Original-Cin Q&A: Doc on Boy Wonder Chef Charts Highs and Lows of Pro Cooking

By Bonnie Laufer

Flynn McGarry is not your average kid. Truthfully, he is quite extraordinary. Ever since he was a small child, he loved cooking. So much so that when he was 10 years old he decided that he was going to start his culinary journey and have it dominate his life.

Film Subject Flynn McGarry.jpeg

Now 19, Chef Flynn is not only a master at his craft but runs Gem, his very own restaurant in New York City. It’s the subject of the documentary Chef Flynn, an engaging look at McGarry’s journey.

McGarry is an inspiration both to budding young chefs and to anyone wanting to pursue their dreams. In 2015, McGarry was named one of Time magazine's 30 most influential teens; we will be hearing a lot more from this talented young man in the years to come.

Original-Cin’s Bonnie Laufer had the chance to chat with him about his culinary life and what it took to get where he is today.

Original-Cin: Cooking is something that you have always been passionate about, a passion that really kicked in at around age 10. How did you know at that age that this was something you wanted to spend the rest of your life doing?

Flynn McGarry: I don’t think that it was a conscious decision at that age that this was something I want to spend the rest of my life doing but I’ve always been the kind of person that if I am enjoying something then I want to keep doing it. So becoming a chef was a natural progression for me. It never started as, ‘I want to be a chef.’ I loved cooking and I kept doing it. Being that young I was never pressured into anything and I could have stopped whenever I wanted but I just truly loved doing it and it turned into something much bigger than I could have ever anticipated.

OC: You’ve always had the support, help and backing from your family. How important has that been in shaping who you are and what you’ve become?

FM: It was definitely an integral part of my life especially as a child because I looked to my parents for guidance. I think having that support gave me the confidence to actually go work in kitchens, or set up a pop up restaurant in our home and let me fulfill my cooking dreams. My parents knew from the beginning that this wasn’t just a hobby. They supported my passion and along with my sister were with me every step of the way. Without that there is no way I would have gotten this far so quickly.

OC: We learn through the documentary that you turned your bedroom into a makeshift kitchen. What was it like for you to get started at such a young age and as things were seriously progressing as you got older how did you handle knowing that this was something you were really going to do for the rest of your life?

FM: I don’t think I ever really thought about it like that to be honest. It just kept progressing and I was always finding new things to cook and I really enjoyed what I was doing. I still think of it the same way, I keep finding new things that I enjoy about it and I think that is really what keeps me going. Every day is a new experience and being inspired and getting to create exciting new dishes is a dream for me. To be honest, it’s very rare for me to think, ‘This is my job.’ I appreciate all the opportunities that I have been given and I love having this freedom to create and make people happy with the food that I present.

OC: When the documentary was being shot was it annoying to you at any stage? The cameras were constantly in your face and we do get to see you when you are most vulnerable.

FM: It really wasn’t that bad but for me the most important element was having trust in the person who was making it. I have known the director/cinematographer Cameron Yates for as very long time so it made me a lot more comfortable for him to film certain things that you see in the documentary.

OC: It was such a fascinating and honest look at your life and I especially love the footage of you as a little baby… not quite a year old bagging around the pots and pans!

FM: Ha, I know. I guess I was destined to be a chef at a VERY early age! My sister found that footage and it was nice addition to the documentary.

OC: What is the biggest lesson you have learned over the past nine years since you started taking your cooking seriously all the way to having your very own restaurant in New York City.

FM: I think the most important thing that I have learned is that you have to be very confident but also I think about everything as though I am constantly learning. You can NEVER stop learning and I am always inspired by other chefs and the people I surround myself around. I never take the attitude of, ‘Oh I know this because you never know everything.’ My goal is to learn as much as possible and to continue learning.

OC: We know that cooking has always been your passion and you can spend 24 hours a day cooking if you could but there had to have been time to just be a kid?

