Flynn McGarry has had an idyllic summer. The 20-year-old chef-patron of Manhattan’s Gem restaurant has been travelling Europe – Spain, France, Belgium, Denmark, the UK – cooking, eating and learning. It’s the first break he’s taken since Gem opened to positive reviews a year and a half ago. And it’s needed.
“It wasn’t full burnout, but ... I wasn’t as excited to be doing it every day,” says the chef, who started hosting (and charging for) his Eureka supper clubs at his mother’s home in California in his early teens, earning him plenty of child prodigy headlines and eventually, as his career soared, significant flak from miffed chefs who felt he hadn’t paid his dues. “It seems like we were already on kind of autopilot after a year, which isn’t the kind of restaurant I wanted to have.”
Gem Restaurant - Photo Aaron Bengochoa
McGarry was cooking dishes from The French Laundry Cookbook at 11 and staging at some of the world’s best restaurants, including Eleven Madison Park and Maaemo, soon after, while appearing on numerous TV shows and gracing the covers of magazines (indeed, he was playfully nicknamed ‘Cover boy’ by Maaemo staff). At 16 he brought a Eureka pop-up to New York City. Now he’s fulfilled his lifelong dream of having a bricks and mortar restaurant there but feels like he and Gem need a reboot. Hence the decision to close over the summer.
Changing the vibe
“I lost the sense of what really inspired the restaurant in the first place, which were restaurants you can have fun in,” says McGarry of the relentless grind of Gem’s first 18 months. “When we didn’t leave [New York] we started to conform in a lot of ways ... to the idea of a restaurant that serves a tasting menu in New York City.”
Summer squash with nduja and salted rhubarb
He’s still committed to a tasting menu though – up to 16 courses now. New dishes include a barely cooked prawn with ham, preserved sour cherries and pickled roses inspired by his travels in Spain this summer; tomatoes and strawberries in a Darjeeling dashi; and a celery yakitori that uses every part of the plant. Pete Wells of The New York Times described the fruits and vegetables McGarry uses in profusion as looking and tasting “as if they had dropped off the vine right on to the hand-spun, earth-toned ceramic dishes,” in what was a solid two-star review.
Smoked and dried beets with maitake and black garlic
What will change, he hopes, is the vibe. Inspired by recent visits to resolutely unstuffy restaurants such as Vivant in Paris and Chambre Séparée in Ghent, Belgium, McGarry will be stripping back and chilling out. 36 covers per night when Gem opened have dropped to 16 and he will even greet you at the door, while the person who calls to confirm your reservation will also serve you on the night. It’s all about recreating the intimacy and fun of those early supper clubs. “The thing that I really don’t like in restaurants is when you feel like you’re imposing on the people working there,” he says. “You should be able to have as much fun as you want.”
Realizing what you're bad at
What’s clear to him – and McGarry is very self-aware – is that he is still learning. We move on to the topic of bullying. It’s partly why McGarry was home-schooled from an early age and there’s no place for it in his kitchen.
“I think the biggest thing for me was realizing what I’m bad at. I’m not a great manager yet. It’s almost irresponsible to have this idea of ‘I’m the chef and I know everything,’” he says. “So many things in the food industry go back to people just being insecure, but not feeling like they’re allowed to be. Not feeling like you’re allowed to not know everything.”
The 2018 documentary Chef Flynn leaves us just as McGarry is about to realize his dream of opening a restaurant in New York City. He says he’s had a great reaction from young people that want to get into cooking and from parents. And he hopes it shows that he didn’t just come from nowhere.
Broccoli rabe tortellini
“I hope I inspire young people to see that there are different routes to take in cooking,” he says. “The traditional way is not necessarily wrong, but it’s important to know what works best for you so you can be as successful as possible.”
McGarry is always going to irk some chefs and he understands why. He’s in a position now, at 20 that most will never be in. He represents a threat to the established order, some of whom feel he undermines the sweat and tears they’ve shed to get where they are. He’s affluent and had a test kitchen in his bedroom before his voice had even broken. But he is also someone who figured out what he wanted to do when he was very young and how many of us can say that?
“It’s funny, because I will technically always be a teen chef,” he says of the moniker that may continue to haunt him. “I hope it goes away. Unfortunately, I had to come to terms with the fact that because I started young I don’t think I will ever be looked at in the way that when I started cooking I wanted to be looked at. And that’s fine. I’ve accepted that I’m going to be called a former teen chef, but that still brings people to the restaurant and allows me to do whatever I want… [If it] still continues to give me opportunities then I see nothing necessarily wrong with that.”