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Dawn Burrell knows a thing or two about performing under pressure. We've watched her crush Quickfires and excel in Elimination Challenges in Season 18 of Bravo's Top Chef, earning a spot as one of the finalists of the competition in Portland.
But long before Dawn was wowing Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons (and all of America) with her culinary prowess, she demonstrated her talents in another famous competition: the Olympics. Dawn competed on the world stage at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, representing Team USA in women's long jump, ultimately placing 10th in the event.
When Dawn was just starting out as an athlete, she told The Daily Dish during an exclusive interview last month, she actually received encouragement from another Olympian, her older brother, Leroy Burrell. As part of Team USA in the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Leroy competed in the men's 100 meters and the men's 4 x 100 meter relay, for which he won a gold medal, along with teammates Carl Lewis, Dennis Mitchell, and Mike Marsh.
Dawn recalled Leroy inspiring her to pursue track and field. "He blazed the trail for me to follow to [the] University of Houston, and our bond also lies in the fact that he was the one who convinced me to focus on track and field 100 percent. I appreciate him for that because that was a moment that changed my life," she said. "And I'll never forget the conversation, we were walking through the grocery store when he was home visiting — I think it was Christmas, for Christmas break — and he was telling me that he thought that I should focus on track and field and kind of stop playing basketball, because he knew that my talent was innate, you know? It was a gift that I had that I wasn't quite exploring, and he needed me to focus on it so I can truly bring that out. And I did it, and he was right."
So when Dawn made it all the way to the Olympics, entering that arena for the first time, "where there were so many people," she recalled, "it was clear that it was a competition unlike any other that I've been a part of." "I've now been to quite a few world championships, and this was very different," Dawn continued. "That was my most proud moment, walking out with the other long jumpers to take our places and get our warmups done before competition. That's my most memorable moment."
While Dawn said that her family "enjoyed themselves immensely" during their visit to Sydney, she, of course, had to focus on the competition. "Oh man, it was so stressful, because the pressure is mounted, you know? Eight years of training for that 4.8 seconds is very real," Dawn said. "You want to make sure everything is exactly perfect because you know that, in an instant, it could all be over."
Still, Dawn recognized what an honor it was just to be able to compete at the highest level back then — and still to this day, especially as she sees other athletes earn their spot in the Olympics. "I can say that I was proud to be there. I can say that I put in the work to be there. And the results were not what I wanted them to be, but I was so proud to be among those ranks and just as proud as I am today because I've been watching the Olympic trials, and it's just so invigorating to see," Dawn said. "And I'm so proud of those athletes. And I know exactly what the trials are like. The trials are actually a little bit more difficult than competing at the Olympic Games, 'cause if you don't get out of that round, then you're not going. So I understand the pressure they're under right now, and I commend them for their hard work and their positive spirit to make it through. And I just feel very blessed and honored to be an Olympian like they are right now."
After the Sydney Olympics, Dawn would go on to win the gold medal for women's long jump at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Lisbon in 2001. But around 2007 or 2008, she decided to make a career change and "find something else that I loved to do" in case she did not make the USA Track & Field team for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. "I soul searched, and I landed in the culinary field, and so I immediately started researching schools and deciding how I wanted to break into the industry," Dawn explained. "And after I didn't make the team, I enrolled in culinary school. And I did not look back."
Food had long been another passion of Dawn's, after all. "Food is very important to me, and it was very important growing up. I actually come from a family of culinarians, but I didn't realize until a couple years ago," Dawn shared. "I have an aunt and uncle that have been in this industry for a long period of time at very different levels. And then as a family, you know, food always brought us together, and there was always a table of food or a buffet or food that we'd gather around for family holidays and barbecues and things like that. And we would celebrate everything with a nice meal. And so that's why it's so important to me."
Following her graduation from the Art Institute of Houston with a degree in Culinary Arts, Dawn worked for numerous chefs, including Tom Aikens in London and Monica Pope in Houston, before landing at Tyson Cole's Uchi in Houston. She became the sous chef at Uchi's award-winning sister restaurant Uchiko in Austin and then served as executive chef at Houston's Kulture, for which she earned a 2020 James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef: Texas. She is now a partner/executive chef at Chris Williams' Lucille's Hospitality Group.
Just because Dawn left the world of track and field many years ago doesn't mean it's left her. In fact, she told The Daily Dish that she prepared for each challenge this season of Top Chef, which she agreed is like the Olympics of food, similar to how she would get ready to perform in athletic events in the past. "Coincidentally, I prepared myself for each competition in the same way, kind of like all the warming up and all that stuff. I stretched, I meditated, I focused. Like, my energy is on doing well," Dawn explained. "And also, if I did not do well, I focused on releasing the negative feelings into that and begin again quickly, because you have to recover very quickly in these competitions. And I think that there are definite parallels there between preparations."
