“Healing is the most important ingredient in Native American cooking,” says chef Jason Champagne, a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and current MPH candidate in public health nutrition. “Indigenous foods are a path to health and a way for us to recover our communities.”
At age seven, Champagne taught himself to cook by watching TV chefs after school. By age eight, he would prepare a full dinner and set the table before his parents returned from work. After high school, Champagne started working in construction and saved enough to go to Le Cordon Bleu culinary arts program in Minneapolis. He landed a plum job after graduation with Walt Disney World and was quickly promoted.
“But one night, after a successful 3,000 person steak and lobster dinner, I realized I’d had enough,” Champagne says. “My work was focused on quantity and production, and I realized I’d lost sight of why I’d entered a culinary career—to cook and connect with people. So I decided to finish my education and work in a field where I could do both.” Champagne was awarded a scholarship to the University of North Dakota and graduated with a degree in nutrition and Native American studies.
“Throughout the research I did for my nutrition degree, I kept coming across papers authored by Dr. Mary Story and was captivated by her work in obesity and diabetes,” he says. “So I emailed her and she encouraged me to apply for an MPH.”
Champagne began his MPH studies at the School of Public Health in fall 2011. He is a Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Scholar and is a candidate for a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant that will help fund his work in diabetes and obesity prevention. This past summer his field experience included an internship with the Chickasaw Nation in Ada, Oklahoma. He consulted with participants of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), taught nutrition classes, and developed healthy recipes for the Chickasaw Medical Center Cafe.
In November 2012, Champagne was a presenter at the Native American Culinary Association Indigenous Food Culture Conference. “Five-hundred years ago, we Natives were expert farmers, hunters, gatherers, fishermen, and cooks,” Champagne says. “These activities will make us healthy again.”
Champagne is currently teaching nutrition and cooking classes at several Native American outreach organizations and is a volunteer cook for homeless Native Americans at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. “I focus on portion size and whole foods, showing how to make healthy food taste good and look good within a tight budget,” he says.
And this summer, he’ll head the cooking program and work with youth at Dream of Wild Health, a 10 acre, Native-owned organic farm in Hugo, Minnesota.
“I hope that traditional foods will become the everyday foods for Native Americans,” Champagne says. “I dream of having a traditional Native American food truck that serves our ancestors’ food, not the fry-bread and tacos at today’s powows. Why not serve rack bread—a flat bread cooked over an open fire,—bison burgers, wild rice, fresh fried fish? Real foods. Real fun.”