FM: Well yeah, I was a kid until I was 12 years old and then I was just kind of over it (laughs). For me spending time cooking was kid stuff. I never felt like I was missing out on anything and I never felt the need to play or partake in other programs. I was doing something that was interesting to me and I never felt left out or that I was missing out on anything. Don’t get me wrong, everyone is different and I think the freedom of being a ‘kid’ is needed and great but for me I was perfectly happy doing what I was doing. My parents were always happy and supportive with my decisions and in fact encouraged me to take some time away from the kitchen but I was always most happy when I was cooking and creating new dishes.”

OC: With so many television channels out there today cooking and baking shows are all the rage. We can’t get enough of them and I was wondering why you think we are all fascinated by them?

FM: I think it's because they are interesting and people want to learn how to cook. Chefs are interesting people and are artists in their own right. I see them as not disconnected as many art forms are but it’s partaking in something that we can relate to. People get ideas from these shows and many see themselves in the contestants. Especially the shows that feature every day home cooks who want to explore their passions. I think it gives people confidence and there are so many elements that give people something to be interested in.

OC: Who inspires you?

FM: There are so many chefs that I am inspired by like Daniel Humm, René Redzepi and Thomas Keller. I am constantly inspired by people I work with and who have the same drive and passion that I have for cooking and creating.

OC: I think it is important for kids who want to become chefs that they become more independent, build self-confidence and support their self-expression through a culinary education. How did these elements play in for you growing up as a young chef?

FM: All of those things were and still are very important to me. That is one of the reasons I started my pop-up restaurants. There is always a learning curve but what was most exciting for me was the creating and then executing the dish. I always try to find a balance between the two. It’s fun to create and take into consideration who and what inspires me so that I can add that to my dishes but I also made sure I put my own spin on it and create my own style of food. It takes a while to do that and I only feel like now I can sort of define what that is but it took many years to figure it all out.”

OC: What is your creative process like? You now run your very own successful restaurant and I am sure that you spend a lot of time creating new and exciting dishes for that. You offer 12 courses so it must give you such freedom to express yourself in so many different plates.

FM: We try to change things up almost daily. I definitely have some signature dishes that people expect but I try to change something up all the time. I never want to be boring or stale. The idea behind or menu is to showcase what is available and what is inspiring at that moment too. Obviously some ingredients are only available at certain times of the year so we work around that. It all starts with the ingredients and the farmers that I work very closely with but from there I look at the foods as an art form. I can’t really explain my process but it’s all about what I have to work with and what inspires me. Having the restaurant gives me structure so sometimes I keep the same menu because I am not inspired that day, but other times I may change it up four times a week it really just depends. I want it to be a very personal restaurant in that way where the food changes by what I am inspired by and what interests me.

OC: Do you ever surprise yourself with what you cook?

FM: Every once in a while I will make something and think, ‘Wow I didn’t expect that!’ I may put something in the menu that I don’t necessarily like but customers love and ask for. It really is a new experience every day.

OC: What advice would you give to young and aspiring cooks and chefs?

FM: First and foremost, while it is important to cook your own stuff and kind of create dishes and be creative with it, you can’t do any of that until you know all the basics. So to learn all the basics on your own or go work somewhere to learn all the basics, and then from there start kind of doing your own thing. But never be like, ‘Alright, I’m done learning from other people.’ Never get to a place where you think you know everything, because you never will. Especially in cooking — there’s always something else to learn.

OC: I was wondering if you ever step back and say to yourself, ‘Wow, I can’t believe what I have accomplished and I am not even 20 years old! Hard work definitely pays off!

FM: I don’t do that for that exact reason. If I did that I don’t think I would be doing what I am doing. Age is just a number, I can’t focus on that and sometimes I wish others wouldn't either! You’re right, I have worked really hard to get where I am and I don’t plan on doing anything less. It’s a tough business but I love it and it really makes me so happy.

Chef Flynn. Directed by Cameron Yates. Begins January 25 at Toronto's Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.