There are certain reliable signs that fall is on the way. Nothing in the weather department, of course, but other markers that usher in the celebratory final months of the year. One of those things is the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, which happens annually in Orlando, seemingly longer and more jam-packed with food each year. This year's event is no exception: It starts next week, on Aug. 31, and runs through Nov. 13.
Kicking off a new event during the festival's opening weekend is Shaun O'Neale, a self-taught chef who won MasterChef Season 7 and has ties to Tampa, living and working here as a DJ before getting into food full-time.
O'Neale, who now lives in Las Vegas, is the first chef lined up for What's Cookin' With, a breakfast event that features celebrity chefs. (Select Fridays and Sundays during the festival. 200 Epcot Center Drive, Orlando. (407) 939-3378. $129 per guest.) He's slated for Sept. 3; the following weeks feature chefs like Alex Guarnaschelli and Graham Elliot.
I chatted with O'Neale by phone recently about his path to cooking and what it's like to be a festival first-timer.
Tell us about your time in Tampa.
I was there from 2002 to 2008, as a resident DJ at Floyd's Night Club at the Hard Rock Cafe. Plus I DJ'd all over the city. I worked at one restaurant during that time, too, up in New Tampa, it was called Sammy's Frogs, from the owners of 717 South. That was one of the few kitchen jobs that I've had; I worked there for about a year.
When did you start cooking?
I moved out of my house when I was 17 and up to North Carolina, and lived on top of a mountain. I either had to drive 45 minutes to get McDonald's or cook for myself. So I did lot of fancied up ramen — I'd boil eggs, chop peppers and all sorts of toppings — the same kind of stuff that is becoming so popular at ramen places now. I was ahead of the curve, I just didn't know it. I always had a passion for cooking at home.
This is your first year as a chef at the Food and Wine Festival. Have you ever been before?
No, actually. In May we went to the Flower and Garden Festival, but I haven't been to this one. My girlfriend is a Disney nut, she collects Epcot souvenir plates. I do have a connection with Epcot. I lived in Gainesville when I was real young, so I got my first taste of Disney then. I was born in April 1982, and we have pictures of me at Epcot as a baby in December 1982 (the year the park first opened). So we go way back. I'm getting goosebumps just talking about it.
What will you be cooking at the festival?
I'll be making a squid ink ravioli, with black squid ink in the pasta dough. I'll also be showing guests how to make a recipe for a basic pasta dough.
What was more intimidating: cooking for Gordon Ramsay or coming to the Disney festival?
Stepping into the Disney brand is intimidating. You definitely want to be at the top of your game. But I've lived through Gordon Ramsay's fire. So I think I'll be okay.