Dawn Burrell keeps bringing the hits on Top Chef.

SEASON 18 OF TOP CHEF IS HERE, and a Houston chef is competing for the ultimate prize ($250,000 and other things) in Portland, Oregon. We're keeping our eyes glued on Dawn Burrell (who's soon to open Late August) as she battles each week (Thursday nights on Bravo). Also, read more about recently ousted Houston-based contestant Sasha Grumman (who has a great focaccia hustle).

The season continued with episode nine Thursday night. How did chef Burrell do?

By the way ... SPOILERS BELOW.

How Dawn Did

Last week was interesting. Sara Hauman was eliminated during "Restaurant Wars," and the edit made us believe that Burrell's lack of communication played a major part in Hauman's ouster. So, this week's episode starts with Burrell visibly upset about Hauman's elimination. Of course, Hauman is still competing on Last Chance Kitchen (she beat Grumman last week), so if she returns to the main competition, that would set up a fitting conclusion to this narrative ... remember, it is television.

(Also, Grumman is still around on Last Chance Kitchen. She and Avishar Barua are the peanut gallery offering little comments and questions. Does this mean she gets to cook once more? Could she come back into the competition? Who the heck knows.)

Onto this week: Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen of the TV series Portlandia showed up (it was a matter of time) for the Quickfire Challenge, in which the chefs were asked to use "hipster" ingredients to make a dish while only using vintage kitchen appliances. (Obviously Top Chef knows subtlety.) Burrell seemed to know what she was doing, reaching for grandma's cornbread mold (you know, it's shaped in corn cobs) to make bread with fonio (a type of millet). 

The result: fonio and semolina quick bread with pancetta jam, pear butter, and goat butter. "It was a joy to eat," said Brownstein; moments later, Armisen named Burrell the winner of the Quickfire.

Next came the Elimination Challenge, in which the chefs had to create and develop a recipe over a day and a half that could be replicated in 90 minutes. For winning Quickfire, Burrell got an extra 15 minutes to finish her dish on presentation day.

But, again, it seemed like she knew what she was doing. Right away Burrell—who last year wrote for us this Senegalese-inspired spicy collard green salad—explained that when writing a recipe for a home chef, it's best to be excruciatingly detailed. That would have to be necessary, as co-host Tom Colicchio dropped by to survey prep and tell the chefs that their recipes would be recreated in real time by the all-star judges on presentation day.

Burrell's dish was recreated by Top Chef season 10-winner Kristen Kish. Maybe because of Burrell's Quickfire advantage, or maybe because the editors were hiding her a little—or maybe because of both), we didn't get to know anything about her dish until the bitter end of the challenge. She made salmon with buttermilk sauce, gai lan, and olive purée, and Kish—who replicated it almost exactly—said Burrell's recipe was very clear and easy to follow. "Protein, veg, sauce. A home cook can handle that," said judge Richard Blais. Again, pretty clear that Burrell knew what she was doing.

Naturally, Burrell's dish was considered one of the best of the night, though Austin-based chef Gabe Erales won the challenge with a banana leaf-steamed black cod with crispy skin and salsa Veracruzana.

Her Chances?

There's a theory some Top Chef fans have been bouncing around on Reddit that on "Restaurant Wars," Burrell realized quickly that her team wasn't cohesive and relatively destructive, so she shifted focused on herself and—as a result—made her team's best dishes to avoid elimination.

Whether or not that's true, it's obvious that Burrell is the most aware that she's playing a game. Let's be real: Burrell competed in the Olympics. Becoming a chef was Burrell's second chapter of adulthood, and she's been nominated for a James Beard Award. Also, she's from Philly—people from Philly are different. The point: Dawn Burrell is a damn good game player.

So, maybe she shifted her focus last week on "Restaurant Wars" to ensure she'd win. And maybe this week she concluded that if she could nail the recipe for her tester, she'd have no trouble against the judges. It's possible. It's also possible she isn't thinking about any of that. Whatever the case, Burrell has to be considered the favorite. She's coasting. Unless something wild happens to knock her completely off her place, Burrell has all the look of a Top Chef champion, and we love to see it.

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