Five years is a long time by anyone's count, but for fifteen year old chef Flynn McGarry, it's fully one third of his life. It's also how long the well-studied young chef has been cooking, creating and staging at some of the nation's best restaurants. So what motivates a slightly shy high schooler to take months away from classes, friends and family to go work the line at Eleven Madison Park in New York, or to spend his weekends prepping tasting menu ingredients at Alma in downtown Los Angeles? Thomas Keller, for one.
"As the story goes, when I was ten I kind of got sick of my mom's cooking," says McGarry over a few plates of decidedly uncheffy sweet potato fries and turkey meatballs in Los Angeles. "So I went to the bookstore and I went looking for a cookbook. And, because I was ten, chose the most expensive one that's wrapped in plastic and up on a shelf, that we had to ask someone to get for us. And that was the French Laundry cookbook."
The rest is well known. The homeschooling, the dedication to technique ("I could brunoise by the time I was eleven") and the modified test kitchen installed in his bedroom, modeled after the world-class version at Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago. "Everything else just went away and I just got really obsessed."
McGarry is figuring out what kind of chef he wants to become and is content in the meantime to simply keep on learning.
Keller's influence still resonates in McGarry's refined, locally-driven cooking today, which is put on display with occasional pop-ups under the name Eureka — the street he grew up on. Not that the food is as fully focused as Keller's; McGarry is figuring out what sort of chef he wants to become, and is content in the meantime to simply keep on learning. "When you're young, your brain is like a sponge. So every kitchen I go into, I'm observing everything and I'm kind of absorbing it all." That notion served the aspirational chef well at his other monumental influence: the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park, where McGarry has staged on and off for years.
The elbow-rubbing osmosis of working alongside several of America's best chefs appears to be working. Already, diners on both coasts have been happily shelling out upwards of $200 for the opportunity to enjoy the young maestro's New American dishes. A recent pop-up run in New York City's West Village featured 11 courses, a $150 price tag and hundreds of hopeful guests turned away for lack of space. For that one, McGarry even flew in his own team from Los Angeles.
Logging all those hours means McGarry is becoming a better kitchen leader, too. "I've been very lucky to go to the restaurants that I have, and to see the level that they're operating at," he says. "I'd say I get some food inspiration from chefs … but I mostly get inspiration on how to run a kitchen, how to execute food well." And while not everyone is keen on taking direction from a teenager, assures McGarry, the folks who stick around are genuinely interested in what's being created. "The right cooks are motivated by the food. And if you're doing incredible food, they will do whatever [it takes] to execute it. And I think that's really important."
The Eureka team is currently taking over the kitchen for a series of pop-ups at L.A.'s Fifty Seven, the yawning, wood-lined space that used to be a loading dock in downtown's reformed Arts District.
The popular new restaurant acts as an incubator of sorts, with noted chefs manning the flames for a few months to test out a concept, before making way for someone else. McGarry's truncated pop-up dinners — one or two seatings per month throughout the summer, fifty guests only — comes on the heels of a three month run by the talented David Nayfeld, who acted as the first chef-in-residence when the restaurant opened earlier this year. McGarry felt comfortable enough to stage his upcoming dinners at Fifty Seven after spending a few weeks in the beautiful kitchen there, working the line alongside Nayfeld, who's previous gig was as sous chef at — where else? — Eleven Madison Park.
But there's little point in just standing in the background forever. Kitchen life is messy, dangerous and littered with one-time success stories that turned quickly into where-are-they-now's, something McGarry is determined to avoid. That requires a healthy mix of PR acumen, intuitive planning and a strong sense of self. The gauzy reality show where the young teen chef cooks up impromptu dinners with whatever ingredients are laying around? No thanks. Becoming a well-paid brand ambassador for some shoddy kitchen equipment company? Pass. The tell-all book book and inevitably glossy docudrama? Not likely. A food-focused travel show, maybe. But mostly Flynn is interested in carving out a place to hang his apron every night. Something small and focused ("fifty, maybe sixty seats"), where dinner service thrives or dies under his own direction. "I want to open my restaurant by the time I'm nineteen. I'll have been cooking in restaurants for seven years then.
"I feel like there's a certain point when you have to say to yourself alright, you're done learning from other people, now it's time to go out on a limb."
Until then, look to find McGarry sweating on the line like every other cook in the kitchen. "I don't think that I'm at a point that I'm really happy with any of my skills, because I'm constantly thinking. That's the thing with all chefs that I've met: they're constantly looking for new things to learn." There's still a long way to go, but five years into his young culinary career, McGarry knows that success is all about patience, precision and inspiration. And thanks to a few lucky opportunities in some of America's most important kitchens, he's already learning plenty of each.
Want to learn more about Flynn? Head this way to submit your question. We'll publish his answers in the coming weeks.
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