Culinary prodigy Flynn McGarry started cooking at the age of 10, was operating a fine dining supper club by 12, and interned at Eleven Madison Park aged 13. He covered the New York Times Magazine at 15. Now 19, he is chef-patron of the critically-acclaimed New York restaurant Gem. He’s also the subject of a new documentary, Chef Flynn, in theaters now, and the latest guest on #NoFilter with Danielle Snyder. Here, we share the best insights from their conversation.
Every recipe is wrong.
“Every recipe is wrong. Don't follow it to the tee. If something feels wrong, don't do it… If you don't like something, take it out. “Don't learn how to cook from a cookbook that's like, ‘I'm gonna make this dish today,’ or ‘I'm gonna make this dish today.’ Learn how to do knife cuts, learn how to make a sauce. Learn how to do these sorts of techniques that apply to all cooking, so then when you read a recipe, you're like, ‘That's weird that that says 35 minutes,’ and you're like, ‘It usually should take this long.’ Get the knowledge of how ingredients work, then you can just sort of apply that to whatever.”
I wanted to be somewhere five days a week that wasn't school.
“I reached a point where I was cooking every day at home and I learned all I could actually learn while being in my house. I needed to go work in a restaurant. [And] I didn't want to work in a restaurant one day a week, I wanted to be there for the full week. So essentially it was just because I wanted to be somewhere five days a week that wasn't school, so I convinced [my parents] that I would work five days a week and then do school [via an online program] on my days off.
“I was still doing math, because I was doing recipes and figuring out how to portion things. It wasn't like if I was a piano prodigy and all I did all day was play piano, because the only skill you really get from playing the piano is playing the piano. I was getting the skill of knowing how to cook, but also knowing how to host people and how to have conversations and how to interact with people… I was also surrounding myself with very interesting people and smart people and not just kids my own age. I wasn't just surrounded by people who do what I do. Even within a restaurant you have people in the front of house who come from all different sort of backgrounds and who all have very different sets of skills and things that they especially wanna teach you when you're really young and absorb everything.”
Razor, surf and little neck clams with white gazpacho, fermented peppers and fig leaf oil. Photo: @diningwithflynn.
Food is the basis of everything.
“We focus on the tiniest, tiniest percentage of food, and the tiniest percentage of the population, and the tiniest percentage of everything. That's what we do on a day-to-day basis, and I think there's nothing wrong with that, that we think of it as art.
“But also in reality, food is sustenance. It's a necessity, and all that kind of stuff. So I think that's where we should balance the two out where it's like yeah, I'm aware we do things that are extremely expensive when we buy the perfect ingredients and all this kind of stuff, and we have to sort through it for it to be the exact right shape, and figuring out your way to also give back to people who can't sort through a thousand pounds of cabbage to find the perfect piece of it.”
“I think there's always something to be said about when you are doing something that's at the highest level, being able to understand it on its most basic level as well… [To] every once in a while kind of bring yourself back and be like this is actually the basis to everything.”
Design relates to the eating experience.
“The food changes all the time. The food changes in the season, what I'm feeling. The space we can't redesign every single day. I want it to feel really personal and really intimate, but also to be able to fit everything we wanted to do for the restaurant, and when we do different events, and how it could morph into all those different things. And that's been something that I've been even more interested in as far as like, how design relates to the eating experience as well.
“We pre-scent the restaurant before you walk in. Currently we walk around with a pot of brown butter that has burnt cinnamon in it… it makes you hungry. In the summer we'd walk around with citrus oil and rub it everywhere, make that bright feeling that you want when you walk in in the summertime. That's the thing, it's like design, you never think what does a restaurant smell like when you walk in it? Cause there's a lot of smells happening in a restaurant, so how do you have something that immediately hits you right when you walk in that's gonna disarm you a little bit?”
The interior of Flynn's restaurant, Gem. Photo: @gem.nyc.
Being confident in your opinions is important.
“For the [Midterms, I made] sure everyone could come in a little bit later. As a business owner, you have to be like, ‘Everyone, you can come in an hour later so you can go vote,’ because every restaurant I've ever worked in, it was like, holidays don't exist cause that's when you're working more. So it's like oh, it's election day. You still have to be at work at the exact same time, and no one would ever have time to actually go do it.
“We've probably had a lot of people with really fucked up political opinions come in the restaurant, and whatever your view, we're still gonna serve you the same meal.
“I'd be more than happy to piss off some people that have very differing political opinions, [but] I think being very confident about that is important… Anything that I talk about with anyone, it's sort of like either I'm 100% confident that that's the stand I wanna make, or I'm gonna be a little bit more calm about it, because I think there [are people who are] a little too overly ambitious and overly vocal about it, and then not really knowing everything about it.”
Flynn pictured recording the podcast with Danielle last month.
I don't just want to make tasting menus the rest of my life.
“If I had a thing where it was just me and one person, sure we’d get accolades and all these things from it, [but] what is actually gonna come out of that other than that? Nothing. You're not gonna make any money for sure, because there's no way to cook for enough people that you can make money…
“[If] you have a team of people who are gonna go hopefully do incredible things as well, that's how you build the restaurant's legacy, like places like Eleven Madison Park. French Laundry, they have their alumni, who worked there and then created that generation of restaurants. That I think is something more important than just being able to make every dish perfectly…
“It's more important to sort of create a new culture of people, of chefs, of front of house people that are bringing the values that I really value, and bringing that to their own projects when they end up going in doing things hopefully on their own. And also, I mean, scaling the business.
“I don't just want to make tasting menus the rest of my life. I want to do other things that are parts of the food world that I'm interested in that aren't just fine dining. And if it was just me cooking, I would not be able to scale that at all. I mean now, it's like the restaurant's not open if I'm not there. So, we're still in the very small thing where I touch every plate that goes out, and I'm still very focused on that because that's where I want it to be right now. But in two years, it would only be hindering the [potential] that we have on a larger scale for me to be there constantly doing that.”