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Dawn Burrell Did Houston Proud on Top Chef

The star cook and former Olympian came up short on the finale of the popular competition series.

By Timothy Malcolm July 2, 2021

Chef Dawn Burrell, right, chats with Tom Colicchio on Top Chef: Portland.

Okay. Chef Dawn Burrell was not named Top Chef in the season 18 finale in Portland, Oregon.

She's okay with that.

"I'm excited about the future and what's to come," Burrell tells Houstonia on Friday morning. "I hope people received (Top Chef) well and appreciated the way I was trying to show my skills."

In the finale, which aired Thursday evening on Bravo, the three chefs—Burrell, Austin's Gabe Erales, and Seattle's Shota Nakajima—were asked to make the four-course meal of their lives. Burrell made four dishes that spoke to her influences and Southern-focused style of cooking. 

But the chef of the soon-to-open Late August fell victim to her season-long issues: she couldn't get every item on two plates during her first of four courses. That spelled her doom, even though she composed arguably the top third course among her challengers and possibly made the best dessert course.

Burrell says she didn't edit herself well during that first course, despite multiple judges over the final few episodes coaching her to tighten up her plates and not do too much.

"I knew going into the competition that my fiercest competitor was myself," she says. "I just needed to be confident enough in my dishes and allow the dish to speak to itself without all the extra flairs and touches."

One thing to keep in mind, which wasn't completely portrayed on the series, was that the chefs were competing during an exceptional moment in history. Top Chef filmed at the end of the summer and beginning of the fall in 2020, during the heart of the Covid-19 pandemic in America. Meanwhile, Portland at that time was the backdrop of both protests regarding police violence against Black Americans and dozens of wildfires that threatened residents.

Add to that the long hours under bright lights, constantly needing to think critically while wrestling with anxieties, and you can understand some of the chefs' mistakes along the way.

"It was an extremely taxing experience mentally and physically," says Burrell, who adds that she could hear the protests from her hotel window, and the lobby downstairs was filled sometimes with smoke. "We all did whatever we needed to do to keep our focus and stay in it 'til the end."

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," she laughs, "and I was in the Olympics!"

Erales, an El Paso native, won Top Chef. After the episode aired, news of his dismissal from Austin restaurant Comedor, after Top Chef wrapped, came to the forefront. According to Erales in an interview Friday with the Austin American-Statesman, the chef—who is married with a child—had a sexual relationship with an employee in the summer of 2020. He cut her hours after returning to Austin from Portland, he said, a move that was seen as discriminatory.

Burrell had no comment about Erales's dismissal from Comedor, only saying that she thinks "the network will handle it."

As for Burrell, being in the Top Chef finale marks another achievement in an impressive life that includes a gold medal at the 2001 IAAF World Indoor Championships, competing in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Athens, and being nominated for a 2020 James Beard award for Best Chef Texas. 

She'll open Late August later this year, proof that more Black women belong in leadership positions across the food and beverage industry. She hopes her performance on Top Chef will translate to chefs and hopeful cooks who look more like her. 

"My platform is extremely important because kitchens look like the finale. They're not all white men," says Burrell, whose finale competitors were a Mexican-American chef and Japanese-American chef. "We all contribute to this industry, and it's high time that got reflected on a stage like that. I'm happy to reveal on national TV that Black women can cook at a high level. Let's normalize it."

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