Chef prodigy Flynn McGarry has accepted that, despite how much he's fought it, his age will always be part of the conversation.
I'll admit that I was initially drawn in to the gimmick of his age too. His childhood reads like the synopsis of a Wes Anderson film. Bored with the meals his mother cooked, he picked up The French Laundry Cookbook and later graduated to Alinea. His bedroom was eventually transformed into a kitchen, which, contrary to popular belief, was not as extravagant as it seemed. He landed an internship at Eleven Madison, and started a supper club, Eureka, out of his house when he was just eleven. After finishing high school early, McGarry took his first international trip to Scandinavia, where he worked in various kitchen. Now, at 19, he opened his first restaurant in NYC, Gem.
McGarry has earned a fair amount of acclaim in his surprisingly-long-for-his-age career. But the majority of the praise (and criticism) he's received is framed by exactly that: his prodigal nature. He's been called the Justin Bieber of food (much to his chagrin), and "teen" is a constant prefix to his title of chef in headlines. With the hook "Want your kid to be a celebrity chef? You better have a lot of money," Slate speculated that McGarry's success was much owed to the wealth of his parents, a claim that McGarry refutes. David Santos even famously denied McGarry the very title of chef, on account of his age and inexperience.
Perhaps a prodigal chef is just hard to accept, due to the subjective nature of the restaurant industry. It is much easier to deny the skill of McGarry than it is to deny the skill it would take for a classical music prodigy to play Flight of the Bumblebee, both because of subjectivity and access (the latter can be videoed, whereas the former can only be tasted by those who can pay the admittedly eye-watering $155 for the Gem tasting menu). Or perhaps much of the occasional disapproval McGarry has received can be attributed to the bitterness older generations harbor for this new crop of youngsters that doesn't subscribe to the notion that titles are reserved only for those who pay their dues, a generation that doesn't even pay their dues because they grew up in a time where one doesn't have to. It would be unjust of me to say here that McGarry is undeniably talented, as I have not tasted his food (and even if I had, as an outsider to the food world, I'm not even sure my opinion would be worthwhile). But I would be impressed by anyone, at any age, that displays the determination, ambition, and entrepreneurship he exhibits. And if he is not a chef, then what is he? The title is useless, irrelevant if it does not describe what McGarry is doing. He simply had an accelerated career trajectory and an early start.
In any case, the hubbub is irrelevant to McGarry. He rejects the cult-of-personality that's formed around him. Although he's begrudgingly accepted the novelty of his age, the focus should remain on the food.
Do you ever create dishes with the intention of leaving people with a particular feeling or emotion?
No, I think dishes that I create are associated with feelings and emotions that I have, and sometimes people pick up on that.
What work are you most proud of?
I really like how Gem has a homey atmosphere and references where you started from. Do you ever miss when you just ran a supper club?
No, I don't miss it. While it was fun, there are also a lot of different logistics you have to deal with versus having a real restaurant.
How has garnering fame from such an early age affected you (if at all)?
While everything was happening, I was always working in a kitchen, so in a way that has always grounded me. I had a very specific goal during that time too.
Do you have any unlikely sources of inspiration for dishes?
Yes, I get inspiration from everything. Some ideas come out of thin air but its hard to pin point exactly where it comes from.
What's the worst meal you've ever cooked?
I've made some dishes that didn't work at all but they've never made their way to a customer.
Do you ever worry that you've peaked?
No, what I like about cooking is that it's always ever changing.
Your age has been both cause for praise and criticism. I think in general the pretensions surrounding any sort of title like "chef"are falling away in the age of the internet. Do you think that these titles have to be earned?
I do see myself as chef and that's a title I do think I've earned at this point. My age will also likely always be a part of the story, I've come to accept that. That being said, my journey has given me a lot of opportunities that I'm thankful for.