Long before Chef Byron Gomez competed on Bravo’s Top Chef, he worked in casual dining. It was a step up from his previous job at a fast food chain, where he began his cooking career. Undocumented and in his teens, Byron had a confrontation while working that he says he will never forget.
Byron was working at the grill station when a co-worker began arguing with him. “He kind of had it out for me just because he saw me coming up the ranks,” Byron said.
As they passed by each other in the kitchen, the coworker dropped a hotel pan down that splashed Byron with steak blood. “I took a deep breath and reminded myself it’s the kitchen, and sometimes things get heated,” Byron said.
Then, the coworker kicked the metal pan at Byron.
“A hotel pan has very sharp, thin edges, and that ended up cutting my leg,” he said.
As Byron bled, his coworker looked at him and said, “You think you can amount to something? You’re an immigrant. You will never be past a line cook.”
“In that moment I was so mad,” Byron said. “But a few days later, I said, ‘You know what? I am going to prove this guy wrong.’”
Byron used the experience as motivation: to reach the highest levels possible as a chef, and to show people what immigrants and people from Costa Rica are about. As a DACA recipient, Byron is a shining example of immigrants adding immeasurable value to our country.
He’s worked at 1-star, 2-star, and 3-star Michelin restaurants, and he represented his home country of Costa Rica on Bravo’s Top Chef Season 18.
“I always wanted to better myself. Not only for my personal growth, but for those around me,” Byron said. “Knowing that my parents gave up so much to come to a new country, it was that fear of failing them.”
Byron said there are two distinct reasons that he was drawn to cooking. He joked, “I think cooking chose me, I didn’t really choose cooking.”
“Growing up in Costa Rica, all the family would be picked up and brought to my house on Sundays,” he said.
His family gathered weekly to watch the local soccer league and cook. And Byron loved to sneak into the kitchen. “I would be almost underneath the table and the ladies would be talking, and I’d eat little pieces of food and they’d start to give me tastes of this and that,” he recalled.
But when Byron came to the U.S., all of that stopped: “All of that got stripped away. It’s only now a memory. So cooking is a way for me to give back. And maybe part of that is yearning for that feeling I might not ever get back.”
The other factor that drove the chef was his sister. Growing up, Byron’s older sister was an honor roll student who had opportunities for college lining up. But because of her immigration status, she couldn’t access in-state tuition. “We couldn’t afford that. And that was the end of that road for her. I saw that and it really resonated with me. I told myself I have to do something different,” he said.
Byron said after working at places like casual dining restaurants and hotels, he moved to New York with $800 dollars in his pocket. By the year 2014, he was working at his first Michelin-starred restaurant, Café Boulud. That’s when Byron first heard of DACA.
“I felt a little iffy about it. I wondered if this was a trap to get my information and then they’ll come by and pick everyone up,” Byron said. “Now, I’m a prime product of why this came into play.”
DACA in some ways allowed Byron to come out of the shadows regarding his identity, as he was protected from deportation. “It’s taken away a little bit of having to live a life in fear. It’s taken a load off so I can tell someone, ‘Hey, this is who I am,’” Byron said.
Byron continued to work his way up in the culinary world and became the sous chef at Eleven Madison Park, one of 14 restaurants in the country with three Michelin stars. In 2017, it was also named the World’s Best Restaurant while Byron was there: “I am pretty sure I was the only sous chef in the world from Costa Rica who ever worked at number one restaurant.”
“After being at Eleven Madison Park, I didn’t think I could top that. Then Top Chef came around and changed my life,” he said.
Byron jumped at the opportunity to cook and share his story with a national audience. “I was 32 years old when I did the show. And you know, society paints this picture that by that age, you’re supposed to have your [stuff] together,” he said.
Byron continued, “There is so much compacted into those eight weeks of filming, but the thing I struggled with the most was thinking, ‘Who am I?’”
His competitors had clear culinary specialties: Japanese, Sonoran, Mexican and so on. “And then you have me. I’m from Costa Rica but I don’t really cook Costa Rican food. I’m here in the U.S. but I’m not really from the U.S,” he said.
“My forte was French technique, but I like Southeast Asian Flavors. So I kept thinking, ‘Where do I fit into this competition? What is my story?’”
Byron fell just short of winning the Top Chef competition, but he considered his representation as the first DACA recipient on the show as a success.
“How Costa Rican am I? Maybe not enough for some people. But how American am I? Maybe not enough either, especially because I don’t have my citizenship here. But that never stopped me from trying to keep on climbing,” he said.
While Byron cannot return to his childhood memories, he is inspiring his family and others like him through his culinary journey. He’s also reminding the nation of the value that immigrants bring to the U.S.
“In Costa Rica, I was featured on a show called ‘National Pride of Costa Rica’ and it was so humbling,” Byron said. “I get calls from people in Costa Rica saying congratulations, and people telling me my parents should feel very proud. And I think that was part of the plan. For my parents to feel like they’ve made the sacrifice for their children and we’ve made them proud.”
Byron hopes to one day write a memoir to chronicle his life: “As a sort of trailblazer, it’s scary to try and pave the way for others. But I consider myself an example of like, ‘Hey, if I did it, you could. Anybody could,’” he said.