On Thursday, April 1, the popular cooking competition Top Chef returned for its 18th season. Filmed entirely in and around Portland, the latest iteration does an impressive job of producing top-tier television while maintaining the strict safety regulations necessitated by the pandemic. Since its premiere in 2006, the show has grown into being one of the great titans of food programming, each additional season cementing its iconic status and helping to turn some of the country’s most talented chefs into full-blown superstars.
Throughout the spring, Byron Gomez — executive chef at Aspen’s super-refined supper club 7908 — will appear on behalf of Colorado, combining influences from his Costa Rican heritage and an extraordinary pedigree from some of New York’s best-acclaimed kitchens. He will appear alongside Tuscon’s Maria Mazon, Austin’s Gabe Erales, Oakland’s Nelson German and Seattle’s Shota Nakajima, amongst others.
Joining the regular panel of Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons is Season 15 contestant and local darling Carrie Baird — who will act as a guest judge on eight of the upcoming episodes. While the rotating roster has in the past been celebrity-heavy, the Top Chef team opted to favor the broadcast’s graduates — who would remain on-site for the duration of filming at the crew’s quarantined hotel in the heart of downtown. “Having alumni as the judges there’s a little more empathy there,” grinned Baird.
Gomez was born in Costa Rica and moved to Central Islip, Long Island at the age of eight. He remembers being drawn to cooking early on, citing Sunday meals where 20 – 30 family members would show up to carouse around home-prepped fare. As a child of DACA, he’s been unable to return to his homeland — or do international travel of any kind — since immigrating stateside. He says one of the major impetuses for participating in Top Chef is the opportunity to tell his story, noting that he will be the first Costa Rican ever to compete. Despite lacking formal training, the chef’s resume is more than formidable.
“I went to the best school in the world. The school of hard knocks,” laughed Gomez. “I started at one of the most famous restaurants in the world. Burger King,” he continued.
Directly after high school, he moved to New York with $800 in his pocket. Hungry from the get-go, he made it his mission to work in world-class establishments. He ascended the Michelin ranks. Beginning with the one-starred Cafe Boulud, he then did a stint at the two-starred Atera before becoming a sous at Eleven Madison Park, which saw its third star during his tenure. “I knew that working with the best you could probably become the best,” said the chef. After visiting Aspen as part of one of Eleven Madison Park’s Winter House pop-ups he fell in love with snowboarding and the distinctly different pace of mountain life. The opportunity to work with a phenomenal team — including master sommelier Jonathan Pullis — helped sway his decision to take up shop at 7908.
Gomez’s presence on the show is a good sign for aspirational local chefs and a strong indication of the state’s growing culinary cosmopolitanism. The chef has said he’s hoping to leverage his appearance towards broadening to other mediums, noting that a book may one day be part of his growing repertoire.
“Nowadays chefs have an opportunity to expand outside of kitchen lines,” he said. Cuisine matters. But now, perhaps more than ever, it’s time to celebrate the stories that fuel the flames.
7908 is located at 415 East Hyman Ave., Aspen. It is set to close on April 17 for the off-season. It will reopen in June, seven days a week from 6 p.m. – close which will be adjusted according to current state regulations.