"Top Chef" scontestant Byron Gomez of 7908 — The Know

“Top Chef” returns Thursday with a new season of 15 cheftestants, one of them representing Colorado on the national prime-time cooking competition.

Byron Gomez is the executive chef of 7908 in Aspen, where he’s spent the last two years leading the fine-dining kitchen after cutting his teeth at New York City restaurants. For Gomez, the road to “Top Chef” began with early jobs at Burger King and TGI Fridays as a teenager growing up on Long Island.

After graduating high school, and with $800 to his name, the budding chef moved to Manhattan where he leveraged chain and hotel restaurant experience into kitchen work at Michelin-starred institutions like Café Boulud, Atera and Eleven Madison Park. At the latter, he rose in the ranks to sous chef and traveled to Aspen to work EMP’s winter pop-up.

Now running his own kitchen in Colorado, Gomez says he’s worked hard for the opportunities he’s had. For much of his life, the Costa Rica native was undocumented in the United States, even though he moved as an 8-year-old to New York with his family.

“Because of my immigration status, I wasn’t able to go to culinary school. So I pretty much had to fend for myself,” Gomez said. “I had to try to make something happen, and that’s where culinary came about for me.”

Cooking reminded him of early childhood memories in Costa Rica, where some 30 to 40 family members, neighbors and friends would gather on Sundays at his home to watch soccer and share a meal together.

“And that memory pretty much got stripped away from me once I arrived to the U.S.,” Gomez said. “I always yearned for that, and I always found it in cooking. I guess that sense of satisfaction of sharing the table with people is my sense of happiness.”

Once he got his foot in the door at those great New York restaurants, the culinary world opened up before him. Gomez says his food now is a melting pot of Latin American, Mexican, French, Southeast Asian, and even Nordic influences that he’s accumulated along the way.

At 7908, he combines those techniques into an elevated, new American cuisine “(that is) my America.”

But it’s a conflicted patriotism. As a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program, Gomez fights an ongoing battle to continue working in the United States with a renewable but impermanent work permit.

“It’s an ongoing battle of, ‘Hey, I’m doing good, I’m paying my taxes’ … but I’m still the enemy,” he said. “So I just grew a thick skin around it. DACA doesn’t define who I am, but it’s just a small part of what makes my story a success.”

The chef will bring that humility and hard work to “Top Chef,” where he says he applied to the show one quarantine afternoon and couldn’t believe it when he received the phone call: “Welcome to the ‘Top Chef’ family.” Gomez says he’s gained confidence from being on “Top Chef,” while also forging relationships he didn’t expect with fellow cast members.

“At the end of the day, it is a family,” Gomez said. “The bond that you have with 14 other strangers and at an age when most culinary people have their (expletive) together; it’s still that learning, which is very beautiful. And I can’t wait to see what this is going to bring about, not only in my personal life, but my professional career.”

“Top Chef” Season 18 premieres at 6 p.m. on April 1 on Bravo TV. To try chef Byron Gomez’s food in Colorado, make a reservation at 7908 in Aspen, 415 E. Hyman Ave., 970-516-7908, 7908aspen.com. 

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