The food world is divided over this 17-year-old chef.
Culinary boy wonder Flynn McGarry is a divisive character. On one hand, you’ve got the deep-pocketed New York foodies who flock to his 12-seat pop-up restaurant, Eureka. They’re happy to drop $160 (before booze) on the wunderkind’s 16-course meal, certain that the self-taught McGarry ranks among America’s culinary elite.
And on the other, pissed-off industry veterans like David Santos (of Louro fame) who view McGarry’s acclaim as a slap in the face to more “serious” chefs?—?chefs who’ve put in the 14-hour days, who’ve suffered sweltering lines, whose decades of experience make them worthier of the “Chef” title than the still-green teen.
A precocious chef
McGarry’s story is well-known in the restaurant world. Tired of his parents’ one-note meals, the then-10-year-old started mucking around in the kitchen. He cooked his way through Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook, started hosting dinners at home and staged at some of the world’s most respected restaurants. By the time he reached 16, Flynn had a few pop-up successes under his belt and was prepared to set up shop for good in NYC. Now the young cook makes dinner five nights a week in the East Village, and his popularity shows no signs of waning.
McGarry turns 18 this year. But as he enters adulthood, his much-older colleagues in the industry still aren’t sure what to make of him.
Anyone can cook—but that does make a chef?
Critics and chefs are two different (but allied) factions of the anti-McGarry camp. The critics’ beef is with the kid’s food?—?it’s veggie-heavy, the portions are laughably small, the meat is under-seasoned, the carbs are MIA. The chefs’ beef is with McGarry himself, and the presumptuousness of calling oneself a chef without any real restaurant experience to speak of.
Are these valid complaints? It’s possible that McGarry’s tasting menu is a bit on the paltry side, size-wise. I wouldn’t know. And I don’t particularly care, because the real issue with McGarry isn’t the quality of his food. (It’s got to be passable, if he’s still selling out $160 pp dinners.) The issue is with McGarry as a person.
I already mentioned David Santos, whose online dismemberment of McGarry made the Facebook rounds, much to the delight of many industry old-timers who’ve spent the last several years rolling their eyes at the Anthony Michael Hall lookalike. Santos has some choice advice for diners on the fence about Eureka:
“If you go to this and fork over $160 plus then your [sic] a damn fool because I can name so many more actual chefs that actually deserve that money. Maybe one day he will indeed be a great chef…but earn it before you offend most of us that actually are. And any idiot that works 3 days a week can put together a couple great tasting dishes.”
Santos’s point is that the kid might have the raw chops to cut it in a kitchen. But there’s more to being a chef than making food taste good. It’s about food cost, order sheets, writing menus, revising menus, running the line, dealing with front of the house, expediting, refiring fuck-ups and a hell of a lot of cleaning.
McGarry simply doesn’t have that experience. Could he get there? Maybe. But until he does, argues Santos and his ilk, don’t call the kid a chef. He’s just a talented cook who arrived on the scene at the right time.
Cooking, like any art, is about finding your voice.
There are those who take a gentler, more forgiving approach with McGarry. Fusion’s Felix Salmon and The Awl’s Matt Buchanan (along with Salmon’s wife Michelle Vaughan) visited Eureka in its early days. They showed up with low expectations, but were pleasantly surprised by the phenom’s professionalism and execution:
“A 13-course tasting menu cooked by a 16-year-old chef with no real institutional support? What could possibly go wrong? The three of us turned up with phasers set to snark. But, in the end, Eureka was not the incoherent mess we half expected. In fact it was surprisingly organized and professional.”
Buchanan praised the kid’s consistency, calling all 13 courses “solid” and pointing out that many tasting menus from chefs with a lengthier resume can’t boast the same reliability course to course.
The three diners agreed that cooking, like writing or painting, is about finding your voice. They acknowledge that it’s unrealistic to expect a fully-fleshed voice from someone so young. Instead of disparaging the pop-up as a product of rubbernecking and good PR, they admit what everybody else seems to miss: The boy is still practicing, but shows promise.
So who’s right?
Is he the genuine article, or a pretender to the throne?
I spent ten years working in restaurants. I’ve seen good chefs and bad chefs, nice ones and naughty ones. Like snowflakes or fingerprints or magic wands, each one is unique. What they share, though, is the masochistic tendency to work long hours for little pay and high stress. It’s no wonder, then, that so many of them scoff at McGarry. Kid doesn’t know what it’s really like.
For a while, I didn’t hesitate to side with the grownups. Until you’ve chugged a beer in the walk-in after clawing your way out of the weeds, what right do you have to call yourself chef?
Then McGarry spoke up to defend himself. “Yes, people have worked really hard and have had really shitty lives,” he said. “But why does that struggle have to be the norm? Why is it that having a terrible life, missing all of your family events, being treated like shit for ten years?—?why is that the mark of being a chef?”
To that, I had no response. What virtue is there in self-abuse for the sake of your food? Why crucify someone who’s figured out a gentler path?
Time will decide whether McGarry has staying power. Until then, I say let the foodies flock to him. He’s not hurting anybody. In fact, his success has the potential to show young chefs a path to stardom that doesn’t require decades of prerequisite abuse.