Hey Nineteen

Inside the Mind of a Young Cooking Prodigy

Teen Flynn McGarry runs a NYC kitchen and is subject of a movie screening in Houston this weekend.

By Joanna O'Leary November 8, 2018

Flynn McGarry has been cooking professionally and publicly since age 11.

Image: Kino Lorber

Of the many films slated to be screened this weekend at the 10th Annual Cinema Arts Festival, none will be more intriguing to foodies than Chef Flynn, which chronicles the rise of Flynn McGarry from intrepid child cook to gourmet chef who at age 11 opened a pop-up restaurant in New York City.

Houstonia had the opportunity to speak with McGarry, now 19, by phone as he prepped for dinner service at his recently opened restaurant Gem, also in NYC.

Your food has been described by you (and others) as “modern American cuisine.” Can you elaborate on that description?

I use that term purposefully although it’s vague because it’s meant to encompass many things. My food is seasonal, driven by the market, and very personal: inspired by my own thoughts and experiences, especially where I’ve traveled. “American” also I hope pinpoints how what I cook represents the melting pot of ingredients from the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut).

What experiences abroad in particular have most influenced your cooking?

I spent a lot of time in Scandinavia and Italy—what I saw and tasted really resonated with the flavors and style of cooking I admire. I’ve been to Japan, and though I haven’t spent a lot of time there, I also find a lot of inspiration in their cuisine. I definitely look forward to going there more.

I know a lot of your travel has been a large part of your own culinary education, as well as apprenticing in kitchens of top chefs such as Grant Achatz, but in the film you make a point of endorsing the advent of more non-traditional pedagogical methods that will make the field more accessible.

Yes, definitely. The usual way about it historically is that to train to be a chef you spend hours and hours in a kitchen, usually just with a lot of other men, learning from one person (also a guy). But now because of the internet, there’s so many new ways you can learn cooking techniques on your own from all different people. Essentially, you can acquire a lot of training without having to compete for one of those coveted spots in a restaurant kitchen. That means more people, I think, can get into cooking seriously and lead to more diversity in the business.

You're outspoken also in the film about your desire to have your own restaurant. Now that you’ve achieved that goal, what are the new challenges? What’s your daily routine like?

Almost every day, I go to the farmers’ market, buy lots of whatever looks excellent, then head to the restaurant to make phone calls and start prep and think about the menu. The fundamental challenge is learning to perform that repetition with nuance. Learning how to do this again and again, day in and day out, to deliver a consistent product yet at the same time allowing for creativity and spontaneity with regards to designing new dishes.

Essentially, how can we as a team cook to the best level every day? Staff and getting a really good group of people together I’ve learned is a large component of achieving this form of sustainability.

In the scant hours you’re not cooking for patrons at Gem, where do you go in New York City to have other people cook for you?

Well, in my one day off a week I always seem to go to same places. Chinatown is a favorite for dumplings and hand-pulled noodles. My friends also recently opened a great wine bar. 

You’re an advocate of food prepared with fresh, seasonal ingredients, but do you have a processed guilty pleasure?

I love McFlurries, specifically the classic Oreo. It’s whipped ice cream—how can that not be delicious?

Catch a preview for Chef Flynn before catching the film at the Rice Media Center. Tickets can be purchased here.

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