When 16 year old “Chef” Flynn McGarry hits the kitchens, most people are intrigued by his level of skill and focus. Media photos show him to be someone with a veteran’s hand; a kid with industry experience stemming from long before it could’ve physically been possible.
His dishes appear to be fully refined, his Facebook page offering up glimpses of sea water brined uni with a lush looking puree of carrot, coffee, and micro-marigolds. It’s an exploration in orange that captivates the eye. A dish labeled “aged beet, version 40 or something” implies a dish that has been reworked into a stunning wash of reds that invokes the imagery of a hearty beef steak with bordelaise, yet we know it to be a lowly root vegetable that appears to have transcended the sum of it’s often neglected, if not snubbed, parts.
A YouTube page, appropriately titled, Dining With Flynn, shows McGarry practicing and working dishes with the hand of a seasoned professional. Other videos show him working in his various pop-ups and commanding the kitchen just as an experience chef would. He is seen talking cooks through each dish while expoing each course. If he didn’t look like a teenager, you’d likely never know.
It was announced this week that McGarry would launch a small, twelve seat restaurant in New York’s West Village which will feature his signature 14 course tasting menu. The restaurant will operate three days a week and diners will run $160 per person (optional wine pairings run $80), which apparently includes both tax and tip; not too bad for a night out in New York.
While the media and general public have generally taken to McGarry, with his restaurant announcement showing up in almost every major food focused website this week, others are starting to voice a contrarian opinion. In a statement issued today, New York chef, David Santos, has come out in opposition to McGarry with claims that the young chef has yet to actually earn his whites. In a lengthy post via Instagram and Twitter, Santos makes the argument that a chef is born of both time and experience stating that the title of ‘chef’, “is something you earn through years of being beaten and shit on and taught by some of the greats. Not doing trails that your family pays for.”
Santos goes on to suggest that, “If you go to this and fork over $160 plus then your a damn fool,” and that, “I can name so many more actual chefs that actually deserve that money.”
While initially Santos comes off a bit aggressive in his approach, this is a long-held belief in the service industry which also extends itself to personal chefs, amateur chefs, and various bloggers. ‘Chef’ is considered to be a title that is earned with industry, in restaurant experience and there is a lot of merit to that which should be respected, however, with the climate around food rapidly changing, perhaps its time to rethink how that title is bestowed.
I’d be hard up to disagree with the fact that the title of ‘chef’ comes with the ability to manage, lead, and foster a team capable of achieving your menu concepts in a clear and consistent manner in which your diners come to rely on. I’d also be hard up to disagree with that fact that those skills come with a significant amount discipline and training, but where the discipline and training come from can be subjective. Just because McGarry hasn’t had Gordon Ramsey berating him on the line, doesn’t mean that he isn’t disciplined or have the communication skills needed to convey his vision to a brigade of line cooks. The fact of the matter is that no one really knows what McGarry is capable of handling and he clearly he is disciplined and there’s evidence to show that he can lead a team, so why not let him give it a go? If he can pull it off, he’s just as “deserving” as any other chef out there, is he not?
In a later comment on his initial Instagram thread, Santos does pose some pretty legitimate concerns that are worth addressing. Santos explains, “I don’t care who you are this job takes a lot of life lessons to be good at and even then it’s hard. The fact that his parents are thrusting him into a spotlight and being led and used like a PR puppet is gross. Support your kids but let them be kids too. The weight that’s on a seasoned professional is so great that it has lead some of our greatest chefs into spirals of drug addiction, alcoholism, and even suicide. That’s why the title of chef is earned and can’t just be handed around like nothing.”
I’m not entirely prepared to say that this kid is being used as a PR tool as he is very likely sincere in his endeavors and if his parents have the means to help him live his dream, good for him. We should all be so lucky and there’s nothing that I’ve seen in regard to McGarry that would lead me to believe that he’s not fully passionate about his art and that he doesn’t have the skills needed to make it a viable life choice. He has a clear respect for food that rises beyond what many actual “chefs” have which is evidenced by his produce driven dishes. From everything that I’ve seen, he relies sparingly on proteins, putting vegetables at the center of his plates and he does so with great care. In his video, “Flynns Duck Test”, he painstaking butchers a perfect duck breast which he wraps in nori, poaches, and serves in small rounds with multiple preparations of cabbage, apple, and dill with a spoonful of what he calls a “broken duck blood jus”, which he makes by simmering the carcass along with the blood of the duck. It’s a thoughtful dish that features a variety of complex flavors and ingredients.
Although only a taste test could really prove the true merits of his dishes, it would appear that McGarry gets how food should be approached. In fact, with the right amount of industry driven advice and support, perhaps McGarry could be the next Rick Bayless style chef we need more Rick Bayless’s; people that understand and respect food in way that can be brought to masses. Hopefully, if he continues to push forward, and instead of criticism, his compatriots offer him their sage advice to help prevent him from burning out early, he can grow into the type of chef that has the ability to reach people and that should not be detoured.
The ability to deal with food on this level comes from both discipline and experience, this isn’t to be denied, but McGarry seems to have that. Even if he doesn’t have a 20 year tenure, he’s made what experience he does have work better for him than most people ever will, regardless of their chosen profession.
So what do you think? Should McGarry be allowed to call himself a chef? Is he nothing more than a PR tool being used by his parents? Or could he legitimately be a chef that’s ready to take charge of his destiny? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Here’s a video of McGarry during one of his pop-ups.