05.23.13 8:45 AM ET
Meet Flynn McGarry: America’s Next Great Chef Is 14 Years Old
A recent 11-course tasting menu at Eureka, a monthly pop-up restaurant at Los Angeles’s BierBeisl, included a dish of fresh and dried English peas concealing a hidden parmesan and whey pudding, a live scallop under a cucumber foam, gnocchi made from ash, and an unctuous sous-vide egg yolk encircled by hedgehog mushrooms, pork skin snow, and a sauce made from preserved lemons and radish greens.
On an evening in early May, this was a meal that showed the precision, vision, and creativity of its gifted chef, one that soared on a deliberate rhythm and flow: plates arrived at just the right moment with an explanation of the dish’s ingredients, each showcasing the season to perfection. The chef, Flynn McGarry, moved in the kitchen with grace, charring ramps for a dish of sturgeon and tapioca with a charred onion sauce before spinning around to sauce a plate—on which quivered a single slice of blood-red dehydrated beet—with just the right amount of raspberry-black pepper vinaigrette.
Without seeing him, you would never know that the chef isn’t old enough to drive.
At 14, McGarry is already a commanding presence in the kitchen. His youth seems at odds with the perfection, skill, and beauty of the dazzling array of dishes that are sent out over the course of this evening in a style that McGarry refers to as “modern American progressive.” McGarry is already something of a culinary wunderkind in Los Angeles, charging $160 a head for Eureka, a monthly dinner that originated in his parents’ home in the San Fernando Valley and now resides at a high-end Austrian restaurant in the heart of Beverly Hills. Over the course of the evening, professional chefs wandered in to take a peek at food being prepared by the culinary prodigy, a term that McGarry himself doesn’t wear easily.
“I’ve come to terms with it,” said McGarry. “I’m not going around comparing myself to Mozart, but I do think that there is a little bit of natural talent … I’m sort of gifted in the way that my taste buds are aligned correctly, which is a really weird way to think. Like any other prodigy, I’ve worked ridiculously hard on this.”
“If I just said, ‘I’m a chef’ and just worked a two-hour day, I wouldn’t be going anywhere,” he continued. “You naturally know what tastes good together, what goes together, and how to make a very pretty plate of food. The real reason a lot of people think it’s impressive is because of my age. But it’s not just the food: it’s also the pacing of the meal, the platings, and these are all things you get from just working really hard.”
A week after Eureka’s May dinner, McGarry met me at a sidewalk café in the Valley near his home. Unlike the poised professionalism he emanates in the kitchen, here he seemed relaxed, a typical teenager, lanky and thin, a tall stack of floppy blond hair perched atop his head. His influences are vast—Scandinavia, Japan, France, Germany, or a “Vietnamese restaurant in the deep Valley”—and even from Twitter (“Some person just went to Per Se and had an entirely vegetarian tasting menu, and I saw that they did a pineapple that they cured in miso. I never saw someone cure pineapple in miso.”).
Eureka got its name because McGarry couldn’t think of a name the night before his first supper club dinner (it’s the name of the street on which the family lives) and because it has a “sense of discovering something new,” he said. “We found, at 14, people come with very low expectations a lot of the time, and then they’re completely blown away by the end of the meal, and that’s the Eureka thing for me.”
McGarry, who has appeared on the Today show and been invited to the White House, has been cooking since he was 10, his interest cemented by Thomas Keller’s seminal cookbook The French Laundry Cookbook, purchased when he was 11. When he expressed an interest in pursuing cooking professionally, his parents, Meg and Will McGarry, built him a test kitchen in his bedroom. They opened up their home to a series of pop-up dinners before moving it to functional restaurants when it grew too popular. For Meg, these are just ways that she and her husband support their son’s dream.
“Every since he was little, he would choose a profession and would fully explore it,” she said. “By the time he was 10, he had exhausted artist, surfer, rock star, all these different things, but he had always been interested [in food]. Food Network was on in our house when he was little and he had a play kitchen and dressed up as Emeril.”
Then there was his bedroom test kitchen, where he would experiment with dishes and techniques. “That was for ventilation purposes,” said Meg. “We had better ventilation in his room and updated the electrical. I did everything to make sure it was safe. It seemed crazy to people, but if he was a musician and he wanted to play the drums in his room, no one would have though it was weird.”
McGarry, meanwhile, said none of this would be possible without the support of his parents. “I couldn’t do any of this without being home-schooled,” said McGarry. “Or my mother letting me work 12-hour days and getting burnt and having to be on the floor scrubbing copper pipes or whatever it might be. There’s also a certain amount of ‘You need to let go of the fact that I’m your child,’ because I’ll come back and have cut off my fingertip or I’ll have a huge burn. And you have to be like, ‘OK, that comes with the job.’”
