When Byron Gomez was 15 years old, the Costa Rica native discovered his passion for culinary arts in what some may deem an unlikely environment: a Burger King in Central Islip, Long Island, in the heat of summer.
“That’s pretty much where I met my love for cooking,” Gomez, who is now 32 and the executive chef at 7908 Supper Club, said during a phone interview Thursday.
Although hired as a cashier at Burger King, Gomez was called back to the kitchen one particularly hot summer’s day after a staffer called in sick. As part of the food prep, Gomez pulled the lever of a massive industrial tomato slicer — “and that was it,” he recounted.
“It’s something so simple, but it really had a lot of meaning to me back then,” Gomez said. “And trying to figure out as a young kid what I wanted to do, plus my opportunities growing up didn’t allow me to have many options … my immigration status wasn’t up to par, so there were many things my family had to scramble.”
While Gomez is now protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (more commonly known as DACA), that wasn’t the case growing up. Gomez’ parents moved the family from Costa Rica to Central Islip — which he described as “not the most glamorous town” — when he was 8 years old.
“I knew I would never be able to go culinary school; I knew I would never be able to go to college. But I think cooking gave me that freedom where everything and everyone around me kept saying, ‘No, you can’t do this because of your status.’ But cooking never said that to me, metaphorically speaking.”
He added: “Not many success stories come out of Central Islip, Long Island.”
By all accounts, Gomez — who stars in Bravo TV’s upcoming season of “Top Chef,” which will air April 1 — is exactly that: a success story.
From breaking change at a fast-food chain to working at Michelin-starred restaurants alongside the world’s most renowned chefs, Gomez is the epitome of what it means to start from the bottom and rise through the ranks. After stints at Burger King, TGI Friday’s and the Sheraton Hotel, Gomez rode the train from Long Island into Manhattan and dropped off his resume at several restaurants.
A trendy Madison Avenue eatery by the name of Pranna called him back.
Commuting two-and-a-half hours every day from the Bronx, where he had moved, to Manhattan, Gomez not only seized any opportunity within his reach — he created them. Oftentimes, this meant working at a sister restaurant for free on his one day off each week. His logic was simple: “That was my culinary school … and I was like a sponge.”
The experience also provided him a free meal when money was tight.
In the span of a decade, Gomez honed his skills at some of the most prestigious restaurants in New York and around the world — including Café Boulud, Atera and Eleven Madison Park — all of which boast Michelin stars. He worked with and learned from acclaimed chefs like Daniel Boulud, Ronny Emborg, Gavin Kaysen and Daniel Humm.
“I felt like with food, I can travel the world. There are no boundaries, the people that I meet, their customs, their traditions — they bring them to the restaurant,” Gomez said. “Whether you’re working at a Thai restaurant and you have Mexican dishwashers and cooks, it’s a whole blend of cultures. And we all come together due to one reason, and that’s food. And that’s why I love it so much and I geek out so much about it.”
And that’s how Gomez landed in Aspen — food. After successfully helping open Eleven Madison Park’s EMP Summer House in the Hamptons in 2017, Gomez was tapped to spearhead the company’s winter concept in Aspen. Spoiler alert: Gomez fell in love with Aspen and never left. After receiving a few offers from Aspen’s most highly regarded restaurants, Gomez found his home at 7908.
When the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders started a year ago this time, instead of day drinking and panicking, Gomez quipped, he sought out his next opportunity: a seat on “Top Chef.”
“Byron’s culinary pedigree and infectious positivity made him an early favorite of ours during casting,” Samantha Hanks, who is executive vice president of the casting division within the production company behind “Top Chef,” said in an email. “He has the skills and credibility, and in learning about his background, we saw how special his journey has been. Finding his talent in Colorado was also a major score for us, as we always want to represent regional diversity in the show.”
The Emmy- and James Beard Award-winning series will return with host Padma Lakshmi and head judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons on April 1.
Until then, the Costa Rican chef will be preparing exquisite dishes at 7908 and shredding, his self-described “crack” and latest passion. He’s currently on day 74 of his ski season.