Dining

The Moment of Youth

Meet the kid cooking his way to top of the class
Photos: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table
Chef Flynn McGarry

Slender fingers adeptly cradling a pair of offset tweezers, 17-year-old chef Flynn McGarry placed a sliver of pickled black radish on a small glass plate already laden with myriad radishes. “I’ve tested this dish 10 times now,” McGarry says, “I feel like it can’t just be a radish dish. Maybe it needs scallops.” McGarry is opening his first permanent New York City restaurant, an eight-seat tasting menu counter in the back of Kava, a Meatpacking District coffee shop. Like last year’s pop-up that ran for six months out of a Manhattan catering company, this one will also be called Eureka.

The name could be a nod to the state motto of California—McGarry hails from the San Fernando Valley—but it probably has more to do with Archimedes and his sudden stroke of bathtub genius. If that’s the case, what a funny title. McGarry, who began cooking at age 10 and appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine at age 15, is indisputably a prodigy. In fact, that was the one-word headline of the 2012 New Yorker piece about him.

RELATED   Meet the First Street Food Chef with a Michelin Star »

But, as Andrew Solomon notes in his book, Far from the Tree, there is a vast difference between prodigy and genius. “The designation prodigy usually reflects timing, while genius reflects the ability to add something of value to human consciousness.” Or, as the French poet Raymond Radiguet, himself a child prodigy, put it even more puckishly, “Child prodigies exist just as there are extraordinary men. But they are rarely the same.”  

With his first restaurant, an open-ended engagement with the city’s notoriously unforgiving dining scene, McGarry is striving to leave the ranks of prodigy and join the brotherhood of extraordinary men.  “It’s been so many years of just straight talking about the age,” he says, not without exasperation. “Sure, the age might get people in the door, but it’s not enough to make the restaurant sustainable, obviously.”

And so, he turns to the radish, one of the 16 courses a diner will be served for $160, gratuity included. In his callow youth, McGarry was liable to turn radishes into a pixel of a larger overwrought plate—the Times mentions ember-roasted carrot gelée with smoked egg yolk, compressed mango, pickled mustard seeds and coffee-pickled carrots. Of late, he has discovered the joy of simplicity. “Throughout the years, my cooking has gotten a lot more simple. At first, you have that whole thing of wanting to show every single thing you know,” he admits, “now, it’s become more mature. There’s not so much flash and bang.”

As a writer in my thirties, it’s tempting to turn every otherwise normal utterance from McGarry into fodder for a sort of moralistic and paternalistic dig against youth. And, surely, many have succumbed to the temptation. Not a piece has been written that hasn’t used his tender age as ridiculed ballast against his modernist technique. And, sure, when McGarry announces he’ll be moving from Prospect Heights, where he lives now, to the Meatpacking District with a world-weary sigh—“I just can’t do the commute anymore,” he says, “it’s 35 minutes each way”—it’s hard not to roll one’s eyes. But then he lays out his schedule: Monday, 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Tuesday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The guy deserves to be taken seriously.

If his food falls flat, well then he is not unlike hundreds of other chefs in the city who have tried to accomplish what he’s up to at Eureka. And if his food soars, it shall do so independent of the dendrochronology of the sapling in question.

McGarry, about whom so many words have been written, is neither naive nor jaded. He is, rather, both boyishly enthusiastic and slightly guarded. For every feint, every query about how it is indeed possible for a youth so green to sound through food emotions so profound—for that is truly what makes $160 an unlaughable sum for dinner—McGarry has a ready parry. Dismissing the paucity of his life experience as a wellspring for his menu, he says, “Cooking is an art form, and as an art form, it comes from a place you can’t explain.”

And he has a point. There are many older chefs who have not yet located the aquifer that connects life experience with culinary expression. Samely, there is no reason a youth like McGarry couldn’t have happened upon those reservoirs at an earlier point in his life than most.

In fact, the majority of the young chef’s life experience has been culinary experience, making the Venn Diagram of Kitchen Life and Life Life particularly oblong. After his initial well-chronicled experiments at age 10, he has since worked at Alma in Los Angeles and staged throughout Europe. This is, of course, in addition to running his occasional pop-up and running interference from constant critique.

On McGarry’s last trip back east, he was the subject of some quite ugly and revealing criticism from a grisled cohort who objected to his using the word chef. “Chef is something you earn through years of being beaten and shit on and taught by some of the greats,” wrote chef David Santos in an Instagram screed. The statement is at once largely true and profoundly ignorant, and the extent to which it is true belies the ignorance that toxifies the restaurant industry like algal bloom. McGarry has been savaged by the press, most notably the New York Post’s resident curmudgeon, Steve Cuozzo, at whose mention the chef shudders slightly.

McGarry, who was rather severely bullied at school, has built compensatory defenses. That’s one reason, he says, for the tasting menu format. “I know people are going to come in here with their own prejudices and search for things to hate,” he tells me, “so if I can control the menu, then at least I can make sure I’m giving them the best experience I can.”  

And if one allows for homeschool, unschool and Waldorf pedagogy, the kitchen, too, has proven fertile ground for education. Through Eureka, McGarry is hitting nearly all of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. For instance, learning the ins and outs of New York Labor Law. “It’s a lot easier to own a business as a minor than it is to be employed by one,” he says. He’s also mastered food costs and payroll. “Before it was just sort of end of the day, I would be like, ‘Oh great, we have money left,’ or like, ‘We didn't make any money.’ But now we’re running a business.”

On the interpersonal tip, he’s learned how to read a room. “So much of this is in the physical experience,” he says, “and every night changes, because when it's such a small group, it really depends on everyone's attitude and the vibe.” And, scrolling through a playlist which transitions from Brandy’s “Talk About Our Love” to Tame Impala’s “Keep On Lying” to G-Unit’s “Wanna Get to Know You,” McGarry shows a preternatural inclination for cultural sonic juxtaposition.

All this may or may not matter when Eureka opens its doors. Backstories are priceless, but dinner is expensive. The only persuasive counterclaim McGarry can present—that he belongs not among the prodigies but among the league of extraordinary men—will be presented on this counter to 16 guests, five nights a week. And so as he gazes into a now mostly empty dish where radishes once were, peering into his reflection in the shimmering pho broth at the bottom he made with radish and porcini mushrooms, he sighs. “I'm going to be here very late today testing,” he says. “It’s not there yet. But it’ll get there soon. It has to.”

Watch McGarry cook live from our Test Kitchen in NYC here.

LET’S DISCUSS:

Get the Tasting Table newsletter for adventurous eaters everywhere
X Share on FB →

Around the Web