“Top Chef” Week 1: How are Dawn and Sasha Doing?

Season 18 of Top Chef is here, and two (yes, two!) Houston chefs are competing for the ultimate prize ($250,000 and other things) in Portland, Oregon. We’re keeping our eyes glued on Dawn Burrell (who’s soon to open Late August) and Sasha Grumman (Sasha’s Focaccia) as they battle each week (Thursday nights on Bravo).

The season premiered Thursday night. How did our chefs do?

By the way … SPOILERS BELOW.

How They Did

Dawn Burrell

Right out of the gate, Padma Lakshmi singled out Burrell for being nominated for a James Beard award (semifinalist 2020) and for competing in the long jump at the 2000 Summer Olympics.

In the immunity challenge, chefs were given ingredients they couldn’t live without. For Burrell, that was smoked trout roe. Her experience proved instrumental as she stopped teammate Jamie Tran for the seemingly obvious mistake of glazing sauce on the skin side of a piece of fish. The team’s dish—halibut memela (masa cake) with fish sauce butterscotch and smoked trout roe crema—was considered one of the weakest.

The elimination challenge brought out a few Top Chef all-stars; the challenge: make something highlighting a game bird (the choices were duck, squab, chukar [pheasant], turkey, and quail). Burrell had to randomly draw; she got turkey and opted to incorporate it in a West African-style peanut stew … but she didn’t plate the stew in time. Her dish—turkey peanut stew with sautéed vegetables and savory calas—was otherwise praised, and the judges seemed to understand that running out of time happens. In fact, while Burrell spent her post-cooking time frustrated about her work, she wasn’t singled out as one of the four least-favorite dishes.

Sasha Grumman

Grumman’s “can’t-live-without” ingredient in the immunity challenge was Meyer lemons; she took the lead in her group while giving a little family history (Sicilian-American family, cooking school in Italy). It turned out well—not only did she work well with Portland chef Sara Hauman, but also her team’s dish—harissa-seared halibut with Meyer lemon and anchovy salsa verde, roasted hot pepper relish, and herb salad—won the challenge.

Because she won the immunity challenge, Grumman selected her elimination game bird. She took quail and proceeded to rock in the kitchen, dancing and laughing while making polenta that tightened up toward the end. The result—roasted quail with polenta, crème fraîche, roasted grapes, and red wine jus—was criticized for the heaviness of the polenta and a too-buttery flavor profile. Grumman was singled out as one of the least-favorite four dishes, though her immunity saved her from elimination.

Their Chances?

It’s too early to handicap any of this, but both Burrell and Grumman seemed to fall somewhere in the middle, despite issues during the elimination challenge. If there’s a favorite on the show, it’s hometown chef Hauman, who won both the immunity challenge with Grumman and the elimination challenge for glazed quail with green beans, charred dates, and grilled eggplant coconut yogurt. Is it a little fishy that a Portland chef is the early favorite in the Portland Top Chef? No, no, let’s not get crazy.

But it looks as if both Burrell and Grumman should at least hang in. The fact that Burrell wasn’t marked heavily for leaving out a major component of her elimination challenge dish is pretty impressive. Also, despite being in the bottom four, Grumman popped early and got a lot of time on camera.

Season 18 of Top Chef continues at 7 p.m. Thursday.

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