How Top Chefs Byron Gomez Travels the World Through Food

It’s Colorado’s arresting natural beauty that captivates Chef Byron Gomez as he hikes outside Aspen’s city center, traversing wooded trails resplendent with colors. Looking at the gray cliffsides, Gomez notes their rough texture and immediately thinks of oyster shells. The hues surrounding him—brown from the dirt and deep green from the towering pines—remind Gomez of ingredients. Pulling from the magic of his environment, he begins to ideate a dish: his take on grilled oysters Rockefeller with added details like Japanese furikake, breadcrumbs, sesame seeds, chopped nori, and chili flakes that are meant to visually capture the vibrant colors of the Rocky Mountains.

To try Chef Gomez’s food is to be transported to another place entirely. His food is uniquely eclectic, pulling flavors from Southeast Asia, ingredients from Latin American cuisine, cooking techniques from France, and a minimalist presentation inspired by Nordic fare. And yet, for someone who can keenly capture the world on a plate, traveling is a privilege not easily enjoyed by Byron Gomez, who is a DACA recipient.

“When the [DACA] program first started in 2012, I was a little iffy about it,” Gomez tells me over the phone. “Fast forward a few years later, and there’s this big movement of people who are like, ‘Hey, we’re part of this program, and here are the fruits of it.’ We have frontline workers that were serving people, we have people in the military that were DACA recipients that are in jeopardy of getting deported, and they defended this country. We have people like myself that have climbed and earned accolades, and all we want is our American dream.”

For someone who can keenly capture the world on a plate, traveling is a privilege not easily enjoyed by Byron Gomez, who is a DACA recipient.

DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a hotly debated immigration policy that allows undocumented children—known as DREAMers—to receive a two-year period of renewable deferment of deportation and be eligible for a work permit in the United States. In 2014, President Barack Obama expanded DACA to extend benefits to additional undocumented immigrants, but DACA was rolled back in 2017 under the Donald Trump administration. President Trump spent much of his term trying to dismantle DACA, going so far as to suspend new applications for DACA recipients. Today, under President Joe Biden, DACA continues to be a partisan issue that is consistently met with roadblocks. As recently as July 2021, a federal judge in Texas ordered the Biden administration to stop approving DACA applications.

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With the politics around DACA dominating headlines, it can be easy to forget that at the core of the program are people like Gomez, who continue to construct their American dream in the shadow of adversity. In many ways, Chef Gomez’s story is the quintessential immigrant fairy tale. Originally from Costa Rica, Gomez grew up in New York’s Long Island, where at age 15, he took his first restaurant job at a Burger King in Central Islip. The experience of working in his first kitchen—albeit a fast-food one—stuck with Gomez, who began to engulf himself into the world of cooking. From Burger King to TGI Fridays, it was a short leap to working at local hotels and learning the ins and outs of banquet service and restaurant dining. From the bowels of Long Island, Gomez burst onto the scene of New York City to train and work at some of the most prestigious restaurants in Manhattan, including Café Boulud, Atera, and Eleven Madison Park, named one of the 50 best restaurants in the world.

With the Eleven Madison Park team, Gomez traveled to their pop-up restaurants in the nearby Hamptons and Colorado. In Aspen, Gomez eventually settled down and is now the Executive Chef at the acclaimed 7908 Aspen. As impressive as Gomez’s journey has been from a fast-food chain to Michelin-star restaurants, it is his recent appearance on Top Chef: Portland, that saw the world fall in love with his affable personality and his bromance with fellow contestant, Chef Shota Nakajima. Not only did Chef Gomez impress audiences with his culinary prowess, but he broke new ground as the first Costa Rican contestant to appear in Top Chef’s 18 season history

“Being on Top Chef taught me something besides confidence. If you look at my story, I was born in Costa Rica and raised there since I was eight. I was brought to the U.S. and grew up in New York, where most of my culinary career was in NYC, one of the biggest melting pots in the world,” says Gomez. “I struggled with whether I should be cooking Costa Rican food, but I’m not Costa Rican enough. I wondered if I should be cooking American food, but I’m not American, really. I have all these experiences from Southeast Asian, French, and Nordic restaurants, so why put myself in a box? There’s no right or wrong way of expressing yourself.”

