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Up close and personal with cheese

They may not admit to being Packer fans, but a growing group of Minnesota chefs are becoming Wisconsin cheese heads. That’s thanks to a cheese-focused chef-to-chef educational tour program launched last March by the Minnesota division of U.S. Foodservice (USF). Partnering with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, the distributor hosted a “Cheese Crafters Dairy Tour” for some 25 to 30 chefs.

The group spent two-and-a-half days visiting cheese plants, observing the cheesemaking process, sampling products and gathering menu ideas. Last year’s tour focused on the production of mozzarella and other commodity cheeses. This year, USF hosted another tour that focused on Brie, Gouda and other Wisconsin artisan cheeses.

“Several years ago we identified a need to do a better job of bringing value to fine-dining chefs. We wanted to do more than just sell them products,” says John Byrne, brand manager and corporate chef at USF-Minnesota. “We carry an extensive line of cheeses so partnering with the WMMB makes sense. They add a level of expertise and credibility.”

One of last year’s stops was BelGioioso Cheese, where the chefs observed mozzarella being made. Byrne says he gained knowledge he now uses in training the USF sales staff. “I’m a big mozzarella fan, but to see the entire process, from the milk coming off the truck, to the quality assurance testing, to the products coming off the line was great. To taste the products with the BelGioioso family right in the plant brought it full-circle.”

Dave Hayworth, director of marketing at USF-Minnesota, says the tours are just one aspect of the chef-to-chef program. It also includes frequent sampling and training with chefs one-on-one and demos and challenges at the distributor’s annual Epicurean Experience fall food show. But the tours, he and Byrne agree, are especially effective for both education and relationship building.

“When you walk in the door of chefs who toured with us you get open arms and big hugs. Six, eight months after tour we’re able to bypass all of the regular sales jargon because we have that relationship,” says Hayworth.

U.S. Foodservice- Minnesota
Plymouth, MN
2009 sales: $18.9 billion (corporate)
ID Top 50 Rank: 2
Web site: usfoods.com