Flynn McGarry is the chef of Gem, a restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His $US155 tasting menu is served in the style of a dinner party, hopefully making you feel like you’re not at a restaurant at all. The young chef has been working full time in professional kitchens since he was 12. Following is a transcript of the video.
Flynn McGarry: I didn’t want to open a restaurant. I don’t like restaurants. I think restaurants are cold and robotic, and they don’t feel comfortable. And I wanted a place that feels like you’re just in my house. So I designed it to feel like my house.
I’m Flynn McGarry and I’m the Chef of Gem, in New York. The restaurant is called Gem which is my mum’s name backwards. It was also her idea. I started by doing these dinners in my mum’s house, as sort of an homage to what those dinners felt like, and were. But also, we’re sort of hidden behind these trees on a little street that you would walk down, you could walk right by it, and not even know we were here.
I started cooking when I was 10. I think probably the first memory of cooking I actually have was Mother’s Day, and I was like, oh, I’m gonna make brunch for everyone. And I made, like, chicken salad, or something. But I was like, I’m gonna poach the chicken, or do something different with it. It felt very fancy at the time. But then I just became obsessed with the more intricate and creative side of cooking.
When I started cooking, my mum was like, “OK, we’ll go get you a cookbook.” She took me to Barnes and Noble, or whatever, and I was 10, so I wanted the most expensive thing that was on the top shelf, so I got the French Laundry Cookbook, and that just sort of initially blew my mind as far as what cooking was. So I found out about Alinea, because he used to work at French Laundry, and then I got that cookbook.
And Eleven Madison Park, it was the same thing. The Eleven Madison Parks, their internship, I met them on their book signing tour. I was talking about how I had been cooking some things from the book, and they’re like, “Oh, do you have any photos of it?” And I showed them a bunch of photos of the stuff that I had cooked, and it looked surprisingly like the book. They were like, “If you ever want to come sort of “hang out in the kitchen in New York, let us know.” And then, like, a month later, I made my way here.
I was free labour, so everyone was down to have it. I mean the general thing with restaurants at that level is just the absurd attention to detail with everything that you learn. And that is something that has stayed with me, as like everything I do in every regard is kind of thought all the way through. You’re aware, yeah, nothing is gonna be perfect, but still having the strive for that helps you wake up way too early every day, and go to bed way too late every day.
The beet dish has been on the menu for like three years now. That’s the only thing that won’t leave. It was sort of inspired by this, one, a feeling that I hate beets, and two, this sort of want for giving someone the most savoury, intense course on their menu is a vegetable. It trips a lot of people out, intentionally. The best dishes are the ones that people are just like, I don’t understand what that was, but it was delicious.
I stopped going to school, actually, when I was 15. I’ve had a full-time job since I was 12. I’ve never really focused too much on, like being, I need to have, like, a normal teenage experience, because I’ve just literally had no desire to do that. My investors and everyone would not be super happy if I was just like, yeah, I’m gonna take some time off the restaurant to go play video games. Like the issues and stuff, and qualms and stuff that I deal with are those of someone who is definitely not 19.
I knew everyone was always gonna talk about my age, and do I love that? Not really. But it’s something that I always knew I was gonna have to deal with if I wanted to do this. Being young definitely sort of helps you get a lot of opportunities, but then once you get those, people seem to have much higher expectations for what you can do than that of a normal person, regardless of their age.
A big thing for me is dealing with having to pull back from the actual cooking myself, and focus more on the bigger picture. I’m a control freak in every regard. There is not a single thing in this restaurant that I will let go by without me looking at it. It’s a blessing and a curse. We didn’t want to compromise the experience and the overall vision that we have for your dinner by being cheap or not giving you the best quality of every ingredient, and not being able to hire the right amount of staff, so you feel comfortable.
We also have a sense of humour about ourselves, and understand what we do is very absurdist, and over the top, so we like to also have fun. We spend literally 18 hours a day together, six days a week, so I have to like them. So I could not hire people that I don’t like, ’cause I would just hate it. For so long, this has been the goal, and now that I’ve kind of reached this point, the restaurant dictates what’s next, and I’m just sort of along for the ride.
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