I’m Bill Pickett, and welcome back to LGP’s blog, Homegrown in the Heart! Today’s a special day as we get to focus on the good people of the Yakima Valley in the heart of Washington, their love for this valley, and the wonderful acts of service they do for our community. With me today is Shawn Niles, also known as The Fat Pastor. He’s a homegrown guy who’s gone around the world, loving people with his creations in food and the culinary arts.

We discuss:

  • Meet Shawn Niles | An Intro to The Fat Pastor of Yakima
  • The Bucket List | MasterChef & Meeting Gordon Ramsay
  • The Birth of “The Fat Pastor”
  • Heart to Heart | Shawn’s Family, Legacy & Legend
  • What’s Next for The Fat Pastor of Yakima?

Meet Shawn Niles | An Intro to The Fat Pastor of Yakima

Shawn is a homegrown, Yakima pastor turned professional chef. He has been on MasterChef cooking for Gordon Ramsay; his son Asher is even following in his footsteps, recently going on MasterChef Junior. Shawn has also gotten to cook for one of the top chefs in the world, Massimo Boturra. Already, Shawn’s life has been full of incredible opportunities with deep connections to the Yakima Valley.

Early Life & Education

“My hope, my goal, my dream is to be able to take the opportunities I’ve had, and to see them make a difference here in Yakima.”

Shawn Niles

Shawn was born and raised in the Yakima Valley. He’s the happy accident of his family as the youngest child with siblings who are significantly older; his closest sibling in age is another brother who’s 12 years older.

Shawn’s early education began locally at Castlevale Elementary, which was its final year of operation. He transferred over to Robertson for the remainder of his early education before attending Wilson Middle School, and then graduating from Eisenhower High School.

Shawn recalled growing up that there were limited culinary options in Yakima. He has fond memories of dining at JB’s with his family and enjoying Pioneer Pies. Both establishments unfortunately no longer exist here.

Despite the culinary limitations of his youth, Shawn recalls his childhood fondly, largely due to the positive influences of his parents. His father owned and operated Niles Auto Body, a business known for its trustworthy and quality service. His mother contributed significantly to the local education sector, most notably through her work with the GED program, teaching in the Yakima School District, and later at the Yakima Valley College.

Entering Ministry & the World of Cooking

Shawn comes from a lineage of skilled cooks. His great-grandmother was known for her exceptional, country-style cuisine, cooking for loggers – a task essential for maintaining the morale and cohesion for timber camps. But Shawn’s culinary prowess wasn’t limited to just one side of the family. Both grandparents on his paternal side were also accomplished cooks; his grandfather was a military cook aboard ships, and his father grew up in Alabama, eventually bringing some of that rich, southern heritage cooking to Yakima.

After high school, Shawn embarked on a path toward ministry, a calling he felt deeply. He pursued ministerial licenses through some short-term schooling and college before moving to New Jersey. There, he moved in with a medical doctor and experienced Indian cuisine like naan and curries for the first time. There was also a gentleman from Italy who made amazing homemade pasta and sauces.

In New Jersey, Shawn met his future wife, who hailed from Trinidad in the Caribbean, further expanding his culinary horizons. He and his wife later moved to the rainiest city in the United States: Hilo, Hawaii – where people absolutely love to cook.

But while in Hawaii, Shawn’s father passed away in 2005. Though Hawaii had a lot to offer, Shawn and his wife decided to return to Yakima in 2006. Yet, it was during these adventures and culinary explorations that Shawn truly embraced bringing people together through the power of food and faith.

“I didn’t really think about cooking from a professional perspective. I just thought, “I love food, I love cooking for people, and people are cooking for me.” It was so much fun. The best conversations I’d have as a pastor were around the table. Cooking felt like an easy thing to push to the side and enjoy as a hobby. But never thought that it would be something I’d do professionally.”

shawn Niles

The Bucket List | MasterChef & Meeting Gordon Ramsay

Around 2009, Shawn and his wife decided to prayerfully make a bucket list and ask, “What are some of the things we want to do before we die?” One of the things Shawn listed was cooking for Gordon Ramsay, no small feat.

