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Houston’s ‘Top Chef’ Contenders Had an Up and Down Night on the Show’s Season 18 Premiere

Find out how chefs Sasha Grumman and Dawn Burrell fared in the first challenges of Top Chef: Portland

Sasha Grumman and Dawn Burrell, pictured first and third from left, respectively
David Moir/Bravo

On Thursday night, Bravo’s long-running culinary reality series Top Chef returned. Filmed in Portland during the COVID-19 pandemic, this season of Top Chef looks a little bit different in its 18th season. The kitchen is larger and the chefs are often wearing masks, but there’s still plenty of exciting cooking.

That’s especially true of Dawn Burrell and Sasha Grumman, the Houston-based chefs who are vying for the title of Top Chef, $250,000, and other winner perks. Burrell, whose work at Kulture earned her a James Beard Award nomination in 2020, is also a former Olympian long jumper who competed at the 2000 Games in Sydney. Now, she’s in the process of opening Late August, an Afro-Asian eatery in collaboration with chef Chris Williams, in Midtown.

Grumman helped open chef Chris Cosentino’s much-anticipated — and currently closed — restaurant Rosalie at the C. Baldwin Hotel in Downtown Houston. Now, she’s working as a private chef and baking focaccia via her pop-up business the Fierce Chef Alimentari. She came to Houston by way of Austin, where she worked at acclaimed restaurant Launderette.

Missed out on the premiere of Top Chef: Portland? Check out this recap of the episode’s biggest moments.

Dawn Burrell comes out swinging in the Quickfire challenge

Burrell demonstrated her prowess early in the Quickfire challenge, which required the chefs to break up into teams and put together a dish that incorporated an essential ingredient that each chef brought from home. Burrell was partnered up with Austin chef Gabe Erales, formerly of Comedor, and Jamie Tran of the Black Sheep in Las Vegas. Burrell’s essential ingredient — smoked trout roe — was transformed into a memela (fried masa cake) topped with seared fish, fish sauce butterscotch, and smoked trout roe crema.

Burrell also showed off a little bit of her competitive spirit during the Quickfire, getting visibly frustrated when Tran spooned the fish sauce butterscotch over the just-crisped skin of a piece of fish. “My assumption is that every chef would know that you don’t put sauce on the crispy side of the fish,” Burrell says in a solo interview. “It’s never safe to assume.”

...and so does Sasha Grumman

Grumman, who chose Meyer lemons as her essential ingredient, had a little bit more luck during the Quickfire challenge. Teamed up with Detroit’s Kiki Louya and Portland-based chef Sarah Hauman, Grumman’s team took home the win during the Quickfire challenge with their harissa-rubbed halibut served with Meyer lemon and anchovy salsa verde, roasted hot pepper relish, and herb salad.

Host Padma Lakshmi seemed especially impressed with the dish, commenting on the brightness brought by Grumman’s Meyer lemons. The win brought a major advantage for Grumman, who was immune from elimination during the main challenge.

Things heated up for Burrell as time ran out

During the main challenge, the chefs were tasked with preparing dishes made with game birds that are native to the state of Oregon, including chukkar, squab, quail, and duck. As a Quickfire challenge winner, Grumman had the option to choose her protein, and selected quail. Burrell wasn’t quite as lucky, and got stuck with turkey, which she didn’t exactly seem thrilled with. Undaunted, Burrell set out to prepare a West African peanut stew with turkey, sauteed vegetables, and savory calas, or dumplings.

Everything was going according to plan until Burrell realized that time was running out. With minutes left before she was expected to serve her dishes to the judges, Burrell enlisted help from a fellow competitor to plate her peanut stew. Once time elapsed, she realized that she wasn’t able to add the sauce — the component that turned her dish into turkey peanut stew. It’s a super dramatic moment, especially when Burrell asks a producer if she can sauce her plates. Off-camera, the producer says no, which sends Burrell into a spiral of emotions.

...and Sasha Grumman floundered

Going into the main challenge with immunity from elimination and swaggering confidence, Grumman’s roasted quail with polenta, red wine jus, creme fraiche, and roasted grapes did not impress the judges. Tom Colicchio didn’t think the quail was prepared well, and other judges commented on the thickness of the polenta and richness of the sauce. Even Grumman said that she could’ve done a better job with the dish. As a result, she was one of the four chefs who had the worst dishes of the week.

In the end, both Houston chefs made it through to next week

While Sasha and the rest of the week’s best and worst dishes were finding out their fates, the chefs whose dishes placed them among the middle of the pack were left to sweat it out in a back room away from the judging. When the competitors returned to announce that everyone was safe, Burrell heaved an obvious sigh of relief knowing that she would survive to compete another week.

Top Chef: Portland airs on Thursdays on Bravo at 7 p.m. CT.

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