7908 Reasons to Watch ‘Top Chef: Portland’
Chef Byron Gomez represents Aspen and Costa Rica on Bravo TV’s reality cooking competition
When composing a dish, chef Byron Gomez imagines that essential element of a relay race: the baton exchange.
“One ingredient has to complement the next, like a handoff,” he says. “Everything (on the plate) needs to make sense and have a tempo.”
As in life: When 16 years of ambition and momentum came to a screeching halt last spring, Gomez — executive chef of 7908 Aspen since June 2019 — felt ready to unpack his knives and compete in the next season of Bravo’s “Top Chef.” Now Gomez is both the first cheftestant from Costa Rica and the first from Aspen on the Emmy Award-winning reality competition show. Filmed in Portland, Ore., and featuring guest judges Alice Waters, José Andrés, and “Portlandia” stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, Season 18 premieres Thursday, April 1.
“Top Chef: Portland” (Season 18)
Thursday, April 1, at 6 p.m. MST
Hailing from the glorious melting pot of New York City, Gomez worked his way up from stacking sandwiches at Burger King at age 15 on Long Island to plating haute cuisine at Manhattan’s three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park (#1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2017; Gomez is seen briefly in the EMP episode of the 2018 Netflix docuseries “7 Days Out”). After twice attending the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Gomez moved here to open the EMP Winter House popup at the St. Regis Aspen Resort in 2018-2019. He “fell in love” with snowboarding and is fueled by relationships with area farmers who grow crops specifically for his 7908 menus.
Read on for behind-the-scenes intel … then watch what happens!
You’ve worked at four of chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurants, including Michelin-starred Café Boulud. What did you learn from this mentor? Having never gone to culinary school, I felt (that) Daniel Boulud was my culinary school. On days off I would stage with Ghaya Oliveira, pastry chef at Bar Boulud at the time. (Boulud) has built at empire around doing what he loves. The biggest takeaway: If you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t be cooking.
How did this passion guide you to “Top Chef?” Sitting in my apartment last April after we had closed due to (the coronavirus shutdown), I felt ready to apply. Throughout my career, many peers said, ‘You have the personality’ and I used to do cooking television. It was a very thorough application process, and you can get dropped at any point. Just to (be) considered is a big achievement!
Did your self-taught background offer any advantage? Working in very competitive establishments gave me a glimpse of what it is to compete. Michelin restaurants (are) cutthroat. You’re working at the highest level in the world. If you screw up, there is a stack of résumés behind you. Also being the first person from Costa Rica on the show gave me a sense of pride. I did prepare by watching previous seasons: Colorado (2017-2018) felt familiar. It gave me that boost of confidence (to) represent Aspen well.
This season addresses COVID-19’s impact on the restaurant industry. How did the pandemic affect taping? I got to Portland Aug. 30. Everybody had to quarantine for 10 days (before) we began filming, anywhere between 15- and 18-hour days, waking up very early in the morning to get COVID-tested. We all had our own individual rooms — compared to previous seasons, where (contestants move into) a big house and sleep in bunk beds. We had the luxury of having privacy and our own floor of the hotel. That we were able to finish production was something to admire.
How intense was the competition and did the cameras affect your flow? You’re like a cow walking to the slaughterhouse, you don’t know what’s going on! [laughs] 80% of the time I was in my own zone, thinking three or four steps ahead because the timing is real. Your mind starts racing immediately as they say GO!: What should I grab first, produce or cooking ware? I remember running to the pantry — a five-second sprint — and with adrenaline rushing I was sweating. Someone in front of me filming was the last thing I was worried about. I was (focused on) accomplishing the challenge and making sure that I didn’t end up at the bottom.
Host Padma Lakshmi notes that all 15 contestants this season are chef-owners or executive chefs — no sous chefs, cooks, or culinary students. That definitely set the bar a little higher. There were (four) James Beard (Award)-nominees. But I felt a sense of familiarity because of the caliber of restaurants I’ve worked at, (with) great people from across the world. Sometimes you’re blinded to opportunities you don’t go out and seek because you’re in a comfort situation.
How do you express yourself on the plate during “Top Chef” and at 7908? It’s always that sense of intriguing, an element of surprise. I like to play with vibrant flavors, bright acidity, colorful presentations … to capture as many senses as possible and maybe change some guests’ minds along the way. Now I’m (tracing) back to my roots: ancestral cuisine in Costa Rica, ingredients like the achiote/annatto mole, but taking influence from Japan, Mexico, and Central America.
Do any dishes on the 7908 menu salute your “Top Chef” experience? I told myself I needed to create a dish honoring all these people around me. (The diversity of) this cast was inspirational. For the octopus, I braise it in dashi, sear it on la plancha, then dress it with miso vinaigrette. Our housemade ham furikake gives it crunch (with) Brussels sprouts leaves dressed in a little vinegar powder along with parsley oil. On the side is a luscious, rich sauce — an achiote-guajillo mole. It’s been a big hit.
The Wagyu filet mignon was inspired by the Pacific Northwest, my first time there. I think about dark or vibrant colors because of the weather, how rainy, mossy, and cloudy it is. Beets are earthy yet sweet. Cauliflower to contrast the beets, blended with a dry-aged beef tallow to emulsify (with) another depth of beefiness. Vidalia onions come from the ground; we sear them hard, so the rings are charred. The filet will remain on the menu year-round.
How has this past year changed how you operate at 7908? Due to the pandemic we offered al fresco dining, which was a big success. We’re looking to kick it up a notch (with) new patio furniture, making it more comfortable and more of an experience, serving-wise. Summers have been the most greenest greens, the falls have been the most yellow yellows I’ve ever seen in my life! As an artist, a creator, a chef, it’s hard not to be inspired by Aspen.
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