Meeting Gordon Ramsay and Being on MasterChef

In 2016, Shawn’s niece – a chef in Portland – convinced him to try out for MasterChef, reminding him that it was on “The Bucket List.” Though he initially made some excuses, Shawn ended up making the drive to Portland with a friend. He tried out for the show and was cooking for Gordon Ramsay on MasterChef six months later!

While Shawn didn’t win, he received exceptionally high praise from Gordon Ramsay:

“Shawn, I really didn’t think this was going to work. But you killed it. This is some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten in my life!”

Gordon Ramsay

Shawn described the experience of being on MasterChef as incredible. Being a minister, he had feared the show might portray him negatively, but to Shawn’s surprise, they pitted him against another minister. His competition was a woman from the South, who later became good friends with the Niles family.

They were tasked with making fried chicken; she made classic, southern fried chicken, and Shawn opted to make the Hawaiian version, calling back to his time there.

Though the other judges voted against Shawn, Gordon fought for him; it was a life changing experience. Before MasterChef, Shawn hadn’t considered cooking as anything more than a hobby or an extension of his ministry.

“Afterward, Gordon looked at me and said, “Shawn, it’s clear that you’re born to serve your community, but it’s also clear that you’re born to cook – don’t stop!” That was life-changing for me. That was when something that had only been a passion on the side all of a sudden started to make me wonder, “Could I actually do this? If Gordon Ramsay says you’re born to cook, maybe that’s worth considering…

Shawn Niles

The Power of Words

Shawn often tells his son, “Words create worlds,” meaning the way we express ourselves can completely transform someone’s life. I think that’s absolutely biblical and true: we can speak words of death, or we can speak words of life.

It’s amazing when somebody pours words of life into you. We can all think of instances in our own lives where someone took the time to speak positively into us, and sometimes it comes from the strangest places or when you least expect it. Words of life are an infusion of goodness.

Shawn got to go back to where it all started when his son Asher began competing on MasterChef Junior. Everything seemed to come full circle, and he even got to see Gordon Ramsay again. Shawn told Gordon how meaningful and life-changing his praise had been seven years ago, and Gordon replied:

“Shawn, I’ll never forget you, and I’ll never forget what you made for me. It was some of the best that I’ve ever had. To see your son here is incredible. Congratulations!”

Gordon Ramsay

The Birth of “The Fat Pastor”

I was curious about how Shawn got the moniker, “The Fat Pastor.” The issue of “fat bias” or “weight bias” in today’s society is a contentious one. As lawyers, it’s so important for us to avoid this bias, especially when representing clients who may be perceived negatively in this regard. However, Shawn has embraced the concept of “The Fat Pastor” and even turned it into a brand. We discussed how he developed this unique identity.

The Fat is Where the Flavor Is

Shawn decided to adopt the name “The Fat Pastor” primarily as a marketing strategy, aimed at capturing attention while also imparting meaning. The name was both intriguing and generated engagement.

But the philosophy behind Shawn’s brand emphasizes that fat is the real source of a food’s flavor. For instance, the richness and taste of a steak are significantly enhanced by the fat melting into it during grilling. In the culinary world, a steak’s quality is often judged by its marbling – the fat.

Around the world in other cultures, fat is celebrated for its contributions to vibrancy, vitality, and even health. Contrary to some beliefs, certain diets advocate that fat is beneficial, focusing on moderation and the context of consumption rather than outright avoidance. Despite its potential negative connotations, “fat” doesn’t need to be viewed disparagingly.

Heart to Heart | Shawn’s Family, Legacy & Legend

I’ve previously mentioned that as lawyers, we always want to talk about our successes, but we seldom seem to willingly talk about our failures. I really believe that law is a service-oriented profession, and I think we can learn and humble ourselves so much when we evaluate where we fall short.

Priority One | Putting Your Family First

When Shawn participated in MasterChef, he had already founded a church and been actively involved in it for about a year. Upon returning from the show, Shawn faced uncertainty about his future direction, feeling a strong commitment to both his ministry and his church.

