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Dawn Burrell On Leaving The Restaurant Kitchen

Taking a break from an industry under siege to care for her mother and to try out a new way to cook.

After training as an Olympic long jumper, Dawn Burrell pursued her passion for cooking and became the executive chef at Kulture, an urban comfort kitchen in Houston. In 2020, she was named a semifinalist for the Best Chef Texas James Beard Foundation Award. She now runs PIVOT, a meal kit service that celebrates West African and southern American cuisine.

My career as an athlete made me disciplined. Determination, grit, and attention to detail helped me to become an Olympian. I chose a career as a chef because my situation was dire. I was faced with a moment that I never thought of preparing for, when my retirement from track and field loomed. I didn’t think I would compete forever, but I thought my next career would be directly related to the sport.

I realized being too close to the sport without being able to compete would be painful emotionally. I didn’t want to be a collegiate coach, or an active member of the sport’s national governing body. I didn’t want to travel with national teams as an advisor to athletes, or privately train aspiring long jumpers in key techniques for the event. I needed to step back all together. That reality forced new introspection.

I dug deep to figure myself out. All thoughts landed on food and fond experiences I had, both while growing up and traveling to compete. My family is rooted in traditions of gathering around the table and communing over home-cooked masterpieces. I remember being so excited to go to my grandmother’s house to eat. I remember the life-changing dishes I had while traveling, and how obsessed I was with the flavor profiles and the freshness of ingredients. I knew then that food was something I was truly passionate about. I knew I needed to cook. I immediately enrolled in a cooking class after my last appearance on the track and field runway.

My love for cooking was not inspired by my own creations, but from the creations of my mother, grandmother, and aunts. They showed me what real cooking was. I just followed suit with their standards. The more I executed dishes with the same care that they did, the more I loved it and what cooking with love has the power to do. I can say that it was not one plate that inspired my love for cooking, but cooking with love as a whole.

Kulture’s menu was so special to me because not only was it the first menu that I created in entirety, it was also inspired by my life experience and my connection with food. It was an opportunity to focus on food and ingredients, and the intense flavor profiles of the African Diaspora. It was my work there that drove home the notion of being true to yourself and your ingredients. It is the only way that I cook. Most importantly, it is the only way to invoke emotion through food. People can feel the effort and care put into a meal when you share your experiences with them. For me, this is the difference between a delicious meal, and a meal that is life-changing. My aim is always for the latter.

My departure from conventional restaurant cooking was in response to COVID. My mother suffered a stroke in February. She returned home after treatment in mid-March, right after COVID threats in the US became widespread.

I knew the only way to keep the threat of contagion from her was to limit my exposure to people. That is almost impossible in the restaurant industry. Interaction with your guests is part of the job. Being present in your kitchen with your staff in tight quarters is part of the job. Kulture closed temporarily due to COVID, but I knew that even if it re-opened, I would not be able to be there. I made the very difficult decision of leaving my job that I loved to care for the woman who made me who I am. My mother became my new priority.

Though I will always be a restaurant chef, the truth is that restaurants as we know them will not be back for a long time. Their overhead, coupled with new guidelines, makes it impossible to stay afloat. At 50 percent capacity, and with all service team members required to wear gloves and masks to keep people safe, while social distancing tableside—that’s not the traditional restaurant that you and I know. Nothing is as we knew it.

I had to pivot just as most of the country did. Some of my chef friends turned their fine-dining establishments into convenience stores, selling daily sundries both to meet a need and help offload inventory. Refined eateries became grab-and-go burger joints to stay afloat. My pivot was not as drastic. I decided to become a caterer, in a sense. I took well-thought-out dishes with the same level of connection and quality that I was serving at Kulture, and shared them on a delivery to-go platform.

Meals prepared by Dawn Burrell for PIVOT. Photo: Amy Scott.

In the PIVOT newsletters, I share the inspiration behind my weekly menus, like my grandmother’s famous potato salad and salmon croquettes, and my mother’s meatloaf and stuffed cabbage. These stories and connections are what set PIVOT apart and will help me to build a full-service restaurant concept in the future. I will happily return to restaurants and hit the ground running when all of this is over.

The new climate has taught me you have to do what is necessary to survive. You also have to intentionally strive to meet a need. The days of making egocentric food with attention to detail, while discovering how many ways you can manipulate one ingredient—that’s over. I don’t think people want that anymore. I don’t know that people can afford to eat like that anymore. They want wholesome, comforting meals that remind them that all will be okay.

My hope is there’s a return to a restaurant environment without the looming concern for others’ safety—where that tension of making the right decisions, because someone’s life could depend on it, will be a thing of the past. I don’t know if that will ever be true. The truth is that I have no idea what the new normal will be.