Chef Ace 'Championing' His Unique Style of Cooking
Embracing Wisconsin Ingredients
There was a nice crowd that gathered around Chef Ace Champion as he began his presentation at July’s Cherry De-Lite Festival at Country Ovens in Forestville. It was hard to determine if the draw was for Champion or the dessert he planned to prepare – Cherry Cream Apple Pie with Moscato Caramel Rum Sauce.
Initially, all bets might have been on the pie, but it didn’t take long for the easy-going Champion to win over the group with his own sweet and tangy demonstration. It’s the same appeal reflected in the growth of his Chef Champion syndicated television series that has spread to nine stations in four states in a matter of months.
It’s a culinary carnival show of sorts as the Louisiana-born Champion blends his Cajun-infused recipes with a little Wisconsin humor capped off by some pretty impressive carving skills.
And, by the way, the name is only partially staged. His real last name is Champion while the nickname came from the baseball diamond.
“It all started in high school,” Champion explained. “I was the No. 1 pitcher on the baseball team which made me the ace pitcher. Oddly, the name went so well with my last name that it stuck like glue. Being Ace Champion meant living up to the name so in a way it has made me better at everything I do.”
Champion has literally climbed every rung of the ladder to achieve the level of celebrity he currently enjoys.
“I started off washing dishes at a truck stop in Louisiana. I moved up here to better myself,” he says matter-of-factly. “I wanted to open a restaurant.”
He now lives in the Green Bay area but admitted to the audience in Forestville that for all the area’s beauty, “nobody told me about the winters.”
That dream of a restaurant has given way to a more mission-driven pursuit that he expounds through the television program, personal appearances, cooking classes and work as a private chef.
“Right now I just want people to be eating real food,” he said. “It’s the only way. I’m a different kind of chef; not a veggies and salad chef. I promote regular food, not fake food.”
If you are a little confused, Champion explains, “If it’s sugar it comes from a cane. Let’s eat food that was alive.”
Champion is a graduate of the Accelerated Culinary Arts and Applied Science program at Fox Valley Tech and while he has five culinary certifications, “I would say a great part of my education comes from being self-taught which in some cases is the best teacher,” he said.
To set himself apart he has infused the New Orleans flavors he grew up on with Wisconsin staples – like butter.
“When I was in Kohler giving a demonstration I knew I was in Wisconsin when I got a round of applause for butter,” he said, producing a laugh from those gathered in Forestville.
Champion embraces the state’s “dairyland” brand and insists the varied use of dairy products in his recipes doesn’t automatically make them unhealthy.
He maintains that, “You can have what you want, just don’t get greedy. It’s all about proportions.”
Champion provided a first-hand look at his approach when he constructed the cherry-cream apple pie.
“Do you have to put cream cheese in this recipe? Of course you do!” he exclaimed as a big smile spread across his face. Nobody under the tent objected.
“The fact is that no one really has had this type of food,” he said, referring to the blending of regional ingredients and cooking styles. “We know now that the only way we can truly dictate what ingredients go into our body is if we put them together ourselves.”
And nobody said it couldn’t have some timesaving elements mixed in. At Forestville, he began with ready-made pie crust and his knife skills first appeared when it came time to cut up the apples.
Champion explains that his knife skills are a combination of American and Japanese techniques.
“I have been cutting for over 20 years,” said Champion, a certified meat cutter having mastered over 700 cuts of numerous proteins. And the skill extends even further, evident in the decorative work he did after his recipe presentation.
“I was not only able to master my muscle memory to cut the way I do, I am also able to cut blind-folded without really missing a beat.”
One observant pie-baker in the audience noticed that he hadn’t peeled the apples before cutting them.
“When you’re eating an apple do you peel it?” Champion asked. “Same said for caramel apples.”
So while the recipe contains elements of a caramel apple, the cherries offer a flavor of Door County and the cream cheese a uniquely Wisconsin touch. The recipe is laced with molasses and the rum in the caramel sauce brings Champion back home as a finishing touch when drizzled over the pie.
A non-alcoholic beverage can be substituted, a point Champion stressed after a significantly underage observer claimed the unbaked pie after his mother won it in an auction.
No matter what you make, Champion feels the most important ingredient comes from within.
“Try cooking with a positive energy,” he stresses to the few dozen people at Forestville. “Concentrate only on what you want to happen.”
He does this while trying to carve the one finished pie into as small pieces as possible to feed those gathered. “I need to tap my inner Jesus,” he jokes, referencing the far greater multitude gathered for Christ’s famous sermon and miracle that carried into dinnertime.
On his website chefchampion.com you’ll not only find Champion’s unique recipes but the transcript from a motivational speech he gave at Fox Valley Technical College he feels every cook needs.
“Just tell yourself you can and allow good, positive energy to flow through your veins. Focus on the task at hand and watch how your subconscious mind will unfold step after step until you reach your goal,” is the mission he professes online.
“I understand that cooking is not easy and comes with a lot of expectations, but we will get through the pain to experience the victory. There’s some people who say they can cook and there’s some that say they can’t and most of the time they’re usually right. That’s not us because we choose to learn to be better.”
Again at Forestville, Champion stresses that “if you aren’t burning or cutting yourself, you’re not cooking.”
But he insists you’ll get through all the burns, cuts and stress that may occur and know, just like anything else, ifyou never quityou will become better.