Kitchen Inspiration

What James Beard-Nominated Dawn Burrell Has Learned from Cooking Pioneer Edna Lewis

Read more about this accomplished chef and the connections she's made through her successful career in the kitchen.

By Timothy Malcolm February 10, 2021

Chef Dawn Burrell has had a busy 2021 so far.

Image: Amy Scott

For Black History Month we're featuring Kitchen Inspiration, a series of Q&As with Houston chefs, who will discuss someone who's inspired them in their work. First up is Dawn Burrell, who ... well ... has a lot going on these days.

Dawn Burrell has already had a big 2021. It's bound to get even more exciting.

On April 1, we'll see if the 2020 semifinalist for the Best Chef Texas James Beard Award can survive 14 other competitors (including fellow Houston chef Sasha Grumman) in season 19 of Bravo's Top Chef. A few months later, she'll open her first restaurant, Late August, which is part of chef Chris Williams's new Lucille's Restaurant Group.

Of course, this isn't the first time Burrell has been in the spotlight. Before setting up shop in the kitchen, the University of Houston alumna was a successful long jumper, competing at the 2000 Summer Olympics and winning a gold at the 2001 IAAF World Indoor Championships. 

Burrell's style in the kitchen is to bring out the history of whatever she cooks, whether Southern by way of Africa in her former role as executive chef at Kulture, or the connection of African and Asian that'll she hopes to highlight at Late August. Through it all, she embraces seasonality of ingredients, something that goes back to her youth visiting her grandmother's farm in rural Virginia. 

"My grandmother by nature cooked by seasonality because of her rural setting. She cooked what she was growing," she says. "It's a very simple idea but it's not something we think about. We're spoiled as Americans ... we forget that there are seasons, and not just the seasons themselves but that there are seasons for vegetables."

For Kitchen Inspiration, we asked Burrell to speak about a Black chef who inspires her. She chose Edna Lewis, the groundbreaking Virginia-born chef who through fresh and seasonal ingredients championed Southern food, specifically recipes from communities of freed slaves. 

Tell us about Edna Lewis.

She is a trailblazer in her own right. She's considered to be the godmother of Southern cuisine. She's also the first Black female chef coming from an era where there weren't been many female chefs to begin with.

What specifically attracted you to her work?

She wrote a cookbook in the style of the seasons. For example, winter is the season for parties and celebrations and holidays. So I got interested in how she would make those meals. ... My grandmother cooked with that same idea until she passed away. So I think that because I had already tasted that way of cooking, I gravitated to Edna.

So you would say your personal style is similar to that of your grandmother and of Lewis?

"Yes, and it wasn't until later in my career when I found out what my style of cooking is. But it's the way my grandmother cooked and my aunt cooked. My aunt would tell me stories about her life experience, being on the farm with my grandmother, and I learned that's what I loved most about food. That was the food I loved.

Was there a specific dish that connects you to your grandmother and to Lewis?

I do remember one, but it's a very simple dish: a plate of turnips. My grandmother seasoned them and made the turnip greens, also. You know, she'd kind of baste them with butter, and they were so perfect. They were so sweet. I didn't think any more about them, right, and it wasn't until I did some research about Southern cooking that I felt so connected to that dish.

In 2020 you started PIVOT, which helped feed people who maybe didn't have the resources or time to make their own home-cooked meals. Now you're joining up with Williams, who's has his own non-profit Lucille's 1913. That all seems to connect to Lewis, who was very political and didn't just stay confined to the kitchen. Is it fair to say that's another connection, that for you, cooking is more than competitions and restaurant dinner services?

For the hospitality group a major part of the mission is to help and empower people. The beauty of being able to create gorgeous food on my plate, it's an excellent thing and I love it, but ultimately I'm making food and people need food to live.

I want to help those who really need it. It's to give people a simple thing like a meal. Being part of a team that opens opportunities for people, to give them the ability to support themselves and provide for themselves. That's what I'm excited about.

This interview was lightly edited.

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