Alex Hazen Alex Hazen | August 4, 2021 | Food & Drink Feature Featured Food & Drink
Fresh from his star turn on this season’s Top Chef, Byron Gomez sets his sights on turning even more heads in Aspen this summer.
For Aspenites who watched Top Chef’s thrilling recent season, it was no surprise that Byron Gomez impressed both his fellow chefs, judges and millions watching Bravo’s culinary hit. After all, local gourmands have raved about the chef’s dishes at 7908 for quite some time. Gomez recently sat down with us to talk about influences, the Top Chef experience and what’s on tap this summer and beyond.
Tell me about your formative culinary years—when did you start thinking about the art of cooking?
I started at 13 years old at a very famous restaurant… called Burger King. [Laughs] That kind of sparked my interest. By the time I was in my early to mid-20s, I embarked on a journey to New York City and worked at some of the best, Michelin-starred restaurants. I worked at a restaurant called 11 Madison Park—we were the top restaurant in the world in 2017. I was a sous chef, and I traveled with the [culinary} team. We did a pop-up in the Hamptons and one in Aspen, so that’s how I ended up here.
What were your family meals like growing up?
Very traditional—rice and beans, stews, grilled meats that were usually well done. So once I started in fine dining, I realized that you’re not supposed to eat meat like that. Also, [we ate] lots of plantains, pork and chicken.
Coconut sorbet with papaya, pepita croutons and lime curd
So did your parents have a role in teaching you?
My parents are very good cooks. When I was growing up, they used to make the best rice ever, and it took me so many years to learn how to make rice—and it’s so simple! I couldn’t do it for a while, maybe because I had the pressure of outdoing my parents.
How does your upbringing and previous restaurant experiences influence your cooking now?
It’s a blend of everything. I’m from Costa Rica. Currently, I’m a DACA recipient, so that kind of led to who I am now. Coming from Costa Rica, growing up in New York City—which is like a melting pot of different cultures—and then beginning to cook classical French cuisine, Scandinavian-Nordic cuisine, and now I’m making a full circle back to my roots in Latin America. It’s a little bit of everything. I don’t like to put myself in a box. Here at 7908, the restaurant reflects that. There’s influences from Southeast Asia, Europe, Latin America, and we blend that all into one dish—it has worked out really well, and people really enjoy it. I think that’s what puts us on the map each year.
Wagyu filet mignon with smoked beets, beef tallow cauliflower puree, cipollini onions and lovage beef jus
What did it feel like to be the first Costa Rican chef to compete on Top Chef?
It’s something [that] I definitely feel a lot of pride in—there’s a lot of weight behind it. Forbes just published an article about how Costa Rica is now a top gastronomic destination. It feels good to be a part of that movement, and it feels good to make my country proud. I haven’t had a chance to travel there [since 1997], but it’s something that I educate myself [about].
What pushed you to go on Top Chef?
There was always that comment by peers, family members and co-workers, saying, ‘You have such a good personality and smile, and you’re outgoing—you should go on TV.’ And I thought, ‘No, I’m a chef, and chefs belong in the kitchen.’ Plus, I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself. But I think I prepared myself enough—I’m 32 years old, so I think I have some knowledge of what gastronomy is like and how I like to see it, plus how talented I have become. I got a casting call, and I thought, ‘All right, great.’
Chef Gomez in Aspen
What drew you to Aspen and 7908?
As I mentioned, I came to Aspen with the 11 Madison Park pop-up; it was called Winter House at the St. Regis about three years ago. Before that, I had been to Aspen six years ago with the Food & Wine Classic. So being here that winter with 11 Madison Park, it was something so magical. I used to always say, ‘I feel like I’m living in a little snow globe’—it’s just so amazing, especially the energy of the mountain. At that point, my stress and my life was very hectic back in New York, because of the caliber of restaurants where I was working. I needed a change. Aspen gave me that eye-opening experience, and life here is amazing.
Would you say you have more creative freedom here than in New York?
Yes, definitely. It’s a little harder because, coming from a big city, you’re able to get things everywhere, [such as] produce, fish, whatever you need. Here, it’s very limited, but again, that challenge for my team is trying to put out the best product we can for 7908 and for our guests. It’s easiest for me to pick up the phone and place an order, but it’s a little bit more difficult to go down valley and make relationships with the farmers. That creative process has been a challenge, but we embrace it every single season. We’re working to have a few more staples that stay year-round, like the salmon crudo, which is a summer staple that we rolled out last year, and I’m never going to get rid of it.
“I USED TO ALWAYS SAY, ‘I FEEL LIKE I’M LIVING IN A LITTLE SNOW GLOBE’— IT’S JUST SO AMAZING, ESPECIALLY THE ENERGY OF THE MOUNTAIN.”
What can guests expect from the summer menu?
We’re working with a lot of local farms, as well as Sustainable Settings down in Carbondale and [Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute]—Jerome [Osentowski], the farmer, has an amazing educational facility, with greenhouses where he grows tropical fruit pretty much year-round. He is the only guy who grows oranges at this elevation. He doesn’t really work with restaurants at all—he’s been doing this for I think 50 years of his life—and now we’re going to be one of his first [restaurant] accounts. So [we’ll have] custom-designed menu items and ingredients that he’s going to give us. We’re going to have flavors from Southeast Asia, Latin America and great fish preparation.
Salmon crudo with huancaina sauce, jicama ribbons, puffed quinoa and kaffir lime leaf oil
Any other 7908 summer secrets?
We’re actually going to start the 7908 Summer Dinner Series, where we bring guest chefs once or twice a month. We’re also going to have LALO Tequila bottle service. It’s a five-course tasting menu for 35 people in the lounge. The next one is a brewing and sommelier dinner—we’re working with farmers for [sourcing].
Do you dine out anywhere else in Aspen?
I like Bosq. Chef Barclay [Dodge] and I have had a good relationship since pretty much day one. He and I share some great ideas together, and we [have] even come to a point where we have shared staff. My cooks go over to him, some of his cooks to me… so I like that bond. Also, chef Laurent [Cantineaux] at Betula Aspen—I like the concept, the atmosphere. And when I kind of just want to chill out, you can’t go wrong with Zane’s Tavern. It’s so good.
If you could cook for absolutely anyone, who would it be?
I’m not a fan of the teams, but I’m a fan of his story—Tom Brady. I think he was a kid that no one saw talent in, and I can relate to him, as he was pushed onto the back burner. He exceeded everyone’s expectations; he has become the best in the game. So it would be Tom Brady, plus his wife, Gisele Bündchen. It would be pretty tricky to cook for them, but that’s where the challenge comes in. If they say, ‘Wow, this chef is amazing,’ then I crushed it!
Photography by: STONEHOSUE PICTURES, SHAWN O’CONNOR, 7908