“I should be cooking Costa Rican food, but I’m not Costa Rican enough. I wondered if I should be cooking American food, but I’m not American, really. I have all these experiences from Southeast Asian, French, and Nordic restaurants, so why put myself in a box?”

As a DACA recipient, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for immigrants to travel outside of the United States. DREAMers can apply for advance parole, which costs a whopping $360 USD and allows DACA recipients to travel outside the States, but only if the applicant can prove they are traveling for “humanitarian, education, or employment purposes.” Should an immigrant pay the fee and meet the criteria for the advance parole, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) still warns that travelers can get stuck outside the country.

In the end, the risks associated with a simple vacation abroad often keep DREAMers like Gomez confined to the borders of the States. Unable to travel, Gomez turns to his cooking as a way to immerse himself in the flavors and cultures of other countries.

“One of the ways that I travel the world is through cooking—that could be through a cookbook, working with people in the kitchen, having a staff meal and learning where a cuisine is from, or picking up the phone and ordering a new ingredient and learning to work with it,” explains Gomez. “Yes, I’m limited in physically traveling the world, but that hasn’t stopped me from having the joy, imagination, and desire to learn. Through cooking, I can close my eyes and travel anywhere.”

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While Chef Gomez is often drawn to the fresh flavor profiles of Southeast Asian cuisine, his dream is to one day open a restaurant that celebrates the diversity of Latin American food, which is too often distilled down to just Mexican or Caribbean dishes. His dream restaurant would honor the ingredients and flavors that extend all the way from Tijuana to Patagonia. As the first Costa Rican contestant on Top Chef, Gomez is now uniquely poised to shine a light on the rich cuisine of his own home country and that of the Central American region.

“It was such a humbling experience and honor for me to be able to put Costa Rica on the map,” says Gomez, who was named Costa Rica’s national pride following his Top Chef appearance. “Costa Rica is such a beautiful country, but it needs to be put out there more when it comes to the culinary world because we have such diverse cuisine and ingredients that are unique to that region. I would like to try and be at the forefront of putting Costa Rica on the map because it deserves it.”

For now, Gomez continues to draw his inspiration from the beauty of Aspen. Describing the city as a magical place—one that mimics a snow globe in the winter and gives off great energy in the summer—he is creating a name for 7908 Aspen as a restaurant that utilizes the wealth of local produce. Gomez recently hooked up with a local farmer he described as a “mad scientist” for his knack of growing tropical fruit at Aspen’s 8,000-foot elevation. His restaurant frequently changes the menu, using seasonal produce to dictate its dishes.

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In speaking to Gomez, one can’t help be struck by his genuine humbleness. As excited as he is by the recent attention Top Chef has given him, he doesn’t quite feel like he’s “made it.” Perhaps, it’s the anti-immigrant rhetoric that plagues the country, or maybe it’s the constant debating among politicians about DACA; whatever it is, it seems that Gomez—like so many other immigrants—still feels like he has something to prove. He recounts a recent moment in Oakland, where a woman approached him after an event whose son is a Top Chef fan. Seeing someone like Gomez—a chef who both looks and speaks like him—was groundbreaking for the woman’s son. While Gomez may not feel like he’s made it, it’s clear he has become an inspiration to many.

“With the exposure I got through Top Chef, I can touch people. If I can make it, anyone can make it,” he muses. “Stay humble, don’t forget where you come from, help those in need, and try to be a better person in this society. I think that might be a formula that might change some of the things happening in the world right now.”

Chef Byron Gomez’s Mini-Guide to Aspen

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Art Galleries

“I enjoy art, and Aspen has a vast amount of art galleries,” says Gomez. “Here are some of my favorites from which I can draw inspiration and love to visit.”

