Dawn Burrell opens up to PEOPLE exclusively about her time on Bravo's Top Chef: Portland, and why she's proud to be "one of the people who broke the mold to help women of color" in the food industry

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Credit: Jenn Duncan

Olympian Dawn Burrell competed with some of the world's top athletes in Track & Field as a member of Team USA at the 2000 Summer Games. But trading in her track spikes for a full-time culinary career and going on Top Chef: Portland is where the 47-year-old Philadelphia native really tested her limits.

"Being a chef is far more challenging and Top Chef is, hands down, the most difficult thing I've ever done," Burrell tells PEOPLE exclusively in an interview to celebrate her selection as one of PEOPLE's 50 Food Faves

"If you watch the show, I'm sure you've seen scenes after Quickfires where we are dripping up sweat. It shows on television. We are literally running around, exerting ourselves in ways we never have and pushing ourselves for nine weeks straight. It's all very real. And it can start to wear you down, whether it be physically or mentally. You have to be able to endure that."

Burrell — who studied at the Culinary Arts at the Art Institute of Houston, and worked with a variety of chefs (like Chef Tom Aikens, Chef Monica Pope, and Chef Tyson Cole) before earning her first James Beard nomination for "Best Chef: Texas" in 2020 — says her athletic past helped her place in the top three of the Emmy-winning Bravo series.

"I was able to tap into a certain reserve that most don't recognize is within them because I've had to endure high level competition regularly," she explains. "I know how to mentally prepare myself for these type of challenges. Those are skills I feel that I was able to tap into that helped me be successful on Top Chef."

Top Chef Season 18
Credit: David Moir/Bravo

Despite not taking home the top prize on Top Chef, Burrell said she's "very proud" of her performance.

"I was fully invested in every decision that I made. Would I've done things differently in hindsight, of course. But they're all lessons learned," Burrell says. "Like, I learned I need to edit; that I don't have to show everything at one time — which is a big lesson for me because, as an Olympian, you want to show people what you're capable of at any time. Now I realize, 'Produce one thing well.' So that's been my focus."

Top Chef Season 18 Dawn Burrell
Credit: Stephanie Diani/Bravo

That one thing for Burrell right now? A restaurant of her own where she can showcase her signature global comfort food, with touches on the African diaspora.

Called Late August, it's slated to open in Houston this February. "We think that it's going to be something that the city has not seen," says Burrell, who partnered with Chef Chris Williams' Lucille's Hospitality Group on the project. "We're really excited about it."

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It's projects like this and showcases like Top Chef that have made Burrell such an inspiration for Black women in the restaurant industry.

"This is a male-dominated industry and I'm happy to be one of the people who broke the mold to help women of color," Dawn says. "We contribute to this industry in a really wonderful and powerful way, but we hardly ever are in the 'limelight' or receive credit for what we've done. We're often passed up, too, and sometimes not taught (in the sense that knowledge is freely given to some people except us). But that is changing, and I want to be of service and assistance to any woman who's trying to break through."

For more on Dawn Burrell, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands this Friday.