Savoring Collaboration

Why “Wisconsin Foodie” is so much more than eat and drink.

BY LORI ACKEN  |  PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI

Clockwise from top: Top Note Tonic’s selection of sparkling mixers; “Wisconsin Foodie” cameraman Nelson Schneider captures Twisted Path’s Brian Sammons in action; The “Foodie” crew: Dan Peters, Ryan Sarnowski, Melissa Holck, Schneider and Arthur Ircink; Creating Twisted Path’s smoked white rum; PhiloÇoffia’s bold new brew; Peters and Schneider take aim at PhiloÇoffia’s Johnny Ferrell

It’s a chilly, late October morning, and Nelson Schneider is on the run.

The “Wisconsin Foodie” cameraman and cinematographer — the only fulltime employee of the Emmy-winning Wisconsin Public Television favorite other than its multi-hyphenate creator Arthur Ircink — is following Twisted Path Distillery founder/distiller Brian Sammons as he prepares to mash blue corn flour into a bubbling, purplish pulp that will become blue corn vodka.

Bag after bag of pastel flour, milled by Lone Rock’s Lonesome Stone Milling from corn grown by Dodgeville farmer Dave Dolan, goes into a custom-designed tank that Sammons mans with a tool that’s something like a combination weed whacker and power drill. As Schneider captures the process, Ircink looks on, asking questions meant for this particular episode of the series he founded 11 years before, but also to satisfy his own innate curiosity about Sammons’ products and the connections and collaborations that inspire them.

Ircink knows a thing or two about the big impact of small collaborations.

He credits the series’ ever-growing success to its deliberately small and flexible crew and their collective ability to see the bigger picture of the Wisconsin food scene — a veritable study in working hand-in-hand. “When I first set out to do the show, I was really focused on chefs and restaurants,” Ircink explains. “But after interviewing and talking to chefs, they would always be talking about food producers and farmers and cheese makers and all these different stories that they were interested in and then I started to get interested in those stories too.

“Let’s say you go to Sanford and you look at that plate,” Ircink continues. “All those different stories on that plate are incredible. Who made that meat? Where did those beans come from? The biggest evolution that we’ve gone through as a show is we’ve gone away from just talking to chefs and we’ve gone behind the scenes and found those stories of food, whether they’re great historical, traditional stories or newer
upstart stories.”

Today, Ircink and his crew — the affable Schneider, lead editor Ryan Sarnowski, self-described “camera boy” Dan Peters and Melissa Holck, office manager for both “Wisconsin Foodie” and Ircink’s latest endeavor, Edible Milwaukee magazine — are early arrivals at Lincoln Warehouse, a bustling assemblage of local startups at the edge of Bay View. “There were all these different beverage companies first — Twisted Path, Bittercube, Enlightened Brewing, Top Note Tonic — and, in this one building, all these stories that relate to one another,” Ircink says of concepting the episode that will air as part of Foodie’s eleventh season, which debuts in January. “You have Twisted Path working with Top Note Tonic, the people from Top Note Tonic giving advice to PhiloÇoffia, the cold-brew coffee company, all these different connections and relationships. To see them work together is fantastic. It helps everybody grow.”

PhiloÇoffia’s Johnny Ferrell

The group began their day with PhiloÇoffia founder Johnny Ferrell, a buff and energetic Navy veteran whose foray into the beverage trade has taken him from coconut water to coffee made with beans coated in coconut oil to his latest effort, cold-brew coffee enhanced with the harmless hemp derivative cannabidiol (CBD) that he says both revives and relaxes its drinkers. Ircink says the idea for the brew came from a chat Ferrell had with his Lincoln Warehouse neighbor, Top Note Tonic co-founder Mary Pellettieri.

“Five weeks ago, he was doing these certain cold-brew coffees, and then he started doing the CBD coffee, and that’s what has exploded his business,” Ircink adds. “Then, Brian from Twisted Path, the blue corn story, to me, is really exciting. Working with these farmers growing these heritage crops, that’s the struggle of these small, local businesses. When you’re thinking you’re gonna rely on something to be there, but the crop didn’t work this year. So now Brian has to strategize: What is he going to do next year? That is local food in a nutshell.”

Ircink says that a decade spent tracking Wisconsin food and beverage products from their most basic sources has afforded him a deep well of connections and, thus, the opportunity to not just get the word out, but also lend a helping hand. “It goes beyond just what we’re doing on TV,” he says. “I love to know what people are doing in the business world. … They’re such positive people that really want to see our city succeed and our state succeed, and whatever I can do to help, that’s what I’m trying to do. To see the change in the community happen, to see these businesses succeed, that’s payment for me. That makes me super excited.”

“Through storytelling, what we do really can create change, not only this industry, but in our communities,” Ircink says. “The real goal for ‘Wisconsin Foodie,’ and now Edible Milwaukee, is to really get people to rethink what they are buying and how they are eating. We want people to be aware that there’s these great, small, local businesses out there that are going to incredible levels to buy the freshest products from local farmers.”

