Chris Gentine on the Joys of Culinary Collaboration and the Art (and Science) of Affinage in Wisconsin

The founder of Deer Creek Cheese talks terroir in this week’s episode of Place Settings.

By SAVEUR Editors

Published on November 10, 2022

Welcome to our new podcast, Place Settings. This season, we’re traveling across the U.S. to meet the chefs, farmers, makers, and creatives who are transforming the food space through their unique connection to a place. Tune in each week, as our editors chat with a food innovator whose personal journey is as compelling as what they’re putting on the plate.

Chris Gentine is a cheese grader and affineur who sees infinite possibilities in transforming an already excellent cheddar into something new and unexpected. Along with his wife, Julie, Gentine is at the creative heart of Deer Creek Cheese, the company they founded in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee. 

Building on the state's classic cheeses as a base, the couple then infuses their own special alchemy of flavors, from juniper berries to green chartreuse. They work closely with master cheesemakers in the area—and by extension, small local dairy farms—to craft award-winning cheeses that celebrate the unique surrounding terroir. Beyond the borders of Wisconsin, Gentine is also a kind of ambassador for American cheesemakers through his Artisan Cheese Exchange, which exports specialty U.S. cheeses around the world.

Connecting the two projects is Gentine’s deep respect for centuries-old techniques and a collaborative approach that starts with his family (the Gentines’ daughter, Sophie, is following in her father’s footsteps to become a licensed cheese grader)—and extends to the larger cheese community. Here are a few more highlights from our editorial director Kat Craddock’s conversation with him:

On the Collaborative Culture of Cheesemaking
We're lucky that we have the kind of industry here [in Wisconsin] where somebody will let you in and you can combine your ideas and seek to understand something completely new for both of you. You each bring your talents together into creating something successful.”

On “Hot-Rodding” Cheeses
I'm a ’60s kid, so I came out of the Revell model and Hot Wheels era. When we look at our cheeses, technically they're cheddar, but we make them a little bit differently. You're taking something—whether it be a Mustang or even an old British chassis, and stuffing a small-block V8 in it—then said, let’s take on the world in the road race championships. I mean, that's the sum of the spirit of what we try to do. And in the same sense, we're also a restorer of classics that you can roll up to Pebble Beach and get on the podium.”

On the Uniquely American Approach to Affinage
“From a pure standpoint of aging cheeses, we use a lot of traditional methods, but I think it's what we're starting off with that’s different. There are no boundaries on that beginner cheese, or what it could be like. Just in our state, if you made our Vat 17 in different regions—like if we made it down in Andy Hatch's neck of the woods in the Driftless—the terroir in that area is so different. [...] We're blessed with so much diversity in the state of Wisconsin that we kind of keep ourselves in our own borders. But maybe it's different to age it in different parts of the state. I think that's the whole American side of it: What can we do? We should try that.”

You can listen to the rest of this Place Settings conversationand catch each new weekly episodeon Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

Special thanks to Wisconsin Cheese for supporting this season.

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