On Wednesday’s Season 7 finale of the FOX culinary competition MasterChef, Las Vegas DJ Shaun O’Neale was crowned winner. He wowed Judges Gordon Ramsay and Christina Tossi, and guests judges Wolfgang Puck and Daniel Boulud with his three dishes: an appetizer of miso halibut cheeks with vadouvan carrot puree and pickled mushrooms; an entrée of ancho coffee-roasted venison loin with roasted chanterelles and smoked plums with a truffle demi-glaze; and a salted caramel chocolate tart for dessert. We spoke with the talented home cook about what’s next, what inspires him, and what the moment was like when Gordon Ramsay called his name.
Channel Guide Magazine: Congratulations on winning MasterChef.
Shaun O’Neale: Oh, thank you so much!
CG: Describe for me that moment when Gordon announced you as the winner.
Shaun: Pure joy. I mean, it was completely overwhelming. It’s such a long road to get to the end of the MasterChef competition. It was overwhelming joy, relief, you know, but it was absolutely the most amazing moment of my life, by a long shot.
Catch Shaun’s reaction to winning MasterChef here!
CG: Well, you were really pumped. What does this win mean to you?
Shaun: It means the world to me. I’ve loved food for so long and it’s been such an important part of my life. I’ve been so stuck in being a DJ. I’ve always been in the DJ booths for so long and I think that now it’s opened my eyes to the possibility that I have in the food world. I’m going to run with it. I can’t wait to see what comes next and what this journey is going to bring for me.
CG: When did you first believe that you had a chance to win the competition?
Shaun: My confidence built up through the competition. When I won my first mystery box, I knew that I had a really good shot to be here for a while — to stay in the competition for a while. I think when I won the second mystery box, I realized that I was definitely a force to be reckoned with and I had a really good shot.
CG: When you first started the competition and looked around at your fellow contestants, who was on your radar?
Shaun: To be honest, the first day we got to L.A., I sat down and shared a turkey sandwich with Brandi Mudd. I picked up that she was super-knowledgeable about food. That very first day that we were in L.A., I said, “Brandi Mudd, I bet you it’s going to be me and you in the finale.” I just had this weird feeling. Brandi, she’s an amazing cook. Her food is incredible. Then, I definitely- I had my eye on Tannoria [Askew]. Tannoria is an amazing cook also. And Terry [Mueller], Terry was a big threat. Terry, he just — I think the competition started wearing on him, but Terry was an amazing cook as well.
CG: What was your favorite challenge this season?
Shaun: Oh man, let’s see, actually it was the mystery box with 1 ingredient, when my mom was here. That was an absolute highlight. The season finale obviously, but the mystery box with the 1 ingredient where I got Parmesan cheese and my mom got to sit there and watch me cook in the MasterChef kitchen and it was me, Gordon Ramsay and Christina Tosi and Richard Blais. Richard Blais is somebody I look up to immensely. I’ve actually got to work with him in a DJ setting before. He was doing a cooking demo and I was actually DJing the event. So, having Richard there, my mom there and then winning that mystery box, it was the perfect storm and it was an amazing day.
CG: What’s a cooking challenge that you never want to re-live?
Shaun: There’s 2 of them. There’s the sausage challenge, which is odd because I make sausage all the time. At home, I love making sausage, but sausage is very touchy. Sometimes it’s good and then other times it’s very easy to mess up. But the main one is: I don’t ever want to see another tag team challenge. That’s off the list!
CG: Is your career as a DJ on hold while you explore life in the kitchen?
Shaun: It kind of is right now. I haven’t been working a whole lot over the past few months while the show has been going on. I’m definitely booking offers, but I kind of want to change what I’ve been doing in the DJ world. I’m getting older than I need to be for nightclub DJing. So, what I think I want to do is kind of do like food festivals around the country, where I could do a DJ set and do like a food demo and kind of bring both my loves together. I would say that the nightclub part of my career is definitely on hold and may possibly even be over.
CG: How long have you been interested in cooking?
Shaun: Pretty much all my life. Like, I’ve always kind of had an eye for it. I never really sat in the kitchen with my mom while she cooked, or my dad or anything like that, but pretty much as soon as I moved out on my own when I was 18 years old, I started cooking right away. I lived in a small town in North Carolina and I lived on the base of a mountain. The closest fast food was 45 minutes away. It was either I start cooking, or spend half my day driving just to get food.
CG: How do you describe your cooking style?