Eden Fine Art Gallery: This modern and contemporary art gallery exhibits some of the most colorful and creative art I’ve seen. They draw inspiration from different colorful feathers to cultural sculptures and pictures. When I’m in search of creativity, this is my go-to place to draw ingenuity to my dishes.

Skyge Gallery Aspen: This gallery is another one of my favorites. Their funky sculptures are so interesting and remind me of my Mayan and Costa Rican Roots. The colors also remind me what Aspen is about year-round.

Coffee Shops

“Coming from NYC and being part of some of the best coffee culture,” muses Gomez. “I found Aspen doesn’t drip too far off from finding a good cup of joe.”

Locals Coffee: This is my favorite coffee shop in Aspen. Their staff is always friendly and fast, and the coffee here is the best in town. Plus, they always have healthy food options and my once-in-a-while guilty pleasure: a croissant-doughnut from Coloradough in Glenwood. This is my go-to place to open my laptop and work.

Hotels

“Some of the most iconic and fun hotels are here in Aspen,’ says Gomez. “These are two of my favorites.”

Hotel Jerome: This is the oldest Hotel in Aspen; with so much history in one place, it is hard not to fall in love with the decor of this establishment. My favorite room is the library room, where you are transported to a fancy mountain setting that can take place in the early 1900s. The staff is very accommodating, and the guys at the front door, with their cowboy hats, are waiting for you to enter this phenomenal place. I cannot think of Aspen without thinking of Hotel Jerome.

W Hotel Aspen: For the summer season, this is my go-to place. Enjoying a beautiful afternoon at their rooftop pool with a 360-degree view of Aspen along with the base of Ajax Mountain.

Restaurants

“As a chef, I am always a hunter of taste and inspiration,” explains Gomez. “Here are some of my favorite restaurants in Aspen.”

Bosq: This small tasting menu restaurant draws inspiration from local resources. Chef Barclay is one of the most respected local chefs and his cuisine, which is modern and local, is nothing short of individuality and artistry.

Betula: Their French and Pan American flare is unique to Aspen. Betula is the perfect place for a great lunch. Their patio, with the view of the mountain, is the best in town. Plus, their staff always make me feel like a part of the family.

Home Team BBQ: Right outside of Aspen, you will find this hidden gem at the base of Buttermilk Mountain. Home Team BBQ is the best BBQ I have eaten in Aspen. My go-to dishes when I’m there are the wings with their spicy relish and fried ribs with Louisiana white sauce. You can’t go wrong with their brunch on the weekends. This is the perfect eatery after a long summer hike or enjoying an afternoon after skiing.

Zane’s Tavern: As a chef, I cannot look down on a good pint or dive bar. When I was a cook, these were the places I could afford and where I had some amazing times after work. Zane’s is the place that transports me back to those early memories. Their food is familiar and filling. My must-order is their cheesesteak egg rolls, which come with this pink sauce that, honestly, I could take shots of. Their sandwich and wing selections are some of the best in town.

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Bars

“A good cocktail is always something I like to discover,” says Gomez. “This ranges from any of the classics to an innovative adult beverage.”

7908 Supper Club: This slick bar at our restaurant has the best cocktails in town. Spirits and Beverage Director Matt Corbin, along with the bar staff, serve some of the best tasting and creative cocktails. Some of their showpieces are Instagram-worthy but also taste really good. The nightlife part of this bar program caters to many taste buds, plus their draft cocktail system is unique to the town. You can’t leave Aspen without ordering their Nitro Espresso Martini. At night our fun, spacious location turns from a fine dining restaurant into a world-renowned club after 10 p.m. We offer some of the best bottle service in Colorado, and the sound system is state-of-the-art and managed by our very talented resident DJ, Bryan Normand.

Hooch: The bar program here is one of my favorites in town. As soon as you walk in, every night is different. Their low lighting, cozy couches, and a wood bar make you feel like you’re in the mountains and in a Brooklyn speakeasy at the same time. They do an amazing job at rotating their cocktails with each season, and thus far, everything I’ve tried has been on point.

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