From Olympian to 'Top Chef' finalist: How Dawn Burrell's athletic career fueled her culinary stardom

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Dawn Burrell stood in front of Padma Lakshmi and awaited the verdict. Burrell had just cooked, to that point, the most important meal of her life. With a trip to the “Top Chef” finale on the line, Burrell waited nervously to see if she would become the latest chef to be told to pack her knives and go.

Lakshmi braced the competitors for the bad news that was coming. “Well, this next part is very, very hard,” she said while looking at Burrell and Gabe Erales. Despite cooking excellent food, one of the two would be sent home, ending their pursuit of the life-changing title of being named “Top Chef.”

Lakshmi took a lengthy pause before calling Burrell’s name, “Dawn.” For one tense, nerve-wracking, exhilarating moment, it appeared Burrell’s time on the show was over. After another pause, Lakshmi delivered the news, “… and Gabe, pack your bags, you’re both going to the finale.” Burrell emerged from another high-stress moment on top.

Burrell should be used to that by now. Before becoming a chef and emerging as a breakout star on Season 18 of “Top Chef,” Burrell made a name for herself in track and field, where she represented the United States at the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Burrell’s background as an Olympian has been a major storyline throughout her run on “Top Chef.” The skills that made her one of the best athletes in the world — her competitive drive, tenacity and ability to adapt on the fly — are the same ones she’s used to reach the pinnacle of another profession. 

“Every positive trait that I have, I can attribute it to being an athlete,” Burrell told Yahoo Sports. “My ability to stay in it, to embrace the pressure that is in that moment, all comes from my career as an athlete.”

Dawn Burrell has emerged as a culinary star after being in the 2000 Olympics.
Dawn Burrell reached the finals on Season 18 of "Top Chef." (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Building a family legacy

Burrell was inspired to take up track and field by her older brother, Olympic gold medalist and two-time world-record holder in the 100M sprint, Leroy Burrell. There was no competitiveness between the two as they both trained and competed in the sport. Leroy’s success helped Dawn find her way, and she’s incredibly grateful for that.

“I competed because of my brother,” Burrell said. “I was one of those lost teenagers not really sure what to do with myself. Kinda stuck in his shadow not really understanding what my purpose was in the world. And what he decided to do was give me some of his purpose and kind of be a reflection for me, letting me know what is possible for me if I just chose this path. So he blazed a trail for me in athletics, and I could not be more grateful.”

After winning state titles for Penn Wood High School in Pennsylvania, Dawn attended the University of Houston, the same school as Leroy. Dawn continued to make a name for herself in track and field, appearing the NCAA Track and Field Championships throughout college.

Long jump emerged as Burrell’s signature event as she competed at the highest level after graduating. Prior to qualifying for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Burrell beat out Marion Jones in the long jump at the 1999 USA Championships.

Burrell competed in the long jump at the Olympics, where she finished 10th in the event. In 2001, Burrell won a gold medal at the IAAF World Championships. A month later, Burrell tore her ACL, which eventually led to her retirement from professional sports.

With sports no longer an option, Burrell considered her next move. She realized the importance food held in her life, and decided to pursue a career as a chef.

“I have really good food memories as a child and so I decided to explore that a bit more,” Burrell said. “Food is very meaningful for us as a family. We gathered around the table during holidays, we celebrated everything with food. If there was a celebration, food was at the table. I had to explore that. I was forced to explore that because I needed something else to do.”

Burrell enrolled in Culinary Arts at the Art Institute in Houston and worked her way up to executive chef at Kulture, where she earned a James Beard nomination in 2020.

Between that and her run on “Top Chef,” Burrell proved cooking was the right decision. Getting on the show was difficult, with Burrell comparing the process — which included rigorous interviews — to the Olympic trials. Burrell’s run to the finale hasn’t always been smooth. She’s battled the clock multiple times, leading to components of her dishes being left off plates. 

Her technique, flavors and seasoning have been spot on, propelling Burrell into the finale. During the penultimate episode, former “Top Chef” finalist and James Beard award winner Nina Compton complimented one of Burrell’s dishes as “a nice hug of flavor.”

That's precisely what Burrell is going for with her food, which she describes as "global comfort." Burrell says her style is all about taking street food, or the food you might eat at your grandmother's table, and elevating it to fit a more modern aesthetic. 

That style has shined through multiple times. Burrell's curried goat and crispy roti dish received rave reviews from the judges, with "Top Chef: All Stars" winner Richard Blais calling it "the first dish [this season] I want the recipe for." She also impressed with a quick bread with pancetta jam, which she described as a play on corn bread. During a tofu challenge, James Beard nominee Ed Lee credited Burrell for making a fried tofu dish that could have passed for chicken. A week later, Burrell impressed Lee again with a cheese oil basted steak with cheddar sauce. He drank the entirety of Burrell's cheese sauce, and told Burrell, "I like the way you cook" at the judges table.

Reaching the “Top Chef” finale is quite an accomplishment for any chef on the show, but it carries even more significance for Burrell, who is one of three Black woman chefs to reach that point in the competition.

“We are an underestimated group of chefs in this industry,” Burrell said. “It’s not that we don’t exist, it’s that we are underrepresented. I think it will helpful for the Black female chefs as a whole to have someone on this platform, and to have someone to be an advocate for us. It is a long time coming, and our experiences are not the same as white male chefs in this industry, because that is the face. But we contribute too. And I think it’s past the moment of time where we receive the acknowledgement for our contributions to this industry.”

Compton and Carla Hall both reached the finals during their seasons and finished as runners up. Burrell met the same fate Thursday, finishing as a runner-up to Gabe Erales. With the win, Erales became the first Mexican chef to be named "Top Chef." No Black woman chef has ever won the competition.

Burrell has more than proven herself through the competition. She has three quick fire challenge wins, the most among any contestant from Season 18. Her goat and roti dish helped her win an elimination challenge in which chefs had to build dishes inspired by foods from the African diaspora. Burrell credited the program for highlighting that cuisine, which she said was “a long time coming.”

Dawn Burrell lands in the pit during one of her jumps at the Women's Long Jump at the US Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field in 1999.
Cooking remains Dawn Burrell's focus now, but track and field will always have a place in her heart. (Photo credit should read MIKE NELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

While cooking remains her focus now, track and field is still Burrell’s first love. She remains connected to the sport through her nephew, and Leroy’s son, Cameron Burrell, who is also a track and field athlete. Dawn said she will be watching this year’s athletes compete at the Olympics “because my heart still belongs in track and field.”

Though Burrell was initially unaware of the International Olympic Committee’s ban on protests, she spoke out against the short-sightedness of the policy.

“I’m wondering if anyone has learned anything from banning Colin Kaepernick,” Burrell said. “I don’t think … a person who has a platform should be silenced in that way. I think that we should be able to do our part to invoke change. And if you take this platform from us, then what can we utilize to spark change. Freedom of speech is very real and I think that banning protests is shortsighted.”

Burrell will watch the Olympics, but the rest of her time will be devoted to her next endeavor. Burrell teamed up with chef Chris Williams of Lucille’s Hospitality Group to open a new restaurant in Houston called “Late August.” It will be the first time in her career Burrell will hold an ownership stake in a restaurant.

“It feels really good to be able to express myself completely within a restaurant concept,” she said.

Any fan who has watched “Top Chef” knows how hectic it can be to open up a restaurant. There’s a reason the show’s annual “restaurant wars” episode, which features chefs creating, designing and cooking food for a brand new restaurant, is its most iconic challenge. It’s stressful. It’s chaotic. It’s thrilling.

In other words, it’s exactly what Dawn Burrell has been preparing for her whole life.

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