Teen Chef Flynn McGarry Responds to His Critics: ‘The Person at the Front Is Always Going to Be Hated’

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"As long as people come and enjoy my food, the rest of it really doesn't matter."

On September 12, 16-year-old Flynn McGarry will open his first restaurant in New York. McGarry, who launched his own supper club at age 11 and has spent time in the kitchens of Alinea, Eleven Madison Park, and Alma, has long attracted strong reactions. His most recent critic is David Santos, formerly of Louro, who ranted on Instagram: “The fact the media even calls him a chef offends me to no end. Chef is something you earn through years of being beaten and shit on and taught by some of the greats … It’s not about playing dress up and plating a couple dishes.”

McGarry rarely engages with his critics, and through Eureka, he actually wants to shift the focus from his character to his food, saying that he knows he’s making himself vulnerable by serving an ambitious, $160, 14-course tasting menu. This week, Grub sat down with McGarry to discuss his decision to open a restaurant at this point in his life, his awareness about his privileges, and how he internalizes all of the negativity surrounding his work.

So, what have you been up to the past few months? How did you land on your decision to open Eureka in New York?
I was traveling around Europe and working in Oslo and Copenhagen, and I first got the idea to do this while I was picking herbs — a lot of herbs. I used that time to think. This all originated in Europe, which was difficult to logistically figure out. But I was always planning on coming back to New York and working somewhere for six months before I wanted to start the process of opening my own place.

But then I was thinking there’s this event space where I’ve done my pop-up dinners, and there’s a dining room, but the owner doesn’t really use it on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. So I was like, Why wouldn’t I just do this, where I can get experience running a smaller restaurant and I can cook my own food?

Are you paying rent? How does this work in terms of ownership?
In terms of ownership, it’s a thing that we’re able to do three nights of the week, but we run everything. The person who owns the place, the way I know her … is she went to college with my mom, so she’s a family friend. So she’s like, “We have this space and you really want to do this, and so we’re going to help you out.” She’s been ridiculously nice. It’s mutually beneficial. She wasn’t using the kitchen anyway, so it’s not like it’s taking away from business. But I’m very aware of how insanely lucky I am. I mean, the space has a full liquor license and insurance. We can legally run a restaurant. It’s a thing that never happens. We didn’t have to invest money into this, which is insane.

Do you see this as something permanent? It seems like it’s in between a pop-up and a full-blown restaurant.
We don’t put a label on it. I’m calling it a chef’s counter, but we’re thinking, right now, we’re going to stay six months. Then once we get to that point, I’ll see if we want to continue or stop. I mean, we could end it in two weeks. That’s the great thing about it — there’s really no risk. It’s this thing I get to do where I cook my food, and people get to happily come and eat. There have been so many articles about me and my food, but there’s never been a place where people can, on a weekly basis, come and eat it.

How many people will you employ?
Zero. Well, zero cooks or front-of-the-house staffers. We have two dishwashers. It’s just going to be me cooking at the moment. But the tricky thing is, since we’re only open three days, I’d have to pay someone like it’s a five-day-a-week job.

I think what many people are wondering is, why jump into this? Why not wait until you’ve had more experience?
Yes, there’s the question of “Why not wait longer?” But there’s also the question “Why not do it now?” It’s just looking at it from two different ways. Yes, I can wait another ten years, but is that really going to be that much different? You really can’t learn how to be a chef by just being a cook. You have to just kind of dive into it, like anything. Yes, I could totally fail at this, but that’s what’s good about it. Because then, when I do have a restaurant someday, I’ve already experienced this, and I know what to do. It’s practice. I’m doing paperwork and learning how to do food costs. It’s just not the normal way to do this career, but why do you have to do it the normal way?

Since so many people feel the need to comment on you and your character, I can understand why you’d want to bring the discussion back to your food.
Yes, like actually come and eat! You can read all the articles you want — that have been misconstrued 100 times — but I just like cooking food. It’s that simple. I’m doing this thing where I get to cook for 24 people a night. If anyone was presented with that opportunity, they’d have to be an idiot to turn that down.

I saw that you’ll be serving a foie gras terrine, coffee-pickled carrots, and other fanciful dishes. Can you share what else might pop up on your menu?
Last weekend I finished testing a few dishes. One has little dumplings that are wrapped with real rose petals, and they’re filled with a grilled lobster and tomato relish. They’re cooked down really slowly with rose water and rose hips, and then stuffed in the grilled rose petals, and then just gently grilled again. So they look like little cherry tomatoes, and they’re served in a broth of lobster, tarragon, and rose hip, and then a roasted lobster oil.

How did you decide on the price point for the dinner?
It’s $160, including tax and tip. So if you take away tax and tip, we’re charging $120 dollars.

It’s still a lot of money. It raises people’s expectations, of course.
Yeah, it’s still high. But when you factor in food costs … like on this menu, there is caviar and foie. And beyond even those luxury ingredients, I went to the Greenmarket today, and apples were $5 per pound. Good food is not cheap, and I’d rather charge $160 and serve the best ingredients than charge $70 and buy shitty ingredients just because that’s all I can afford. And the meal includes 14 courses.

