Jason Champagne grew up dreaming of being the best chef in the world.
He built a solid foundation under those dreams, working in construction after graduating high school to save money. He attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts at Brown College in Minnesota and then went to work at Disney World as a chef.
But in the midst of using his talents to feed hundreds, even thousands, of people, Champagne lost his drive. And losing enthusiasm at a stressful job working 100 hours a week left him uncertain about his future.
"I got to the point in my life where I'm cooking for volume — but am I really helping anyone?" said Champagne, who is originally from Baldwin.
One night, cooking a 2,000-person steak and lobster dinner, Champagne knew he'd lost sight of his original goals to cook and connect with people. He decided to return to school, attending the University of North Dakota and earning his master's in public health nutrition.
As an American Indian and a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, Champagne knew he wanted to work in a role that would let him be a role model in his community. He formed a business, Jason The Native Chef, that offers cooking, nutrition and food safety classes.
Champagne wants to be a mentor for youths and teach health, nutrition and how to cook good food in American Indian communities throughout the country.
"I want them to know my story. I want them to know that hey I worked construction five years out of high school because I had the lowest grades out of everybody," he said. "People don’t realize that I did have a good family, but I didn’t excel in school because I thought I didn’t have it up here." (He pointed to his head.)
His success in working as a chef, then in attaining his master's of public health degree will hopefully inspire youths to seek out their dreams, Champagne said.
And the cooking classes will help to improve health on reservations throughout the country.
Nutrition is an important topic for communities that grapple with poorer health outcomes than most other racial or ethnic groups. Data collected by the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps show a significant disparity in things like poor or fair health, poor mental health and premature death.
In the premature death stats, for instance, which show the years of potential life lost before age 75 as a rate per 100,000 in population, Kansas whites lost 6,700 years and Hispanics lose 5,000 years. But African-Americans lose 10,600 years and American Indians/Alaskan Natives lose 11,800 years.
Health food choice
The numbers are no surprise to family physician Dee Ann DeRoin, who is a member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and is active in working to better the health of American Indians. She is active in the the four tribes in Kansas, the Southern Plains Tribal Health Board and as part of the Association of American Indian Affairs.
Work like what Champagne is doing pleases DeRoin, who is intimately familiar with the havoc diabetes, heart disease and other health problems exacerbated by poor diet and lack of exercise wreak on native communities. It's a big subject to tackle, she said.
"The first thing you do is you have to make healthier foods available," DeRoin said. "You have to give people an opportunity to taste healthy food, prepared different ways because not everybody likes everything the same way. And you have to make it economical and you have to help them learn how to prepare it themselves, and how to introduce it to their reluctant families."
Many Indian reservations are challenged by food deserts, she said, or areas where residents don't have nearby access to grocery stores.
"I think if you look at the four reservations, the closest grocery store to any one of them is five miles," DeRoin said.
Working with the Association of American Indian Physicians a few years ago on a diabetes project, DeRoin explored the grocery store near the Kansas Kickapoo tribe.
"I went to that grocery store, and you could not get whole-grain bread, you could not get yogurt that did not have sugar or corn syrup in it," she said. "Even if there is a grocery store, because the communities are not demanding it they may not have the healthier choice on their shelves."
Through his work, Champagne knows that many people are unfamiliar with how to prepare vegetables and other healthy foods. In addition, many assume they won't be tasty, especially if they don't have salt, he said.
But making changes in diet can be life-changing, he added.
"In my mind, food is medicine," Champagne said. "I am a perfect example. I was very unhealthy at one point in my life and lost like 50 pounds and got off all my medications for diabetes because I was eating fresh vegetables on a consistent basis. I was exercising, and I was drinking a lot of water, and I didn't drink alcohol. I know this food cures."
In two years time, Champagne went from being on numerous medications to taking none.
In his presentations, he tends to focus on preparing vegetable dishes.
"I share how to cook it, how to present it, how to make it taste good, how to incorporate colors, incorporating art into food," he said. "I stress it a lot that people eat with their eyes. If you can get a plate to look really nice — it doesn’t matter how it tastes — you have a person over 60 percent of the way that they’re going to like it."
Plate presentation counts, and it's something many people don't consider.
"I’ve had so many people come up to me after my presentation and say: 'Thank you. I needed to see that. I did not know I could use fresh basil and fresh oregano like that. I didn’t know vegetables tasted so good without salt, with fresh lime juice or fresh lemon juice,'" Champagne said. "A lot of people leave my presentations able and confident that they’ve seen it done, that they can do it at home. And I show them that it’s cost effective as well."
"Another thing I always tell people in my presentations is if your body could talk right now, if your digestive system could talk, it would say thank you," he said. "It’s like an engine running low on oil. Your body needs those nutrients. The more you give it to it, it’s just like medicine."
Force of energy
Champagne, who is quiet but passionate one-on-one, becomes a force of energy during his cooking presentations.
"It’s not just Jason’s personality and it’s not just the knowledge he imparts or the skill that he uses to impart it," DeRoin said. "It’s the pride in having this Native man bring these skills to our community.
And he loves working with young people, children and adolescents."
Working with Native American children ages 5 to 13 at Boys and Girls Clubs in the summer of 2018, Champagne said, was a joy. He had the children yelling out in unison, responding to questions like "What is a garnish?" and "Why do we want food to look good?"
"I think it’s very important to be an example. If I had my dream, I would see more Native American chefs who have a culinary and a public health or nutrition background doing these community demonstrations like I’m doing," he said.
Although there is a push in American Indian communities to return to a more traditional way of preparing foods, Champagne said his presentations focus on making healthier choices with what is available, accessible and even how to be more healthy with the foods distributed as part of U.S. programs to support low-income families. Those foods, he said, are often high in carbohydrates.
"Yeah, in a perfect world, we’d have venison running around and we’d have bison, and we’d be hunters and gatherers and we’d have plenty of berries and nuts to go gather," he said. "I look at it practically, reality. How can we incorporate some of our native foods back into it, but more of looking at using contemporary dishes, incorporating partial traditional foods if possible, but focusing more on plate presentation and portion control."
Portion control, for example, is "huge," he said. Native American communities get a lot of pasta as part of the U.S. commodities programs. Champagne works to teach people how much is a healthy portion size of pasta and then how to expand that meal by adding zucchini, squash, fresh garlic and other vegetables.
Whenever Champagne talks about food or nutrition, his voice fills with energy and his enthusiasm is palpable. For someone who says he really doesn't like public speaking, doing food presentations is almost an "out of body" experience, he said.
"I can be up there for 45 minutes to an hour and literally, I don’t remember much of the last because I’m speaking from the heart. This other personality comes out that is energetic and enthusiastic, getting people making them laugh, telling stories as I cook, keeping them excited, keeping the whole atmosphere fun," he said.
Although passionate about food, Champagne is a little concerned about running his own business. He's not a marketer at heart, and that quieter personality tends to assert itself. But he's building a reputation throughout the country and being invited to speak and present at more and more events.
He's motivated to help people change their eating habits, and to have an impact on the American Indian communities.
"I go to a lot of these conferences. People are up there saying we need to come together right now. We need to start doing this for our kids, and then the next year it’s the same thing. We need to come together right now," he said. "We need probably more people who are doing what I’m doing. I’m here, I’m ready."