Top Chef Season 18 – Dawn Burrell Exit Interview
Dawn Burrell has learned across disciplines that every step counts. Twenty years ago, she was competing at the Olympics as an elite long jumper. But after retiring, she made an even longer jump into a new career: Cooking. And after impressively working her way through the ropes, Dawn got to re-engage her competitive skills on Top Chef. It was admittedly a stumble of a start for her, as she failed to get all of her components on the plate in the first Elimination Challenge. But despite the mistake, Dawn’s take on global comfort food was enough to elevate her above the errors, sparing her from elimination. Little did she know how integral this would be to the story of Dawn throughout Top Chef season 18.
But the legacy of Dawn shouldn’t be remembered with just plating issues. She sported an incredibly consistent level of performance, winning three Quickfire Challenges in a row and claiming victory during an extremely meaningful challenge involving Pan-African cuisine. The alumni judges felt the love and technique that she poured into every one of her dishes. So even when the timing trouble reared its head again near the tail end of the season, Dawn lived to see another day due to the quality of her work. It got her all the way to the finale, where she was tasked with making the most important meal of her life. The night before, all-star Nina Compton warned her to keep it simple. But the stakes of the competition overwrote that advice, and she paid for it. For the last and most significant time, Dawn was not able to plate everything in time. It was a heartbreaking ending for Dawn, but true to the good sport she is, she went out with her head high. She rallied after that disqualifying first course, earning high remarks from the judges and immense pride in the work she’s done.
Read on to hear Dawn’s thoughts on her time in the game.
You said before you didn’t intend to go onto Top Chef until your mother basically forced you. Tell us more about that decision.
She’s so supportive of me and my dreams. She knows how hard I work at whatever it is that I choose to do. She would not allow me to miss something that I’ve been dreaming of doing. But because I had to take care of her, she promised to be tough and work hard and do everything that she was needed to do, as far as her recovery is concerned. But she needed me to leave; she needed me to go and pursue my dream. And, I do when my mother tells me to do!
You have such a unique background, going from the Olympics to the culinary world. How much did having that competitive spirit from your long jumping days influence you on Top Chef?
I knew from the beginning that this was very much a competition. And my greatest competition would be myself. I would need to fight against everything that makes me “less worthy” through some of my shortcomings. I would need to fight against all of those, and I can bring out my best possible self. As a chef, I can be extremely competitive. So I had to have that talk with myself going in. I knew that the battle would be within.
Of course, we have to get into the numerous timing issues you had throughout the season. Do you believe there was a common denominator every time you couldn’t get everything on the plate in time?
Yes, it’s a lack of editing. Now, of course, every situation was a little different. For instance, in the tofu challenge, I missed a plate because I had cut myself and cross-contaminated it with my blood. But that first bird competition represents my weakness the most: Lack of editing. There was way too much on that plate. But my problem, as a chef and an athlete, my problem is that I want to do everything that I can possibly do to show people how good I am. And if I’m not doing these things, then maybe they don’t understand the level of chef I am.
So what happens is that I end up doing too many things, and then people don’t get to see it anyway. Less is more, and it’s a lesson that I’m continuing to learn from. It’s painful to see me make these mistakes, some of them over and over again. But at the same time, you know what? I am a flawed human being. I am not perfect. That’s not my goal. My goal is excellence, and I’m striving towards that every day. I’m learning and growing every day.
So what exactly happened in the finale that caused not everything to get plated in that first course?
It was both a lack of communication and a lack of editing. I could have taken two of those things off of the plate, and that would have been perfectly fine. It would have been well-received. Secondly, Jamie and I were plating from opposite sides. She was unwrapping all of the bread. And I was putting them directly on the plate because that was my presentation. But I did not tell her; I just thought she saw me. When I looked over and saw that she was taking a lot of time, I discovered what she was doing. And so we had to fix that problem.
Actually, there’s a third reason. We didn’t have proper plating space. We had to work on the same table that we were prepping on. Everyone else had had prep space and workspace. We had to basically flip all of our space, and that took some time. It was definitely an unfair disadvantage that took a little time as well.
