Dawn Burrell couldn’t be busier. When we spoke several weeks ago, the chef was in the midst of planning a Juneteenth event, preparing for the opening of a restaurant in Houston and organizing her many advocacy projects — but this workload, it seems, was a regular day.
Before she became a chef, Burrell, who is 48, was an Olympic long jumper on the U.S. team, competing at the Sydney Games in 2000. She turned to cooking, working in kitchens from London to Houston and Austin, quickly ascending the ranks. She became the executive chef of Kulture, in Houston, where she received a James Beard nomination. And then Burrell was a contestant on Season 18 of “Top Chef,” where she made it to the finals.
But Burrell is also an advocate for women’s health within the restaurant industry. And she’s part of Lucille’s 1913 — a nonprofit that feeds local underserved communities and was founded by Chris Williams, the chef and owner of the restaurant Lucille’s — and their team has broken ground on farmland in the Houston area to provide fresh produce, pushing against food deserts. Within that project, Burrell has helped develop a fermentation lab to minimize food waste; excess food from farms is fermented and pickled before being returned to the community. Her new restaurant, Late August, scheduled to open in the fall, is a partnership between herself and Williams, and part of Lucille’s Hospitality Group.
“There are not many Black-owned restaurant groups, made up of Black partners and Black chefs,” Burrell says. “So I want to be an integral part of developing our space in that field. I want everyone to be aware that, you know, Black and brown people contribute to fine dining.”
It all feels like a gift to a city that Burrell says she grew up in, from a culinary vantage point. (She’s originally from Philadelphia.) Paying your profits forward. Reinvesting in your community. Doing what you can to ensure that the boons don’t go to waste. Her work feels like a possible path for the future. And while locals can be slow to impress (we’ve seen everything down here), she has done exactly that.
In Houston, where flavors lean international while remaining distinctly and unerringly place-centric, Burrell’s cooking style is distinctively hers, a reflection of her perspective and her experiences, she says — all the travel she did for track and field, for instance, learning through food as she went. “There are some really comforting moments I had in food, in very uncomfortable moments where you don’t know anything about the culture,” she said. There was also the influence of Wen Yong Yang, her “second father,” she says, who is Chinese. (“I call him my second father,” Burrell says. “He’s my track coach.”) He and his wife had a restaurant when they moved to the United States. “I got to learn a lot from them,” she says, and she traded cooking lessons with Ms. Yang, adding that these lessons, too, are part of her experiences, and authentically her own.
And what does authenticity mean in a city like Houston, where influences and foundations are consistently overlaid, collapsed and integrated? There’s no one answer. And even the question is a bit of a ruse. Because the point is that being authentically oneself, whatever that looks like, couldn’t be a higher bar to reach for. So there’s influence from Chinese cookery, Southern cookery, Japanese cookery and Southeast Asian cookery in Burrell’s oeuvre, and all of it is true, because it exists within her context. This question of context feels especially prescient in Burrell’s work: As she finds connections and crux points across cuisines, within a city that epitomizes multiplicity, a result is an ethos and a résumé that’s strikingly her own.
Cooking Burrell’s shito creamed greens is an exercise in extracting as much flavor as possible, as economically as possible: With the trinity of garlic, onion and bell pepper, the dip’s flavor profile is distinct, but the collard greens and shito are still allowed to shine. It can be served as a side dish or as the star of smaller plates. And its texture is both inviting and distinct, creamy and wholly spiced. A solid meal would be pairing the dip with a baguette — maybe from Lee’s Sandwiches, if you’re lucky enough to live near one — as you marvel at just how much deliciousness can be extracted from so few ingredients, prepared simply.
In many ways, her dip is an epitome of her approach: It’s distinctly American with West African flavors, while drawing on ingredients and techniques from across her experiences. There’s texture. Acidity. A surprising creaminess to top things off. And most important, an ease underlying it all. It’s good eating, and authentically her own.
Recipe: Creamy Collard-Greens Dip With Shito