How Chef Dawn Burrell Discovered Her New Food Style

The ‘Top Chef’ finalist talks competitive drive, embracing Juneteenth, and her new restaurant featuring African and Asian cuisine.

Chef Dawn Burrell
Chef Dawn Burrell | Photo by Jenn Duncan
Chef Dawn Burrell | Photo by Jenn Duncan

Any longtime fan of Top Chef has noticed a change in recent seasons. The Bravo cooking competition once fueled by fiery tempers and cutthroat challenges now feels more like a collaborative melting pot with chefs helping each other in the final minutes of a challenge and shedding tears with every sendoff. 

While that might sound boring to the average viewer, it’s actually made for a much more intimate and emotional watch—and Chef Dawn Burrell says the show now feels reflective of real kitchens. The Philly native and former national long jump champion (who competed in the 2000 Summer Olympics) knows a thing or two about competition, and that drive has propelled her to the final episodes of the show’s 18th season.

We got a chance to talk with Burrell about her competitive spirit, love of West African and Asian flavors, her forthcoming Houston restaurant, and how she embraced Juneteenth.

Thrillist: This season of Top Chef has felt so different—not just because of COVID. There are so many emotions, so many intimate relationships, and the chefs are incredibly diverse. Did you feel that difference while filming?

Dawn Burrell: We’re a pretty tight-knit crew. We consistently showed each other kindness and respect and appreciation. It comes from a very authentic place. I’m happy I was placed on this season because it’s time to highlight humanity. We need to be kind to each other because there’s no reason not to be. Also, last year was tough enough! We all lived through the pandemic, there were so many restaurateurs trying to figure out their own respective businesses while on the show. There’s no need to be mistreated just because we’re in a competition. We’re all in the same boat.

The diversity is another welcome change. The culture and the landscape of this industry is changing at a rapid pace. It includes more than just white, male chefs and it’s time we embrace that to the fullest. And the way most people see chefs is on this platform. This is actually truth-telling, this season is reflecting what we really look like.

Have you always been this passionate about food and what are some of your earliest memories?

I would always get the warm and fuzzies from what my mom and grandmother made. I looked forward to holiday times when my family gathered around the table, with my aunts and cousins. We just bonded over meals and that was our lifestyle. My grandmother’s buttered turnips and strawberry-rhubarb pie, my mom’s peach cobbler, my aunt’s cheesecake. These are things I remember from Thanksgiving dinners and other holidays. I also loved backyard cookouts with tuna macaroni salad. All of these things bring me feelings of comfort. 

Where do you think your competitive drive comes from and how did you go from your athletic career to cooking professionally?

My competitive drive is innate, I’ve been like this all my life. I thrive under pressure and sometimes to my detriment, I create pressurized situations. I just react. When I step into any arena, I feel the same way. It takes the same type of focus to long jump as it does to be in the finals on Top Chef. I zone in. It’s not abnormal for me to be in that situation, I’ve experienced it several times in my life. For me, cooking was a coming back home moment after my athletic career. I needed to find something else that reflected who I really am.  

Seems like you’ve cooked everywhere and everything: Japanese food, Southern cuisine, West African flavors. 

I just love to learn and reeducate myself. I love information. I want to know how millet flour started to be used in Ethiopian food. I’ll sit and go down a rabbit hole and see what purpose it served in that community and land. When I think about food, I like to delve deeper and become one with it. 

While studying and making these cuisines, have you noticed any through lines? Which excites you the most?

Food from the African Diaspora speaks to me for several reasons. American cuisine wouldn’t be itself if not for migration or the slave trade. Rice would not be here, peanuts would not be here, okra would not be here. American Southern cuisine would not exist without African ingredients. That leads me into the path of learning more about foods indigenous to Africa. I really feel a closeness to my ancestors, it makes me want to learn as much as I possibly can. In studying Asian cuisine, rice is extremely important. Rice is life, and I love that overlap with African ingredients. I love making dried fish, fish-based sauces, and smoked fish over rice. 

What were some of your favorite dishes you’ve made thus far on Top Chef?

I have two. The African Diaspora challenge [curried goat, crispy roti with fondant potatoes, and green pepper sauce] and the scallop dish from Restaurant Wars [seared scallop with Creole XO sauce and ham hock broth]. The scallop dish gives you a window into my new food style—it’s the fusion of African and Asian techniques into one dish. That most depicts what I’m going to do in my new restaurant. 

My new concept will be with Chef Chris Williams from Lucille’s and it’s going to be called Late August—it’s slated to open this fall. The name pays homage to the timing of the traditional Christmas Sears catalogue because the restaurant is located in an old Sears building in downtown Houston. The idea is global comfort with touches of cross-sections where African and Asian cuisine meet. 

Do you think we’re starting to see a greater appreciation for authentic African flavors and dishes in the U.S. now? 

I’m hoping that people are becoming more open-minded about food. I think people are more inquisitive about food and its origins, recognizing all different cultural cuisines. People are starting to appreciate that street food, or food of the people as I call it, is truly delicious. My business partner Chris was featured in episode four of High on the Hog, and I was so proud to see that show educate people about African food and Southern food history.

xtcOne thing I’m hoping to showcase at my restaurant is utilizing animal skin. In Cambodia and a lot of North African countries, they use the skin of goats, cows, and lamb and I want to change people’s perceptions about that—show them how delicious it can be.

What were some of your takeaways at the end of your run on Top Chef?

At the conclusion of everything, I felt so grateful. Our bubble was fantastic and they absolutely made the most out of a situation that was not ideal. I have a whole new family now. 

This week, four of us are coming together to do a Juneteenth dinner. The menu’s theme is to elevate what is normally eaten at a Juneteenth celebration with family and friends. We all have different cultural backgrounds: Congolese, Dominican, Haitian, and we are creating dishes that depict freedom in different ways. I am creating food that the people of Texas would eat on such a holiday, like smoked pork and potato salad. I’m from the East Coast, and I didn’t know about Juneteenth until I got to Texas. It wasn’t in my history books. So I had to learn about it when I came here. I’m just looking to do my part and pay that education forward.

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Jess Mayhugh is the editorial director of Food & Drink for Thrillist. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.