Green Bay chef Ace Champion overcame bumps to find his niche

If you like to cook and you live in the Green Bay area, you might have heard of him.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a name like Ace Champion.

Champion, who lives in De Pere, is an independent cooking instructor. His classes and demonstrations, which take place mostly at cookware stores and local wineries, are peppered with his own brand of motivational encouragement.

“Always visualize — visualize yourself in the kitchen,” he tells class members. “Once you have the recipe, rehearse in your mind, step-by-step, exactly what you’ll be doing.”

We caught up with him at Captain’s Walk Winery in Green Bay where he was preparing a Creole-seasoned pork tenderloin served with a buttery port wine sauce.

Champion moved to Wisconsin from Amite City, La., over a decade ago and has been working ever since to bring his New Orleans-influenced cooking to the frozen tundra.

“When I bring this style of cooking to classes here, everybody loves it. You can’t get that kind of food — like jambalaya — in northeast Wisconsin, where everyone eats meat, potatoes and broasted chicken,” he said.

And, yes, he’s often asked about his name.

“Champion is my God-given name. I picked up Ace when I was pitching in high school. With a name like Ace Champion, people expected more from me and it made me a better person,” he said.

He noted that only his mom calls him by his real first name, which is Leonard.

The 37-year old Champion, the father of three teens, earned his culinary arts degree in the accelerated program at Fox Valley Technical College in 2012.

“Ace is definitely not your typical student, for sure,” said Jeff Igel, who directs the school’s culinary and hospitality program. “He came through the school of hard knocks — and he wants to go out and do great things.”

Champion’s improbable uprooting from Deep South to Up North came about because a friend who lived in Wisconsin said there might be some good opportunities for him in Green Bay.

“I had no idea of anything about this area. But I knew it was bad where I was and it couldn’t be worse in Green Bay,” Champion said.

In Louisiana, Champion had been working long hours and riding his bike 6 miles each way back and forth to his job at a sausage company. And while things were tough in Louisiana, it was during his years there — working at various restaurants and establishments — that he learned the basics of Creole cooking.

“Everybody cooks in Louisiana, it’s part of the heritage. Eight-year-old girls are cooking chicken in Louisiana,” he joked.

But it wasn’t easy street when he arrived in Green Bay.

“For the first two years here, I ended up riding my bike just as far to work,” he said.

Then at age 30, because of hereditary high blood pressure, he had a stroke that left him blind in his right eye.

“The doctors told me I had to get the stress out of my life,” he said with a yeah-right look.

The hard knocks, as his instructor calls them, continued with prospects falling through and doors closing.

He managed to begin culinary classes in 2010 while working full time as a chef at the now-closed Plum Hill Café in Kaukauna. And — he can laugh about it today — he encountered some hurdles in the classroom.

“I had never sent an email. I didn’t know what an attachment was. Where I lived in Louisiana, the computer world is not prevalent — your average Joe doesn’t do it,” he said. “I thought cutting and pasting involved scissors and paper. I had to look like the dumbest person in the world.”

But his positive attitude — the one he tries to pass along in all his classes — kicked in.

As he tells it, “I started to learn and I learned how to learn.”

At one point, students were asked what careers they were considering.

“I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a celebrity chef,” Champion said. “The whole class broke up laughing, and it kind of hurt my feelings. Nobody took me seriously because they didn’t see my vision.”

After graduation, Champion found a job as a dietary chef at Golden Living Center, a skilled nursing facility in Green Bay, where he still works part time.

And he began pursuing gigs as a cooking instructor, motivational speaker and personal chef.

“I called every single winery” in the area, including Door County, he said. “Many had never thought of offering cooking classes. And most wineries have no kitchen, so I now have two portable gas burners — basically a portable kitchen.”

Currently, he says, he appears at about six different venues and is hoping to make it eight.

When he appears at a winery, he always uses some of their wine in his recipes. He then goes on to advise the audience, that if you’re cooking with wine “that’s the wine you should drink, that’s the wine that will match with the food.”

Visit the Champion Cooking Classes website to see his schedule. There are upcoming classes, for instance, at Simon Creek Vineyard and Winery in Sturgeon Bay and Cooks Corners in Green Bay.

In addition, he’s the featured chef in the weekly “Ask a Chef” column in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, and he makes periodic appearances on Fox 11’s “Living with Amy” show.

So he’s on his way to becoming, at least on the local scene, a celebrity chef.

And he hasn’t given up on his vision of reaching a wider audience. For now, though, his heart is in Wisconsin. And, yes, he’d be happy to do some work in the Milwaukee area, if the opportunity presents itself.

Of course, he’d love to hear from the Food Network.

But if they call, “they better be willing to come to Wisconsin and follow me to all the little wineries,” he said.

Here’s how he sums it up: “I’ve had some bumps and bruises along the way, but that’s OK. I’m here now.”

Champion’s book cooks up recipe for culinary success

Chef Ace Champion explains his can-do philosophy of both cooking and life in “8 Steps to Your Perfect Meal” (Ace Champion, 2013, paperback, $12.99; Kindle, $3.99).

The slim 87-page volume addresses the insecurities of beginning cooks — “those of you who think cooking is impossible” — but it also contains some tips useful for more seasoned home cooks.

It’s not a cookbook, but Champion references his favorite recipe for chicken Marsala. This recipe and a related demonstration video can be found at his website where you’ll also see some of Champion’s other cooking videos.

Whether the topic is life or a meal, he uses the book to exhort readers to think positively: “That ability to learn and manifest whatever we put our mind to is in all of us, but only if we set the bar high and with failure not being an option.”

Some of his steps toward a perfect meal are practical. In step four, for example, he gives tips on buying good-quality kitchen equipment. In step five, it’s the importance of carefully tasting the food while it’s being prepared.

But just as important is what he calls the “motor visual rehearsal.” It’s a confidence-building step in which you go over in your mind what the recipe is asking you to do before actually tackling it.

Throughout the book are snippets and stories from his own life.

In the section on choosing good kitchen equipment, he writes, “Don’t feel bad after reading this if you go into your kitchen and realize you don’t have the equipment you wish you had. I cooked for many years with the worst possible pans ever and the worse knives ever.”

And it’s “the secret ingredient of love” that is the last of his eight steps.

“Always remember to use this ingredient (love) throughout the whole cooking process. In return, the love you’re going to get is worth the time you’ll spend in the kitchen,” he advises.