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Madison’s swagger gives it an edge over other cities

Last weekend, from a kayak on Lake Monona, I had the chance to take in the vibrant scene as the sun pulled the city out of its collective winter trance once and for all. Joggers, fishermen, dog walkers and families enjoyed the first weekend that felt like summer.

From that perspective, it’s easy to understand why people are in love with Madison, with water like glass and a clear view of a bustling city.

That energy was on full display Wednesday night at a viewing party hosted by Destination Madison for a “Top Chef” episode featuring Madison in all his glory.

The audience heard from Madison chefs and restaurant owners Tory Miller and Joe Papach, both of whom appeared in the final episode.

As the show aired, they cheered for Milwaukee contestant Dan Jacobs. They cheered at the beautiful images of the Dane County Farmer’s Market and the view of the Capitol from the roof of L’Etoile. They even clapped for a cheese commercial.

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Because it’s not the lakes or the food that make Madison a great city. Other cities have lakes, universities and professional sports teams. They are in better climates or have more shops or bigger museums.

What makes this city special is that Madisonians truly believe they live in the best city. They defend it. They brag about it. Even as they recognize the city’s challenges, they highlight its features and tell everyone who listens.

I’ve lived in larger cities with more amenities, but residents were almost apologetic about what their cities didn’t offer. You don’t see many Madisonians making excuses for this place.

That swagger is infectious and gives Madison an edge over cities with their own unique characteristics but a less confident attitude.

It also applies to all of Wisconsin. People joke about the state’s culture of brats, beer and cheese curds. It doesn’t matter because the people here own their traditions, cheeseheads, polkas and all that.

The last two “Top Chef” episodes highlighted the very best of Madison and beyond, from the Capitol to Monona Terrace.

The show also dug deeper into food culture than I honestly expected, highlighting the locally sourced foods at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. A challenge in the final episode was inspired by Carson Gulley, UW-Madison’s chef for 27 years who published a recipe book in 1949. He and his wife were the first black TV personalities in Madison.

Reporter Samara Kalk Derby has done a great job following “Top Chef” this season. But her work regularly highlights some of the best food in Madison.

She keeps readers up to date on restaurant openings and closings and new and interesting menu items, from fish pizza to Culver’s CurderBurger. Kalk Derby has developed a deep understanding of the local food culture, and her stories provide the context needed to get a sense of the industry’s impact on Madison.

She also reviews restaurants every week, so you can check out her stories for new places to try. She has interviewed James Beard award winners and new chefs opening small shops.

Local officials expect a “Top Chef” effect when the series airs. Wisconsin Tourism Secretary Anne Sayers told the audience Wednesday night that a cheese featured on the show is selling at a rapid pace, and that Taliesin, home of Wisconsin-born architect Frank Lloyd Wright, has seen a sharp increase has seen in the number of tour reservations. The state is running its first national commercial.

People can develop a deeper appreciation for Madison’s rich food culture and realize that it goes beyond beer and brats.

And if they don’t, that’s fine. Madisonians will take it as a compliment.

Lecker is editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin State Journal: [email protected].