Chef Shawn McClain has gained James Beard Awards recognition with multiple nominations and a win throughout his career. The stand-out chef brings his culinary magic and experience-cultivating knack to Las Vegas at Balla Italian Soul located inside of Sahara Las Vegas. I caught up with McClain to dive deeper into what has merited his success with his many restaurants over the years, what excites him regarding the culinary industry, his intentions with his new restaurant opening as well as his values in life.
Q: Can you recall the very moment that you were first informed of your James Beard Award nomination in 2002, that was the first time you were ever nominated, correct? How did it feel and what was going through your mind?
A: It was surreal! I was in Chicago at the time. Within our industry there's just certain things that stand out in terms of recognition and that one is definitely a huge one.
My restaurant was nominated at the time for best new restaurant and made it to top five. I went to New York and lost to Craft. That was the same year Nobu opened; pretty impressive people to be mingling with at the time.
I have so much respect for the foundation and what they do for food culture, education and charity. Bringing a lot of the hard work and dedication to an entertainment spotlight…I applaud them for doing that.Various dishes offered at Balla Italian Soul
Q: What qualities do you think the James Beard Foundation recognized in you and your work that led them to nominate you multiple times and grant you Best Chef Award in 2006?
A: A style of cooking and not only bringing a recipe, a dish or ingredient to life but bringing the entire experience to life or else if one part of it gets lost and the recognition gets blurry. I was able to bring something new at the time…whether it is details, dedication, hard work, all those things that are ultimately a huge must in this industry to get from open to close in a day.
I think ultimately it is dedication and focus. I got married late and had kids late and it helped. The industry is so demanding; to go through late teens, 20’s and 30’s, families are a commitment and restaurants are an equally big commitment. My focus was on the food everyday.
Q: What are you most excited about regarding the opening of Balla Italian Soul?
A: This process post-pandemic and the supply chain was a much longer arduous process to get to the starting line. To galvanize the design, the food and the first couple of weeks when all the pieces came together was a really exciting time.Front exterior view of Balla Italian Soul inside of Sahara Las Vegas
Ultimately, Sahara [Las Vegas] has a lot to show off. There’s a lot of stuff going on and transformation of the property. We are welcoming people, friends, family, industry and influencers to introduce them to Balla…to entice them to come back for the full experience.
Q: What is your favorite item to prepare on the Balla Menu and why?
A: It’s always a balance between cooking and directing. I like to be part of the process and an onlooker. I love to be in the kitchen; I am more comfortable there than anywhere else. It depends on my mood and time for me to pick things that are my favorite. The pastas are really special and showcase a great snapshot [of our capabilities and offerings].Cappelletti pasta dish center from Balla Italian Soul
We have a complete respect of Italian tradition and culture yet looking at our regional influence with raw, fresh ingredients and bringing those to life. I look at them from an artisan point of view, from scratch. Balla is all about bright and fresh, not necessarily overly layered or heavy.
Q: Are there any menu items on the Balla menu that are new to you or that you have never had on a menu before? What made you decide to include those items and what about them stands out to you?
A: 80% is new; we have dabbled. Italian food has always been a repertoire of American cooking I've done at Sage. In terms of composition, how we are putting the materials together top to bottom is all new for us; that's the fun part.
Q: What is the number one dish you are most comfortable making?
A: For a non-Balla dish the Foie gras brulee from Sage; that's something I started from Sage in the mid 90’s. I still hear countless memories from that dish from peers.
It's always great to hear how much they miss the dish. Someday it will return. We do a version of it in Michigan currently and in Vegas we need to find a home for it for sure.Prime bone-in ribeye center dish from Balla Italian Soul
For a Balla dish...I love working the grill...any of the whole roasted fish, beautiful meats on the grill. I love that feeling of live fuel and fire cooking.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced in your culinary career thus far and how did you overcome it?
A: It's probably COVID and the post-COVID world. There's always challenges and always things that push you but to combine and stack on top of each other every single one of them within a 30 month period. There is a dynamic of change within the industry. There's not the wealth of participation that there once was.
People are looking for new and different paths. Our business is hands-on and dependent on people who want to learn the craft.; it's important to invest in those people and retain them.
There's the cost of resources and a lot of pressure now. The business is as hard as it ever was and rewarding as it ever was.
Q: What is some of the best advice you have ever received or could give to others regarding business and or the culinary career path?
A: We started with a mission early. It’s long hours and hard work but we always want to have an atmosphere that feels like family. I have retained a lot of people within my sphere because they see that and support that vision. At the end of the day we take care of each other; that has always been huge to me.Balla Italian Soul table spread of dishes with menu
Q: What inspires you?
A: My parents prior to me being in this world lived in Sicily then went on to live in Spain. They spent eight to nine years in Europe. It permeated my childhood oddly enough in everything but cooking.
My parents, bless their hearts, were really bad cooks. They loved European culture. The way they talked about dining and the European approach to food are the ways that America was late to adopt but now we are catching up to. I am fond of their awareness of living overseas. It left an impression on me and my love for cooking with that respect.
Photography by: By Bronson Loftin; Courtesy of Balla Italian Soul