“It’s crazy to let a child work that long,” he continued. “It’s also very illegal unless you’re not getting paid, which I’m not. Just to clear that up. But not a lot of people would let their kid go to work in a very hot room with a bunch of 25-year-old men and in a very competitive, stressful, intense environment and then, when they got home, have to do four hours of homework.”
As for those who would argue that McGarry is missing out on his childhood by working in professional kitchens, Meg was dismissive. “He played on all the sports teams, he rode a skateboard. He did all of those things, but he was looking for something that he’s really, really good at. And this he’s really, really good at.” There are limits, however. “I said no to liquid nitrogen,” she said. “But for the most part, I said yes a lot.”
That included allowing McGarry to take unpaid apprenticeships (referred to within the culinary business as stagès) at such far-flung restaurants as Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park and Grant Achatz’s Alinea and Next in Chicago, as well as with the Modernist Cuisine lab team in Seattle.
“Eleven Madison Park, every time I go there, they have a different station they want me to work on,” said McGarry. “Two times ago, when I went there, they were like, ‘Your goal this week is to learn how to sheath a vegetable perfectly with a knife.’ Which is very difficult. I cut myself six times, but I learned how to do it in the end.”
At Eleven Madison Park, McGarry worked under the observation of three Michelin-starred executive chef Daniel Humm, who described McGarry’s drive and passion as “boundless” and praised the young chef’s focus and poise.
“Flynn is unafraid of his youth. It’s the one thing that so many people focus on but he doesn’t see it as a hindrance. Instead, it is an incredible strength that he found his passion so early in life and that he has his future to continue developing his skills and point of view,” said Humm in an email to The Daily Beast. “He brings a youthful enthusiasm and creativity to the kitchen; he has a sincere, deep passion to learn everything he can, to absorb from everyone around him. I think later in life our creativity can get stifled because we think we have to grow up and mature our ideas. But Flynn is at a point where he is willing to try everything to take big risks.”
Those risks often include unexpected compositions or flavor combinations; McGarry’s food is often a rare mix of playful and cerebral. A beet dish gets infused with rich smokiness until it almost tastes like a piece of beef, its vinaigrette plated in such a way as to mimic the juices running out of a rare piece of red meat. Tapioca, served alongside a beautiful piece of sous-vide sturgeon, is a play on caviar—the pearls an allusion to roe—as much as it is a shout-out to the super-traditional combination of smoked fish and rye bread.
Still, McGarry sees his food as being less ideas driven than ingredients driven. “That scallop dish is just a raw scallop with a grilled cucumber and cucumber vinaigrette,” said McGarry. “But that scallop, I woke up at 5 a.m. to go to the fish market to buy them. I was shucking them this morning.” For that unctuous sous-vide egg yolk, “those eggs came from a farm where they have like 20 chickens. And we got them warm.” McGarry often forages for ingredients with his father, Will, who made the lacquered wooden blocks on which the silverware rests at Eureka.
McGarry’s long-term goal is to open his own restaurant, in Manhattan, by the time he’s 19 or 20. “I obviously want my own restaurant and I want it to be the best restaurant in the world,” he said. “It sounds crazy, but it’s a good thing to have in the back of your head. Every dish I do, even now, I think, Is this good enough? Is this good enough to be the best restaurant in the world? Is this good enough to get three Michelin stars? Is this good enough for me?”
To achieve that goal, McGarry isn’t afraid to bank on his age right now. “Because when I’m 20 years old,” he said, “it doesn’t matter if my food’s a lot better. I’m a 20-year-old chef like every other 20-year-old chef … I want to forge my own path. Doing whatever I can do now will be beneficial in the long run … When I’m 19, I [want to] provide the funds to open a restaurant entirely by myself. And whether it’s a success, or most likely not, but on the very slim chance that it’s a failure, it’s all on me.”
In his spare time, McGarry watches television, runs, or works in the garden. “I’ll go exercise or do something that gets my mind off cooking,” he said. “The problem is that if I go for a run, I’ll see wood sorrel growing and be like, ‘Oh, that’s a new place to find it.’ It’s always in the back of my head. The chef de cuisine at Eleven Madison Park that I worked with said, ‘Your food needs to be balanced and your life needs to be balanced. You can’t just do cooking or else you’re going to get burned out.’”
Finding the ideal life-work balance isn’t something that most teenagers ever worry about. Ask McGarry about what his final meal would be, however, and you can still see a trace of the 14-year-old boy within.
“There would have to be pretzels in there. Pretzels, ramen, a really good apple, and Goldfish,” said McGarry. “I always have a bag of pretzels in my knife bag and Goldfish, I mean, they’re delicious. I eat way too many apples and ramen ... It’s very unhealthy.” He paused. “Except for the apple.”