Schneider and Sammons watch a Twisted Path mixologist in action



Ircink calls upon a family member for example, revealing how he convinced his own mom to give up treks to TGI Fridays in favor of dining at La Merenda whose chef/owner Peter Sandroni is a staunch proponent of locally sourced ingredients. “I know for certain that money is going back into this economy,” Ircink says with a grin. “And the moral of that story is my mom became a huge follower of La Merenda.”
As the show’s approach evolves, so has its style. Sarnowski works with Ircink, Schneider and his own good instincts to pare an average of 10 hours of filmed footage down to a half-hour episode best suited to its subject matter.

“I’ll make a food analogy,” the endearingly droll Sarnowski says. “It’s like fishing: You throw your net in the water, and there are certain fish you want to catch and there’s some you don’t. There’s some surprises. And so, when the net comes up and gets spilled out on the deck, you start sorting through it and figuring out what you’re gonna put on the menu back at the restaurant. That’s what we’re doing.
“We’re not the magazine style that’s like, ‘Here is 10 or 20 different places, real rapid fire!’” Sarnowski continues. “We’re telling slower stories. It’s like the slow food movement. It’s slow cooking, letting things gradually take on the flavors in our episodes. Many times we let the farmers or the restaurateurs or chefs tell their own story. We also have hosts like Kyle [Cherek] or Jessica [Bell], and we’ve even been using chefs as hosts. My job is to weave that all together into 20 minutes that hopefully entertains.”

While Cherek is Foodie’s most recognizable face, Ircink realized that not every story requires a narrator.

“I actually get nervous when it’s hosted, because I don’t want that attention going away from the subject,” he admits, citing the previous day’s spontaneous shoot in Glacial Lakes Cranberries’ Cranmoor bog. “We got so many great, heartfelt things out of the cranberry story. At the end of a very long shoot day, we were interviewing Mary Brown, the farmer, and we asked her a question that hit a note with her. She paused and started tearing up and got really emotional on camera. That would not have happened if the host was there.”

 Twisted Path and Top Note are a natural match

To give new episodes as much visual and informational impact as possible, Ircink keeps a map of places Foodie has been and where they’ve yet to go, drawing lines between potential connections that will enrich its stories.

“This season, we’re focusing on ginseng farmers on one episode,” reveals Sarnowski, who jokes that his job is to not care about the food. “The mid-northern part of the state, the Wausau area, is the top ginseng growing area in the United States. It’s a prized possession for the Chinese markets; they actually advertise Wisconsin-grown ginseng. So we focus on that, an immigrant story, started by immigrants and continuing to grow because of immigrant farmers from the Hmong community who came here as refugees and really worked the farms.” Another future outing, he says, spotlights Wisconsin residents with a flair for Southern cooking.

 
 

Ircink, the father of a young son, stresses that “Wisconsin Foodie” will never stray from its family-friendly roots.

“There’s been plenty of opportunities where the show could’ve been sold, or we could’ve gone in different directions and made a lot of money from it,” he says. “[But] we’re on PBS. We are dedicated to this mission, and we know that we have this responsibility to younger folks and older folks to tell the best possible stories.”

“Wisconsin Foodie” creator Arthur Ircink


Later that evening, my husband and I head back to Twisted Path to see the place in action and sample the smoked white rum I saw being crafted earlier in the day. A trio of friendly dogs dashes back and forth from Twisted Path to Enlightened

 
 

Brewery through a large, communal door. A cribbage tournament is gearing up in the Twisted Path space. Folks nosh on nibbles from Clock Shadow Creamery and Bavette La Boucherie, or bring in food from nearby spots to wash down with the companies’ wares. Both rooms are packed and echo with laughter.  

It’s a scene that’s pure Milwaukee with a healthy dollop of Wisconsin pride and product. And it’s exactly what Arthur Ircink and his talented band of print and photojournalists seek each time they walk out their office door. “There are people that have big corporate jobs that are making a ton of money, whether they’re lawyers or they’re CEOs, but it’s not fulfilling to them,” Ircink says, citing Ferrell and Sammons, a former Milwaukee assistant district attorney who once worked with the CIA, as examples. “They decide to leave that job and create their own small business or start farming, and that, to me, is the most beautiful story in the world. Because, in the long run, it’s not about money. What are we contributing to the community? What are we giving back to people?

“That’s my compass,” concludes Ircink, who also founded the Shorewood farmers market as a means to foster community interaction and local food sustainability. “My payoff is seeing businesses like this succeed and trying to make my city a better place to live. I take joy in that. It doesn’t always pay the bills, but I know I have a lot of friends in the community. I’m never going to go hungry; I got plenty of people that will feed me. [Laughs] If we are able to keep that moral compass in line and have these values of building the community together, there’s no failure there. That will go beyond any paycheck.”  MKE

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