As in any competition, Dawn said that she wanted to make sure she was "giving it 150 percent" heading into the Top Chef Season 18 finale, "because that's what that moment needed." "I just would continuously encourage myself to give my all," she shared. "I remember feeling very nervous. I could not sleep the night before. I just remember just reminding myself to leave it all in the arena, so to speak."
During the final challenge of the season, Dawn's previous competitive experience came in handy when she needed to recover and reset her focus on the next course after she wasn't able to get every component of her first dish onto some of the diners' plates.
"I think that that's where a lot of my athletic training comes into play because you have to be able to leave whatever competitions you didn't [do] so well behind because if you carry it with you, it makes that moment, that competition that you're entering into, that much more difficult because you're carrying all this extra, extra negative weight," she said. "That course is over. There's nothing I can do about it, but I can finish and I can finish strong, and I can give them everything that I intended to give them from this moment. And I was devoted to doing that. Coupled with the fact that I also needed to encourage [sous chef and eliminated Season 18 cheftestant Jamie Tran] in that moment too where she was devastated, you know, about whatever mistake that she had made or lack of communication that was had. I needed to encourage her, to say, 'Let's pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and finish strong with grace and dignity,' which is what we did."
Just as Dawn and her brother, Leroy, have that shared experience of competing in the Olympics, he also became a part of her Top Chef journey when he sent her a care package full of ingredients to use in one of the Elimination Challenges this season. "It was great. He was perfect for it. He was so proud of his box, and I was glad that he was able to experience that moment. And also, like, he's the one that cooks the most in our family, except for myself, and so, I was happy that he chose to do this, that part for me, because lord knows what my sisters would've put in that box. I have no idea. Honestly," Dawn shared. "He did a great job at representing who we are as a family and our culture, as far as food is concerned. And I would not have it any other way."
The cheftestants' care packages also came with notes from their loved ones at home. As Dawn read Leroy's message, she got emotional while he spoke about their mother, who was recovering from a stroke at the time. Dawn shared with The Daily Dish how her mom is doing today. "She's doing well. She's still not walking 100 percent, but she is getting around, and she is really enjoying this season of Top Chef, I can tell you that," Dawn said. "I haven't watched with her every week, but she has watched every week, whether she's with me or not. And yeah, she's having a really good time."
Dawn said that her whole family — and especially her mom — cheered her on as she competed this season of Top Chef. "They're so proud and so supportive, and they're on a roller coaster just like everyone else is in the country. They're supporting me with their whole heart and whole spirit, and I couldn't be more grateful to have them in my corner," she said. "And my mom, like, man. I thought she was proud when we were athletes, but it seems like these are her most proud moments right now. So, I'm glad she's getting to experience this."
In her post-Top Chef life, Dawn is currently working on a project called Late August, which is slated to open in December as part of the Houston-based Lucille's Hospitality Group. Dawn is also working on the restaurant group's non-profit organization 1913, which she said "focuses on feeding the community members in impoverished neighborhoods and also growing the food for these people with the 50 acres of farmland that we currently have acquired."
Also included in that initiative is a fermentation lab that Dawn oversees. "We'll go from growing to distributing to restaurants to fermenting the overages to make sure that we're zero waste," she said, adding that she was in the fermentation lab testing out pickles on the day of her interview with The Daily Dish. "And it's gonna be great. Like, once we grow, I'm establishing a system now so once we have the product, we can assist them to move product into."
That ability to now give back is one of the ways her experience on Top Chef has enriched Dawn's life so far. "I think that, among many things, Top Chef has given me even more courage and confidence to pursue my endeavors, which is awesome. But this stage affords me an opportunity to help others, which is more important to me," Dawn shared. "If I have this stage, I'm able to assist other women who may be struggling in this industry, to uplift whatever woman that might want to get into this industry, and also to help others, like we're doing [with 1913], and I'm most excited about those things."
Even though Dawn didn't go home with the gold this time, the Top Chef Season 18 finale still showed, from throughout her career, all of her "hard work coming to fruition." "To me, it was a culmination of all my hard work over the years. When I was an athlete, competing and training for so long for that moment when you're on that stage, to be received as the best at what you're doing at that time and that season. It's what I know. It's what I know because I'm always, in everything I do, I'm training toward a goal, whatever the goal is, and I learned that from being an athlete. As an athlete, I trained for eight years to compete at the Olympic Games and to have a jump that takes 4.8 seconds to accomplish, but I was training all that time for that 4.8 seconds," she said. "And so, in my culinary career, I knew what I wanted, and I made sure that I positioned myself to grow so that I could one day compete in an arena such as Top Chef and work really hard within that to compete at the finale."
The Tokyo Olympics begin July 23 on NBC.
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