Over the past few decades, the relationship between food and music has grown closer. Restaurants are more concerned with the soundtracks of their dining rooms. Nightclubs and dayclubs frequently have sister eateries. And some chefs have even been known to host their own DJ sets. So since few cities excel at both nightlife and dining quite like Las Vegas, it should come as no surprise that Shaun O’Neale—the club DJ who was crowned MasterChef on the September 14 finale of Gordon Ramsay’s hit series of the same name—hails from here.
As unlikely as it seems, O’Neale’s love of manning a stove and manning the decks developed concurrently. He grew up in North Carolina, where he began DJing in the late ’90s, earning spending money by working in restaurants as a line cook and dishwasher. It was his music career that brought him to Las Vegas, by way of Florida. But along the way, O’Neale learned that the growing group of revelers coming out to hear him also wanted to be fed. And in those early days, that was a strictly DIY endeavor.
“I’ve always just loved cooking for friends and family,” O’Neale says. “Throwing big house parties eventually kind of leads into cooking food. At first, it started off with just some cold-ass burgers on the grill.” But moving to Las Vegas forced O’Neale to up his game on both the DJ and the cooking fronts.
On the local club scene, O’Neale has been spinning tunes for Light Group and later Hakkasan Group for seven years. In the meantime, his eyes were opened to new levels of dining because, as he puts it, “the restaurants in Vegas are second to none.”
“Just driving around Vegas, every other billboard’s a beautiful plate of food. On every other taxi is a beautiful plate of food. So I really wanted to start re-creating those things at home.”
He developed those skills in a way that will be familiar to many home chefs: He ate out more. He began collecting and reading cookbooks. And he tried to mimic his restaurant experiences in the kitchen. But it was a meeting with celebrity chef Richard Blais that really convinced him to kick things into a higher gear. Blais was booked for a cooking demo at a food event where O’Neale had been hired to DJ, and the two hit it off.
“This dude is so passionate, and he thought the way I did,” O’Neale says. “He wanted to keep traditions, but modernize them—respecting traditions, but using new techniques.” That meeting inspired O’Neale to begin experimenting with modern scientific cooking concepts such as molecular gastronomy.
Shortly thereafter, however, the chef took a trip to Italy that opened his eyes to an almost polar opposite cooking philosophy. “Before [Italy], I wanted to overcomplicate things,” he says. “But now I simplify things, but using newer techniques. Italy completely opened my eyes to using the best ingredients. Now, my days are usually filled with going to Asian markets and trying to bounce around farmers markets.”
Despite his growing love of food, the chef is the first to admit that he originally saw MasterChef, at least in part, as a way to shine a spotlight on his DJ career. But he says his success and his experience working with host Gordon Ramsay (whom he describes as “an inspiring dude”) have made him rethink his priorities.
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop DJing, but I’m going to be more selective of what I’ll do,” O’Neale says, looking forward. “I love the people in the [nightlife] industry—most of them. But it’s all politics these days. Food is a little more real, and I’m definitely going to investigate my options.”
The first step in that direction is a collaboration with MasterChef for a new dining series called EatWith. The series allows fans to eat food prepared by their favorite contestants either in their homes or at other locales. Details for O’Neale’s dinner haven’t been announced yet, but they’ll be posted shortly at EatWith.com/MasterChef. And odds are, that dinner will come with a damn good soundtrack.
Delicious Musical Pairings
As a longtime Las Vegas DJ, America’s newest MasterChef is uniquely qualified to pair music and food. So we asked Shaun O’Neale to name his favorite restaurants and tell us what music he would offer if hired to provide their soundtracks.
Gordon Ramsay Steak – Spending a season shooting with TV’s notorious culinary bad boy, Gordon Ramsay, only served to increase O’Neale’s respect for the chef. And his former judge’s steakhouse in Paris Las Vegas is O’Neale’s favorite place for good beef. For its soundtrack, he’d go with European tech house, “something very rhythmic and sexy.”
Jaleo or Julian Serrano – When he’s in the mood for small plates, the new MasterChef is torn between these two Spanish tapas restaurants. But whichever he chooses on a given evening, he’s confident the meal would go best with “sexy vocal Spanish music, something very low key and maybe even acoustic.”
Sage – Shawn McClain’s elegant Aria restaurant with its Prohibition-era feel is the most formal spot on O’Neale’s list of favorite restaurants. To go with the American cuisine, O’Neale says he’d be sure to include “some of Pepper’s slower songs” and “slower songs by Iration.”