At 13 years old, most people are agonizing over homework. At that age, Flynn McGarry was agonizing over ingredients for the $50 10-course tasting menu served at his pop-up restaurant Eureka, which was run out of his San Fernando Valley, California, home.
Even the teenage mischief he got into was culinary. Like the time he snuck into his neighbor's yard — to pluck herbs for a dinner.
"Rosemary flowers," he told The New Yorker in 2012. "I saw them growing there and I knew they'd be amazing in my farro dish. Unfortunately, this neighbor's not so nice, so I had to be kind of sneaky."
Despite McGarry's age, the food was a hit: "I've got to say, I was a little worried, walking up here," one diner told The New Yorker. "The kid's bike is chained up outside! But his sunchoke soup—my God!"
That early talent, which he mastered by cooking his way through expert level recipes in "The French Laundry Cookbook" and studying YouTube videos, landed McGarry national acclaim as a culinary wunderkind. He spent the next six years studying in elite kitchens and working alongside renowned chefs at restaurants like Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, New York. He considers those chefs, like Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park and Ari Taymor at Alma in West Hollywood, to be his teachers.
"They let me work in their kitchens, but gave me real responsibilities and taught me the business side, instead of just having me pluck herbs," McGarry tells The New York Times.
Now, at 19 — and the chef of his own fine dining restaurant, Gem, in New York City — the "kid prodigy" reputation is something McGarry is trying to move beyond.
"When people have known about you for five, six years, you don't really get the same sort of freedom to figure out your stuff before people come in with expectations," McGarry tells CNBC Make It. "[Guests] come in expecting a restaurant that's been open for five years."
Really, McGarry opened Gem less than five months ago.
"There is so much hype," Gem cook Charlie Fuerte says, adding that for now, the restaurant is living up to it.
McGarry literally helped build the place ( "I put up like three of these walls. [I] ripped up all the old floors, I was hands on in every single way") and now, managing a team of 11 employees, he often works six days and 100 hours a week. The teen makes decisions on the restaurant's budgets, menu, decor, music playlists and even the uniforms of the his cooks. Gem has two seatings each night, serving a $155 12- to 15-course tasting menu of dishes like a stew of crabs, leeks and rose, later followed by a plate of new potatoes braised in yogurt. An optional wine pairing is $100.
"The word 'teen' is always put in front 'chef,'" McGarry says of the articles written about Gem. "I still do the same thing as a 34-year-old chef, so I don't think there's any reason that I would find that as a term that degrades what I do every single day."
As McGarry has progressed from an aspiring cook into the leader of a restaurant, his culinary style as a chef is also changing. For example, he took a dish that he'd become famous for in the early years of his career off the menu at Gem.
"Like any child star transitioning into adulthood, McGarry can no longer rely so much on the novelty of being unusually young," food critic Hannah Goldfield wrote for the New Yorker in April. "The dish he's most famous for—a winking spin on P. B. & J., featuring foie gras and jelly on a homemade peanut-butter Ritz cracker, which turned up as a canapé one night—has begun to seem a bit too cute."
"It's a good dish, I still think it tastes good," McGarry laughs. "I took it off the menu because I feel ridiculous saying, 'It's a Ritz Cracker!'
"That's a dish that I've been doing now for four years or something," he tells CNBC Make It. "My food has changed so much from that point ... it's like [if] you looked at a painter and you tried to do a show and you have only things that they created five years later and then you throw one thing in there they created five years before, it's going to feel out of place. That's why we did it for one menu and took it off."
Gem is legally owned by McGarry's older sister, Paris, 23, since he's not actually old enough to procure a liquor license. The restaurant has about 15 backers, who partnered with McGarry to open the restaurant for "well under $1 million," he says. His financing strategy was to stay lean, and avoid raising more money than was needed.
"Being a creative person, you want everything, and you want the best of everything," he says. But overindulgence can lead to pretentious frills (like gold-plated walls, he jokes) — which can be a turn off to customers in McGarry's mind.
"Saying, 'Ok these are the parameters you have to work within,' I think always creates a much better result, especially when you are creating the parameters for yourself," McGarry explains. "We wanted it to feel a bit like a start-up."
For example, McGarry eschews the idea that fine dining restaurants need a large staff of cooks focused on completing singular tasks to perfection. Instead, his small staff helps each other out on dishes.
"I love the whole idea that some things are a little bit scrappy, and some things don't work completely perfectly, but that's sort of what makes them great," he adds.
And McGarry is embracing the expectations of his customers: "I like pressure," he says. "I don't think anything good happens without pressure. I welcome all the pressure and hopefully don't crack under it."
— Video by Mary Stevens
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