the event will have additional opportunities to win Boska fondue sets, and we'll have some ongoing fondue and raclette demonstrations at the event.

The festival is being held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds International Bazaar. How did that come about? Did you look at any other locations before settling on the fairgrounds?

The Fairgrounds is the ultimate Minnesota event destination, so the venue was at the top of the list from the start. The space needed to work for this first year, when we're just starting to build awareness and attendance, but also work for future years when we have (fingers crossed) a two-day event with thousands of guests daily. 

I considered International Market Square, but there were a few key elements that sold me on the Fairgrounds:

1) The open-air facility, with covered individual stalls, is perfect for a late spring event when the weather is typically in the '70s. Also, given we're serving food, we needed covered stalls that could be sheltered from wind if need be -- the Bazaar offers the ideal setup. 

2) The main stage is a perfect space to host cheese pairing and recipe demonstrations. There's room for 400-500 seats in front of the stage, so it can accommodate a lot of guests.

3) There is a grassy area next to the Bazaar that can be used to expand the grounds and allow for even more guests in future years.

4) There's free onsite parking for guests.

5) The Fairgrounds event staff -- they've been incredible to work with, responsive and helpful, and I truly feel they have a vested interest in the festival's success.

More information about the event can be found at the Minnesota Cheese Festival website

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Minnesota State Fairgrounds

1265 Snelling Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55108


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