In 2003, Ace Champion was struggling to make a name for himself as a chef in Louisiana. So he moved to Wisconsin, where he figured he might stand out for his Creole cooking. He did, and then some. His arrival in the Badger State was a cultural shock—for his new white neighbors. Champion, an African American, says at the time the only well-known blacks in the area were doctors and Green Bay Packers football players.
“I could tell a lot of [white Wisconsin residents] had this image about what a black man should look like,” says Champion. “But after talking with them, the ones who were skeptical about me at first were inviting me over for Thanksgiving dinner. Now I’m very popular in my area, but that was a long time coming.”
Today, the 37-year old is a chef and a cooking instructor who has an unorthodox approach to both where and how he teaches. Many of Champion’s classes are held at wineries in northeastern Wisconsin, an atypical educational venue for any cooking instructor (most wineries don’t have a kitchen on site) let alone an African-American Louisiana native who specializes in creole cuisine. Also, instead of hosting a class where students prepare a dish under the supervision of a culinary expert, Champion delivers a detailed cooking demonstration. “You need to see how it’s done,” explains Champion. “You need to see what it looks like. You need to taste what it’s going to taste like. You need to get all that in your brain and let it marinate and then go home and execute the recipe. Doing this takes away so much anxiety about cooking.”
Champion hopes to assuage the apprehension that often consumes novice cooks by encouraging them to visualize themselves successfully making a dish before they even pick up a utensil. “It builds confidence because it allows them to see themselves doing it successfully,” says Champion of the performance-enhancing technique often employed by athletes.
The notion of holding cooking classes at wineries first came to Champion during a visit with his fiancée to Vines & Rushes, a winery in Ripon, WI. Given the obvious relationship between fine wine and food, Champion inquired about whether the establishment offered cooking instruction. It didn’t, but management was intrigued by the idea. Subsequent calls to other wineries yielded a similar response and confirmed that Champion was on to something. He now teaches at several wineries in the area.
Champion attempts to bridge the New Orleans-Wisconsin culinary gap by incorporating popular Wisconsin foods in his creole dishes. For example, in a recipe calling for cheese, Champion will use some of the state’s finest. And his winery-based cooking events often have themes that introduce attendees to New Orleans culture and leave guests feeling as though they’ve made a visit to the Crescent City.
Like many in the culinary arts, Champion was introduced to cooking as a child. Often given potato-peeling duty to help his mother prepare family dinners, the young Champion developed a love of working with knives. But it wasn’t until he was a truck-stop dishwasher in his late teens and witnessed the seemingly effortless dance of the restaurant’s short-order cook that he made chef his professional goal.
That cook took Champion under his wing and soon Champion was preparing meals for customers at the truck stop himself. He moved onto other casual dining restaurants and advanced to finer eateries after planting roots in Wisconsin. In each role, he stayed long enough to become the top cook before moving on to a new opportunity that would expand his culinary portfolio. In 2012, Champion enhanced his on-the-job training by completing an accelerated culinary arts program at Fox Valley Technical College.
Champion aspires to build a multifaceted cooking empire like those of Emeril Lagasse or Wolfgang Puck. He’s certainly carving a path in the right direction. In addition to offering classes through Chef Champion LLC, he has an online cooking show and offers solutions to cooking conundrums via the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s weekly “Ask a Chef” column. In September 2013, he published his first book, 8 Steps to Your Perfect Meal, which offers practical cooking tips and advice for overcoming the mental blocks that can hinder success in the kitchen. Through all his endeavors, he strives to teach people how to embrace the joy of cooking so they can lead happier, healthier lives.
“I have to give my knowledge away,” says Champion. “I know 100 percent that this is my purpose. This is what I was put here to do.”