By Nikki Vargas
Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 21/22, a collection of interviews with leading voices in dining, hospitality, food, tech, politics and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2021, or what’s likely to happen in 2022, in the world of restaurants and food. See all stories here. And feel free to check out last year’s collection as well.
Byron Gomez is a self-taught chef who worked his way into Michelin-starred kitchens under the tutelage of culinary icons like Daniel Boulud and Daniel Humm. Today, Gomez is executive chef at 7908 Aspen and a recent contestant of Top Chef: Portland (season 18). On Top Chef, Gomez made history as the first Costa Rican contestant and DACA recipient to appear on the show. Top Chef: Portland was filmed in 2020 during a global pandemic and national reckoning with racism—two elements that inspired the most diverse and unique season to date.
At first, I didn’t really think about the magnitude and ripple effect of being on Top Chef. When I was there, I focused on my food and cooking. The most important thing for me was telling my story. The fact that I could do so on that kind of platform is amazing.
Top Chef reached out in April 2020 during the pandemic. I remember hanging up the phone and saying, “Fucking Top Chef just called me. This is crazy.” Everyone and their mothers had time off because of the pandemic. Everyone’s restaurants were closed, so everyone had this extra time to do television, interviews, or something they normally wouldn’t do.
I didn’t get the final notice until mid-July. That whole time, I was doing different interviews and going through different steps, knowing I could get dropped at any moment. You have to be very patient because, after the third step, you’re like, “All right, it’s been a month and a half already, and no one has answered. What’s going on?”
In the casting process, they build you up for what’s to come on the show to see if you’re going to break before you even make it to filming. The casting process was a lot of anxiety, anticipation, and nervousness—a lot of wondering if I should have said this instead of that. To be one of the fifteen people to get chosen from around the country at a time when the world was upside down was pretty historic, I would say.
During filming, we were all in one building. Usually, the camera people and crew stay in separate houses, and typically, they put the chefs and everyone else in another house. This time around, they booked us at a hotel, and there were about 200 people—from the production team to the talent to the producers—working on the show. We were all in the same place, but we didn’t really interact and weren’t allowed to see each other besides just the chefs themselves.
We couldn’t interact with camera people and had to keep six feet apart. It was like you were going through this turmoil and challenging life experience, and you couldn’t share it. You couldn’t have that human touch with another person of just asking how they’re doing. You don’t realize how much humans need to interact with each other until you’re put into those situations. It starts messing with you psychologically.
Then there were all the COVID safety precautions. Every time, it was like stepping out on stage, putting on your mask, keeping six feet apart, and getting tested every other day at five o’clock in the morning. All those things were very tough.
Being on Top Chef did change my opinion of celebrity chefs a whole lot. To be honest, I wasn’t really wowed by the celebrity chefs I met during filming. To me, a Michelin chef is ranked higher in my eyes than a Food Network star. Looking at my resume, I worked for some amazing celebrity chefs—like Daniel Boulud and Daniel Humm. I saw working for these chefs through another kind of lens that wasn’t through the lens of television and entertainment.
Boulud and Humm are some of the old G’s of cooking. Working with them made me feel comfortable working for celebrity chefs. I just never thought I was going to do television. A couple of years back, I did have that Anthony Bourdain mentality of making fun of—and even mocking—Food Network personalities. But the network is well respected now.
The whole culture, back in the day, was either like Emeril Lagasse or home cooks. It was either you were a celebrity chef, a restaurant cook, or a home cook. The home cooks didn’t really shine, but now what I’m noticing—especially with the pandemic—is that there’s a lot of really good home cooks. I’m having conversations with these home cooks, and they’re making bread and studying the science and the chemistry of cooking, which is really interesting.
Shows from back in the day like Molto Mario and After Hours with Daniel Boulud have influenced this new generation to be more interested in what we do as an industry, as well as progress in their own sense. There are some really good home cooks that I’m like, “Wow, you should be working in a restaurant,” but they just have a respect for our industry and appreciation of good food. We now have known TV personalities or movie stars without culinary training, like Gwyneth Paltrow, doing cooking shows that people can relate to.
Look at Anthony Bourdain—he bashed celebrity chef culture in the beginning, but he ended up becoming a TV personality, entertainer, and journalist. I guess it’s just part of learning. You start out with all these ideas and, eventually, you might end up becoming the very thing that you were preaching against in the beginning.
I think people really enjoyed this season with the Top Chef All-Stars because they saw some of their favorite Top Chef cast members come back, but as judges, and got to see former chef-testants—now matured and celebrities in their own way—years later. Bringing back old cast members as judges added more of a human touch instead of bringing the usual celebrity chefs who come for one episode, judge, and leave.
