GREEN BAY – On a recent Saturday morning, Ace Champion pulls up to LedgeStone Vineyards & Winery in Greenleaf. The back of his Jeep Renegade is packed with enough chicken breasts, green beans, rice and the fixings for mac n’ cheese to feed 52 people.
By the time guests start arriving, Champion, 45, is ready to put on a show.
“The kids feel like they’re meeting a celebrity,” one guest says as Champion offers her daughter a green bean to try.
In a sense, they are.
As Champion’s private cooking class gets underway, his show, “Cook Like A. Champion,” is airing locally on the WCWF CW 14. He not only cooks, but produces and writes the show, which airs in 13 other states and overseas in places like the UK and Puerto Rico.
He has appeared on the TODAY Show twice, won the national grilled cheese championship in 2018, appeared on the Food Network’s “Fire Master Grill” and has racked up close to two dozen local and national cooking awards since launching his first business, Chef Champion LLC , and 2013.
Since moving to Green Bay from New Orleans in 2002, he has turned his passion for cooking Cajun-Creole cuisine into a multi-faceted business venture.
“My friends told me if I moved here, I’d be the only Cajun chef,” he said. “Well, 20 years later, I’m still the only Cajun chef in town.”
Over the course of an hour, Champion will mix his love of Cajun-Creole cooking with health and wellness tips. He has a charismatic, humorous demeanor — “I’m just going to add in a good old Wisconsin teaspoon of butter,” he says before dropping the entire stick of butter into the sauce — that engages the guests and creates a spontaneous question-and – answer session, which is the point of a cooking class.
When one guest asks about the nutritional value of cooking with canola oil, Champion explains how avocado, sunflower and grape seed oils are healthier oils with higher smoke points, which are better for frying foods.
Always on brand, Champion tells the guests he never uses salt to flavor his food. Instead, he uses his two spices — Champion’s New Orleans and Jamaican all-purpose spices — which can be purchased online and at the Festival Foods location in De Pere.
“If you use these two, you will be flavoring your food with 26 herbs and spices,” he said.
From private cooking lessons to private dinners for Green Bay Packers players and corporate events, Champion has accomplished everything he has set his mind to. But he still believes his purpose is “bigger than being a chef.”
“I will always be an entrepreneur,” he said.
To that point, two crystal necklaces hang down to his chest, an accessory linking to his more holistic, emerging business venture — sound healing. The holistic treatment uses vibration and different frequencies to put patients in a state of meditation, with the aim of allowing the body to heal. Crystals are distributed during the healing sessions.
“I’d really like to blow that business out of the water,” he said as he plates food for the 52 guests.
Becoming a Green Bay celebrity
Champion, married and the father of three, moved to Green Bay in 2002 with his two youngest children, ages 1 and 3 at the time.
Five years later at the age of 30, he had a stroke. Soon after, he met his wife, Rachel, and started his life “from scratch.”
“I don’t want to say I was a raging alcoholic but I was pretty much doing everything you can do that gives you high blood pressure,” said Champion while setting up for his cooking lesson at the winery.
Born in California, his family moved to Louisiana when he was 5. While teaching the cooking lesson, he describes himself to the guests as a “country boy from New Orleans,” growing up in a city rife with poverty.
That poverty extended to his own family. He says he learned to be very creative with ingredients in the kitchen.
“I think that has a lot to do with me being creative as an adult now,” he said.
His first job was as a dishwasher at a truck stop in Amite, Louisiana, and, at first, he was very hesitant about becoming a cook. But when he saw one man cook for over 60 people in the restaurant — and remain calm — he thought: “This is the coolest thing in the world.”
Football drew him to Green Bay
This may come as a shock to most Green Bay residents, but the Green Bay area has several semi-professional football teams.
Champion was the quarterback for one of them — the Brown County Blackjacks — from 2002 to 2012.
“I could throw the ball around 70 yards and was definitely a running QB,” he said.
But playing semi-pro football isn’t a full-time job. Players are prone to injury and the league did not offer health insurance.
He retired from football in 2012 — the same year the Blackjacks won the championship and the year he graduated with a culinary degree from Fox Valley Technical College. This would be a pivotal year from him, ending the dual track he had been on for 16 years playing semi-pro football (he started for a Louisiana team) and working in restaurants.
The degree landed him a job as the executive chef for Plum Hill restaurant in Kaukauna, a job he held until the restaurant closed. That’s when he started teaching cooking classes. He recorded a few and sent them to Food Network, hoping they would reach out to him.
“They never called me up, but I realized there was a huge demand for cooking classes in Green Bay,” he said.
As his cooking reputation grew, Packers players found him, some through Google searches, others through mutual friends.
Champion has made fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread and macaroni and cheese for former Packers defensive back Mike Daniels, salmon with mango salsa and shrimp etouffee for linebacker Preston Smith and seafood dishes for former wide receiver, Jordy Nelson.
As for Ahman Green, the former running back who also hails from News Orleans, Champion says “he loved all my food, considering most of it was Cajun-based.”
New purposes emerging
On a muggy night in July, 15 people escape the heat at Mona Rose Winery in Green Bay. Besides the wine, they are coming to take part in Champion and wife Rachel’s first business venture together, Champion Healing Wave.
Attendees gather in a side room, the smell of oak and tannins from a handful of barrels, filling the space. The lights are dimmed and Tibetan and Chakra singing bowls, drums and chimes rest on the floor.
Participants range in age from their early 20s to their 70s, some with health issues others who said they were just coming to enjoy the calm. As the sound healing session begins, they close their eyes, take deep cleansing breaths and then listen to the music made by the Champions for more than an hour.
“We actually have more power in ourselves than we realize,” Rachel said.
The plan is to hold one Champion Healing Wave session a month. The next one is scheduled for Aug. 29 at Hozho Healing in Green Bay. It costs $20 to attend. The couple also offers private sessions.
Craig Fletcher, owner of Mona Rose Winery, describes Champion as a “spiritual person,” entrepreneur, business partner and friend. The two have known each other for eight years.
“He’s easy to communicate and work with,” Fletcher said. “We’ve never had any issues. He’s fantastic.”
It was because of Rachel, a massage therapist and herbalist, that Champion became interested in ancient Eastern medicine and techniques like sound healing.
The couple met more than 14 years ago, when he visited the salon where she worked to get his hair braided.
“We just kind of connected, our energies connected,” Rachel said. “He is my best friend, my partner, always there for me 24/7.”
At the time, Champion worked as a butcher at Copps Food Center in Green Bay, and he would bring cooked steaks for her and the other stylists.
“Everyone at the salon loved him for that,” she joked.
She believes they are very much alike, especially in terms of energy and work load: Both always looking forward, finding the next business idea or charity event.
His own success, he now schedules eight or nine private dinners or cooking classes per month, allows him to give back to the community.
He has been involved in many charity events in the past seven years, helping to raise over $150,000 for over 100 charities, including The Giving Tree in Howard, Janesville school district’s “Bags of Hope” and St. John’s Ministries homeless shelters in Green Bay.
Champion said he understands where he comes from and how he has grown over the years. He wants to pass along everything he has learned, from cooking, to caring for your mind and body through food and alternative healing.
“I have a lot of knowledge I’ve gathered over the years to share,” he said.
Ariel Perez is a business reporter for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. You can reach him at [email protected] or view his Twitter profile at @Ariel_Perez85