Despite your issues in the first course of your finale meal, you decide to keep pushing through and make a pretty sizable bounce back by the end in the eyes of the judges. How were you able to keep going after making such a big error early on?
Quitting is not in my nature. I don’t think I’ve ever quit anything in life. If I’m coming in last in the 200-meter dash, I’m still going to finish and give that moment everything that I have and everything that it deserves. The stage was still the same. So I needed to make the most of whatever I had left, whatever opportunity I had to show people who I am as a chef and showcase my skills.
You had a unique style of working in challenges, sometimes conceptualizing dishes as you were working on them. And that became a big plot point in Restaurant Wars. Is this the way you always work, or something unique to Top Chef?
That’s my creative process. That’s just how I cook. I’m inspired by ingredients and the challenge. Sometimes those things don’t speak to me as loudly as I need them to be. I’m patient in that way. And it doesn’t hinder me; it doesn’t necessarily hinder anything that I’m looking to accomplish if I’m working alone.
It is not ideal for a teams situation. (Laughs.) That is the truth of it. I don’t mind being inspired by ingredients; it’s a beautiful way to cook. And as I’m cooking, I pivot a lot. One of my co-workers actually told me, “I watch you cook here, and this is your creative process. So it doesn’t surprise me you cooked like that on the show.” I don’t know that if that will change. But if I ever have to collaborate with other chefs again, I’ll definitely consider changing it up.
Let’s talk about some highlights from this season. You took a lot away from the Pan-African challenge, including a win. How did it feel to win such an important challenge for you?
I was really proud of that challenge. It highlighted my style as a whole. I was emotional because I felt like I was able to display who I am as a chef and still bring back a win from that challenge. It meant a lot to me, so I was proud.
You were definitely the Quickfire Queen of season 18, winning three in a row. I know at one point Padma revealed you had won the most challenges up until then. Did that come as a surprise to you?
It honestly did. I don’t keep track during the competition. I usually remember when I finish in the bottom or the middle, when I’m not doing well. I don’t like to be in those places. I knew that I was never on the bottom for these challenges. But overall, I just had no idea that I had the most wins.
It helped me get my head in the game. Because I’m a person who has poor performances in the forefront of their mind, it’s helpful when someone highlights the fact that I’ve been successful a lot more times than I’ve been unsuccessful. Because my mind doesn’t work that way, it was the reflection that I needed at that moment to keep me going.
There was talk in the finale from the alumni about walking away from Top Chef with so much creative inspiration. Did you experience the same thing after leaving season 18?
Yeah, I left with a newfound confidence that I didn’t necessarily have before, and the mindset that I am enough. Those are two very powerful perspectives in how you see yourself. It’s very tiring if you’re in an industry and you’re not really sure how people really perceive your food. To participate on a stage like Top Chef just brought newfound courage that even a courageous person like myself didn’t have. So I’m thankful.
You said at one point winning Top Chef would help show other chefs, especially other Black people, that they can achieve their goals. Despite not getting the ultimate win, do you feel you were able to succeed in that goal?
Absolutely. I’ve seen a lot of positive feedback from other African-American chefs. And also little girls who have started to cook. They’ve really been inspired by what they’ve seen on TV and me. Even girls who don’t even know what they want to do, but they’re happy to see someone on a stage like this, that looks like them. It just makes me happy. Because I really am into helping people. And I want to be a good representation of a Black female chef, of the young professional. I want to be a good example for others to follow and a resource that they need for encouragement. And I think that Top Chef is affording me that opportunity.
Speaking of resources, is there anything you’d like to advise chefs and patrons alike as the restaurant industry is still in the midst of recovering from the pandemic?
We need to support each other. Definitely support the small businesses. I know that it’s hard, but we need to make sure that we’re paying ourselves a fair wage and giving employees opportunities to help take care of their families. And we need to be responsible with our employees so that they can have a greater quality of life.
I think the problem that we’re having with this industry is that people are leaving it. During the pandemic, restaurants had to close or go down to skeleton crews. And it made people think, “What else can I do? Maybe I don’t want to work in a restaurant again.” If we can, we should make this industry more attractive, pay attention better and create a better balance for restaurant workers. Once we do that, we will be able to find more people who will actually want to do it.