Shaun: I’d call it “Modern American with International Influences.” I needed a lot of modern techniques, a lot of modern ingredients, some off-the-wall stuff, but you know, America’s such a melting pot. No longer are hamburgers and fries just staple American food. Now, we use whatever ingredients we have access to, whether it be Asian or Italian inspired. It’s kind of like America, because we’re such a melting pot. In Italy, you’re kind of tied to the regional flavors that you have. In the U.S. we just cook with everything. We love it all, pretty much.
CG: You approached the finale with a “go big or go home” mentality. Can you explain the strategy and how you planned your winning dishes?
Shaun: Yeah. It was the season finale and it was the time to put myself on a plate. Throughout the competition, you’re cooking with ingredients that are given to you. You never really have the option to cook whatever you want. The mystery box — you’ve got to cook with whatever’s in there. So this was a chance for me to really put what I love to make and really put myself on a plate. I approached it as just, “I’m going to go as hard as a I can and try to put as much as I can in those hours.” It took lot of prepping before the competition. That’s absolutely the way I approached it.
CG: How many times do you think you made variations of the food, the halibut and the venison?
Shaun: [Laughs] Oh, a lot! You saw that they sent us home, so we had some time to practice. I probably made the venison dish a good 30 times. Luckily, my butcher is a very good friend of mine, so he helped me out by giving me some discounts. It would have made me go broke if he didn’t help. We had the venison probably a good 30 times and then we had the halibut cheeks, I would say probably about the same. The halibut cheeks, I actually had to order them from Alaska. They’re not that easy to find, so I had to actually have those sent in from Alaska to be able to practice with them.
CG: Wow. So you said that you would have gone broke without the help of your butcher friend. What are your plans for the $250,000 prize?
Shaun: Well, man, you know, I’ve been so busy with other stuff, I haven’t really thought about it a lot. But I know the biggest thing that I want to do is I want to travel. I want to get into Italy and get into like the small areas. I want to go to like a balsamic factory in Modena. I want to go to Parmesan factories. Really get into the nooks and crannies of Italy and Spain and France. I plan on doing like a trip to Europe for about 30 days. Then, I also really want to get to Southeast Asia — Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia. I feel like these are the ingredients and the flavors that I love, so I really need to go and dig in and really experience the culture in like the smallest settings. I really feel like I need to go and immerse myself in these cultures.
CG: You mentioned being thrilled about meeting Richard Blais and you just mentioned wanting to travel to Modena, home of the famed restaurant Osteria Francescana. Is there a superstar chef that you’re dying to meet and dying to work with?
Shaun: The people who were on the show were already a dream come true, but since I did say Modena, I have actually been quite obsessed with Massimo Bottura. He is just an amazingly creative dude. That’s one of the reasons I want to go to Modena is to go to Osteria Francescana. Then, obviously, Ferran Adrià and his brother Albert [At Spain’s elBulli restaurant]. They both just put out amazing stuff and they’re so creative. I kind of have a little bit of an obsession with molecular gastronomy. I’m still learning it but it’s just so creative to me. It’s just like a way they think about just changing textures and putting flavor and texture that couldn’t possibly work together. It’s just crazy.
CG: Another part of the prize package is a cookbook deal. Have you already thought about a title?
Shaun: Yeah. I do. I have a couple titles in mind. They’re kind of working titles, so I don’t know if I should talk about those right now.
CG: What kind of food will your cookbook highlight?
Shaun: What I want to do in the cookbook is, I plan on elevating home foods. I want to teach people how to make their standard weeknight meal into something special, with a couple little twists here and there. I did do more of the high end, fine dining on the show, so there’s absolutely going to be a little of that, but it’s all going to be stuff that’s accessible to the home cook. Fairly easy to prepare for the home cook, but I also put some recipes in there that’s going to push home cooks. I really want to try to get people out of their comfort zone while still keeping it familiar.
CG: What’s your advice to other home cooks who want to compete on MasterChef?
Shaun: Get your rest before you head out to L.A. because it is non-stop. It is adrenaline filled and pressure packed. I like to say, it’s like living in a constant state of fear and exhaustion, because you’re always tired and you never know what’s coming next. You never know. They do such a good job of keeping you on your toes. So, come prepared, come ready to put your heart and soul out on the plate, because it opens up a world of emotions. I’ve never been much of a crier, but I cried probably 10 times during the season.
CG: Awesome. Sean, thank you so much. Congratulations. Your win is definitely well deserved and we can’t wait to see what you do next.
Shaun: Oh, thank you very much. It’s been an honor talking with you.
CG: Have a great day.
If you’re already feeling Gordon Ramsay withdrawal, you can catch a new season of Hell’s Kitchen beginning Sept. 23 at 8pm ET/PT on FOX.