Despite continuing as a pastor, his culinary endeavors grew increasingly successful, creating a challenging balance between his responsibilities. This struggle placed strain on himself, his family, and his church community, leading him to question whether he was dedicating too much to one area at the expense of others.

Eventually, Shawn reached a critical point where the demands of the culinary world proved overwhelming, and he recognized the need to prioritize. He made a difficult decision to step back from formal ministry to focus on his family, who had been receiving less and less of his attention.

“I was on the verge of losing my family because I had not put them first. Not on purpose, but just in allowing life to take over. We were so successful in that season – too successful – and I think that favor in the wrong season without the right character will crush you. I literally thank God that I had the opportunity to fix it, but that meant we had to back off from a number of things. Definitely the biggest failure that I can see in my life was allowing my family to almost be ripped out of my hands, and by my own doing.”

Shawn Niles

While it was a hard choice, Shawn realized that his passion for ministry was intrinsic to his identity, regardless of his profession. His love for people and his desire to make a positive impact locally has remained unchanged. Through food, Shawn is aiming to enhance lives and minister to those around him.

Yakima is his congregation.

Watching Asher Niles on MasterChef Junior

Fortunately, we are more than just our failures. Shawn admitted that while it sounded a little cheesy or cliche, he was most excited and proud of his son Asher, who just competed in MasterChef Junior.

“As far as my family goes, seeing my son become a confident, excited, go-getter, young man is incredible! This confidence that I’ve seen developing in him since he’s was young, it’s just blowing my mind. The way that he can stand in front of a camera – I wasn’t doing that at nine years old. There’s no way, it’s just incredible!”

Shawn Niles

The Legend of Italy | Cooking with Massimo Bottura

On a professional level, Shawn feels that one of his greatest successes was being invited to stay with Massimo Bottura back in 2022. Massimo is a legendary Italian chef, rated the number one chef in the world multiple times, and founder of the world famous restaurant Osteria Francescana. Shawn got to stay in Massimo’s home for a week and cook with him; it was one of the biggest highlights of his career!

What’s Next for The Fat Pastor of Yakima?

Fat Pastor Productions has taken on various culinary endeavors. The brand once operated a couple of restaurants, Il Grasso and The Lab, which opened during the COVID-19 pandemic but have since closed. Currently, Shawn is engaged in hosting pop-ups across the Yakima Valley, whether it’s winemakers’ dinners, private events, extensive catering services, or fundraisers.

Having the Freedom to Move & Serve

Not running a permanent restaurant in one location has afforded Shawn a wonderful amount of personal freedom, like being able to spend a significant amount of time with his son in Los Angeles during while being on MasterChef Junior. This flexibility also enables Shawn to cook with friends nationwide who have participated in different shows and competitions, continuing to expand his culinary depth.

Showcasing Yakima’s Cuisine & Culture

Currently, Shawn is also collaborating on an upcoming television show with a few local production partners in the Valley. While the official title is still a secret, the show’s concept revolves around displaying the Yakima Valley’s wineries and breweries and everything they have to offer.

Half of the series has been filmed, with plans to complete the rest in a newly built local studio. This project aims to bridge the gap between consumers and producers by highlighting the significant contributions of Yakima to the culinary world.

“It’s going to be an amazing, first-of-its-kind TV show here in the Yakima Valley centered around food and drink. I think we have to be able to serve people who are consumers, and we have to be able to serve people who are producers. Oftentimes, shows don’t necessarily balance that out. One of the reasons why this project is so important to us is because we really get to highlight the people who are producing and making Yakima an even more beautiful place.”

Shawn Niles

And making Yakima an even more beautiful place is something Homegrown in the Heart is all for!

I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to my dear friend, Shawn Niles. If you’re looking to gather with friends, family, and neighbors to build community, there’s nothing quite like inviting The Fat Pastor into your home or your event. Sharing delicious food and camaraderie is exactly what Shawn specializes in, so give him a call, welcome him into your space, and enjoy the experience!

You can contact Fat Pastor Productions via Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or their website. You can also email Shawn at thefatpastor@thefatpastor.com.

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