What did really shock me was the mentorship that the All-Stars were able to give us. I keep in touch with Brooke Williamson, Melissa King, and Kwame Onwuachi, who literally came up to us at the end of the season and were like, “you know, it doesn’t matter who wins. It matters what you do with this opportunity.”
They’d give out their number to the chefs and say, “You’re about to embark on something new that I already went through, so if you want any advice or tips, just let me know and contact me at any time.” That was really cool because you are navigating new waters, so to have that mentorship and friendship makes it real. At the end of the day, we’re friends and don’t see each other as the chef-testant or the judge. I just had Kwame and Melissa over in September at my restaurant and kitchen, cooking and hanging out. That’s what the Top Chef family does.
I grew up a lot in a very short amount of time during filming Top Chef. The experience boosts your confidence and your idea of who you are, but I don’t think you need to go on a show like that to find out about yourself. I don’t have all my marbles lined up. I don’t have everything figured out. I still wake up every day and I’m like, “It’s time to figure out this thing called life.” But I think it’s up to each and every one of us to push our boundaries to where we feel uncomfortable. That’s where we’re going to learn a lot about each other and ourselves.
I want to open up a restaurant that’s just different from what people have seen. When I talk about different, it’s a Latin American restaurant that does food all the way from Tijuana, Mexico, to Patagonia, Argentina.
I want my restaurant to take all those influences and ingredients—like the beautiful fruits you find in South America—and make them into a purée, dish, or cocktail that will be educational for the guests. There’s the restaurant, there’s an autobiographical book I’m excited about, possibly a little bit more television, and working with the immigration community. I’ve been working very closely with I Am an Immigrant alongside people like Estelle and Rihanna, who influence culture in the United States but are also immigrants. To be be categorized with them is very inspirational for me.
I was the first Costa Rican to get cast for Top Chef and the only DACA recipient that ever appeared on the show. During filming, I didn’t realize how diverse this season of Top Chef was until Gabriel Pascuzzi got eliminated, and Sara Hauman was the only white person remaining. I’m not trying to make this something between white people or people of color, but that’s the moment I was like, “Wow, everyone up for this competition is diverse and from so many different cultures, backgrounds, and cooking styles.” I saw what other people were doing on Top Chef: Portland, and I realized it’s okay to be myself and make my culture’s food.
With the African food challenge, they didn’t show it on TV, but that was my most emotional interview. I knew about the history of the slave trade, but when Kwame Onwuachi took me and the group we were with to a West African restaurant, it was interesting to see how something like collard greens uses yucca leaves back in West Africa. Afterward, Kwame took us to this Guyanese restaurant, and they had this chicken curry over rice and, I swear to God, it was like tasting my mom’s cooking, but the food was from Guyana.
Through that food, I could see how Africans came to America and were spread throughout South, Central, and North America as slaves, and how all they had was their food. They didn’t have the typical yucca leaves, for example, but instead had collard greens. In the food, you can see how their dishes evolved to not lose their identity.
In the event when I got eliminated from Top Chef, we went to the Portland Japanese Garden, and there was this kind of Zen energy in the middle of the tofu challenge’s turmoil. To work with a Japanese ingredient in such a beautiful and authentic setting was really cool. Tofu isn’t more important than collard greens or yucca leaves. It just hits people in a different way. People can connect with more of this culture or less of that ingredient, and that’s why I think this season of Top Chef was clever. They put the challenges together well and touched on what’s going on in the country and world today.
I remember when I was in Oakland, a lady stopped me in the lobby around midnight. I was done with an event—a dinner with Nelson German and Jamie Tran—and she stopped me and said, “Do you know that my son looks at you on TV? He’s six years old and sees somebody with the same skin color and who speaks Spanish. You’re an inspiration and a role model to him.”
Other viewers tell me they really liked my energy, that they liked my smile, positivity, and how I was always helping out people. That’s who I really am though. It’s not like I was being some kind of guy for TV.
Someone asked me the other day if I get tired of the fame, and yes, as a human I do. But I’m grateful that I have fans. All it takes is for me to say hi, or take a picture, or give a smile, or try to be “that Byron” that I was on Top Chef, whatever that was—someone stressed as fuck and running around the kitchen like a chicken without a head! My goal was never to have celebrity status. I just wanted to cook so I could pay my bills and eventually open a restaurant. If you really follow your dreams, have discipline and goals, and execute—I think that’s the formula to get you to wherever you need to be.
At the end of the day, it’s about the food. An onion was here before my time, it will be here during my time, and it will be here way past my time. I’m just an instrument that knows how to chop an onion up, heat it to a certain temperature, and serve it a certain way. Other people are better than me at my job. Other people are better than me at cooking. Other people are better than me at being a TV personality. For me, it’s just knowing where you come from, staying grounded, and hanging out with people who knew you before the fame.