Spoilers below for Top Chef's Season 18 finale, so be warned!
While it seemed like the COVID pandemic would have had catastrophic effects on the livelihood of a reality show like Top Chef, Bravo's long-running cooking competition was able to film Season 18 without incident. That said, what viewers saw was quite different from years past, with Colicchio and esteemed host and co-judge Padma Lakshmi joined by an all-star group of past Top Chef veterans, and the contestants cooking for far smaller groups. That said, the pressure was still as intense as ever, especially for contestant Dawn Burrell. The Pennsylvania chef surprisingly made it all the way to the history-making finale despite relatively consistent plating problems, which was confusing at best, if not altogether concerning.
There were no doubt tons of Top Chef fans (besides myself) who spent much of Season 18 scratching their heads each week that Dawn Burrell regardless of how many times she botched her time management and left food off of the judges' plates. It's one of the ultimate Top Chef mistakes, and she even did it IN THE FINALE. Interestingly enough, however, Tom Colicchio actually had a fairly justifiable reason for Burrell's continued success. Asked by Uproxx about the challenges of COVID protocols, here's what Colicchio said:
Obviously, the one big change was bringing back all of the ex-contestants as judges, and having them with us pretty much every meal. That was kind of neat. Restaurant Wars is clearly very different, and very successful, I thought. One issue that’s come up the last couple of episodes was Dawn leaving food off of plates, and why she was allowed to go through. This typically happens, only we don’t see it, and the audience really doesn’t see it, because a lot of times they’re not left off the judges’ plates. But because you’re actually getting comments from every diner, I think it showed up a little more.
I can't lie, I may have gone through some double-take motions upon reading that answer, as I genuinely didn't think that specific Top Chef oddity would be directly addressed by anyone on the show. After all, there were times when it did seem like Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi were glossing over Dawn Burrell's food items that failed to make it to the plate, even though the contestants weren't constantly dealing with cooking for 300 people as it's gone in past seasons. It was largely the all-star judges like Chicago chef Gabe Tilde who were shown to be more visibly upset by the missing food, and the judges' table rarely drove that point home to Burrell in the way that they've knocked other contestants for less glaring issues.
So if Tom Colicchio's words are true - and why wouldn't they be? - then it makes a heck of a lot more sense why Dawn Burrell remained a formidable contender in every single episode. I've often wondered how many times mistakes are made with non-judges' food, and how the editors worked around more incidental accidents, and it sounds like it happens often enough that Burrell's variety of non-plated elements weren't deal-breakers.
Of course, all this is to say nothing of Dawn Burrell's masterful culinary skills in and of themselves. Clearly, if she'd only been cooking mediocre-tasting and sloppy-looking dishes since Week 1, she would have faded away from the competition pretty early on, but Burrell regularly made the judges fawn with googly eyes over how tasty and well-prepared her finished dishes were. (Even though she was regularly shown to be coming up with ideas on the fly rather than conceiving meals ahead of time.) It just goes to show how much taste truly matters on Top Chef, regardless of anything else.
Top Chef may be done with Season 18, but you can be sure that producers are already working hard on making sure Season 19 can be filmed as smoothly as possible. While waiting for that, be sure to peep out the new Bravo spinoff Top Chef Amateurs, which debuted right after the finale, and check out all the other awesome shows coming to the 2021 Summer TV schedule.