Regardless of age, these kinds of ambitious, tiny fine-dining restaurants are become rarer in New York. Everyone’s going more casual and adding a burger to their menus.
There’s this whole new culture of Australian food that I don’t really understand. Is avocado Australian? … The way I think of it is you have a high risk and then, in the end, high rewards.

How have ticket sales gone so far?
We’re sold out until the middle of October. We’ve never got this big of a response, which is crazy. Now I feel comfortable getting an apartment!

Do you think you’ll stay in New York? Why is it preferable to L.A.?
Yes. I think New York has a real fine-dining food scene. The food in L.A. is delicious. I miss Sqirl every single day. But as far as fine dining, it doesn’t really have … like, look what happened to Alma. People just don’t respond to tasting menus there, for some reason. People here just like to eat out more. But I mean, I love New York at the moment. Who knows what’s going to happen?

Your most recent critic is David Santos, who said that you don’t have the right to call yourself a chef. What’d you think of that?
I don’t call myself a chef, but also, why couldn’t I? It’s a word. Ari [Taymor] had my favorite response, when he just started naming random people and saying they’re a chef. But I get it — David has a point. Yes, people have worked really hard and have had really shitty lives. But why does that struggle have to be the norm? Why is it that having a terrible life, missing all of your family events, being treated like shit for ten years — why is that the mark of being a chef? It just makes you bitter. I have nothing against him personally. Everyone always makes the same point, asking why people are calling me a chef. What else are you supposed to call me?

Why don’t you call yourself a chef, though?
Because I never have to. When people are like, “What do you do?” I cook. Yes, when I own a restaurant, then I’ll be the chef.

But wouldn’t you consider Eureka, in this iteration, owning a restaurant?
I consider myself the chef of this project, but when I was in Europe working in places, I wasn’t a chef. I was a cook. There shouldn’t be this rigid definition, though. Why can’t people interpret it in their own way? Same with the whole process of becoming a chef. If the idea is to become a chef, you have to live a terrible life, it makes no one want to become a chef.

On the other side, being a chef may seem cooler than ever, and you hear complaints that younger people now get into it for the potential fame. This could be why the reaction was so harsh to your New York Times Magazine cover.
It’s the new rock star. I get that some people want it for the glamour. But anyone will realize that if you get into it for the glamour, the second you go work in an actual kitchen for a day, you’ll either be cut out for it, or you won’t be. I worked at Alma for a long time. Since I was 12 I’ve been working in restaurants, which is almost five years now. So it’s not like I was just getting into this just for the idea. I got into it because I love cooking, and that’s still why I do it.

But I get it. I get why people are angry. I’d be pissed off, honestly, if some kid did this crazy thing. But the whole concept that I can do this because my parents have money: I do not come from a very rich family. My parents are artists, and they’re just stupidly supportive. That’s the one thing that I get frustrated with: There was that Slate article a while ago that said, if you want to be a teenage chef, your parents have to be really rich. Mine are not. They’re both working people.

And just because you have privilege — and perhaps it’s not financial, but this opportunity is quite fortunate — it doesn’t make your food any better or worse.
I realize how lucky I am on a daily basis. Meeting these people, doing this thing … I understand that luck, and then I go, “Now I have to work really hard.” Where it’s just me. I don’t plan on sleeping, because I have this really crazy advantage and opportunity. I’m not just going to be like, “Okay I’ll half-ass it.” I’m going to be there every day. I cook everything.

I’m sure you could’ve channeled this attention into a reality show or something.
Yeah, and I still could have a show. I’m not against it if it would be something that is done right. I’m kind of like the first 16-year-old to do this. The person at the front is always going to be hated. So I’ve just kind of accepted that and understood that, as long as people come and enjoy my food, the rest of it really doesn’t matter. I’ll be reading these rants while I’m cooking.

Does all the negativity get to you, though? It’s hard, at any age, to handle that.
Every once in a while. I’ve become disturbingly used to it. It does feel bad when a pretty decent amount of my industry just doesn’t respect me because of my age, and this misconstrued idea that I’m really wealthy, which is just not true. People say, “He needs to have a childhood.” Like, okay, why do I have to have your version of a childhood? … Take René Redzepi — Copenhagen hated him when he started. It just took a few years, so there is a light at the end of the tunnel, hopefully. David Santos can rant all he wants, but at the end of the day, we both do the same thing. We both cook.

If this makes you an underdog, that’s not the worst position to be in in. You can surprise people.
Yes, I’ll take total advantage of that. It’s my job to make people have an incredible meal. It’s not my job to rant on the internet. It’s my job to cook food that people enjoy or don’t. That’s completely up to them.

All you can do is hold your head high.
I’m don’t stoop down to their level. I did consider today buying a jumpsuit that said, “Haters gonna hate.” I really wanted to buy it and then, like, tweet a photo of it, but I was like, I can’t … That’s why I don’t respond to critics, because I might be really angry in that moment and say something that I regret. And I think that everyone can think exactly how they’d like. My only thing is that if it takes a lot of time out of your actual life to diminish what someone else is doing, that just seems wasteful. You only have so much time to do shit.

Flynn McGarry Responds to His Critics