I first met Flynn McGarry in New York seven years ago, when the 16-year-old chef from L.A. (who had started cooking for paying customers three years earlier) was peddling $160 tasting menus at a series of endlessly hyped pop-ups. He went on to work in some of Scandinavia’s most demanding fine-dining kitchens and returned to the city in 2018 at the age of 19 to open his own restaurant, Gem, where he served plates of deconstructed lamb and grilled sunchokes. Earlier this year, he expanded with Gem Wine, which has become a destination for the Dimes Square set and offers a decidedly more casual spin on McGarry’s style: fried soft-shell crabs, peaches with tomatoes, and simple servings of ham or cheese. It’s been a long, strange journey from precocious culinary whiz kid to grizzled big-city restaurateur, but the once-restless McGarry appears to have finally settled into something resembling a regular rhythm. “It’s funny to look back and see where I had things right,” he says, “and where I had so many things wrong.”
When I met you, you were still a teenager, so I guess we could call that your “wunderkind era.” Your career has seen several different eras since then.
That was one of my first trips to New York. I can’t really remember what I cooked that evening. But then, as happens with wunderkinds, you get older and the novelty starts to die off. You stop being a wunderkind and have to start building a career.
My daughter was very impressed, but this grumpy dad described you back then as a diligent young magician who was still working on his bag of tricks.
I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. That’s very much who I was back then, and to be honest, when you’ve had the kind of luck I’ve had and you open a restaurant in New York City when you’re 19, there’s going to be a lot of trial and error. When I think about that time, there was so much we were trying to figure out, and there were so many changes we needed to make.
The first year at Gem was like, “Let’s be open seven days a week. Let’s be open for dinner five nights a week. Let’s have a lot of people working, all doing different things.” And that quickly became not very viable financially. In hindsight, I was looking at these restaurants where I’d worked, thinking, Oh, this is how we need to run things. But we were charging $250 less per person. Besides, I didn’t want to be the place that is open 24/7, which to me is a very New York way of thinking, that you must be open for every meal of the day. Our wine bar is open only on weekdays, and the restaurant is open four days a week. I’m slowly finding a way to live a slightly more sustainable life while having a restaurant in New York. When I moved here, that seemed physically impossible and wasn’t even something I wanted to do.
And of course we’ve all learned how unsustainable many established industry practices turned out to be.
Early on, we went through a period of downsizing at Gem. We cut our staff by a lot and took tables out of the space. I realized the restaurant works better if we have five people serving 24 guests a night, instead of ten people serving 36. Then I had a moment about a year and a half into the restaurant where things were feeling very weird and I needed some sort of big change. Key players were leaving to do their own projects, and we just closed the restaurant for the entire summer. That was 2019. Then we came back and closed for all of COVID.
How did that change things for you?
We had to start from the beginning and make things simple again. We switched the Gem menu from tasting only to à la carte, and we were 15 times busier than we had ever been with the tasting menu, which is how we had the idea for Gem Wine. That was when I went, Okay, there is the side of me that wants to be an artist or whatever, and there is me being a businessperson. We found the space around the corner, and that turned into Gem Wine. So now we have a nice balance, I think, where Gem is back to being a tasting menu, which moves with the seasons, and the wine bar’s menu is more neighborly, in the moment, and changes all the time. It is very simple food.
How did COVID change diners’ tastes in the city?
Honestly, I have no clue. I am so confused by what this city wants right now, and I think the city is confused, too. There are all these new people, and they want everything. But then people are confused when they encounter something that’s a little bit different. It’s hard to get a handle on what people want right now.
What are people eating? What is selling at the wine bar?
People are eating vegetables. I’m actually impressed. The wine bar is mostly vegetables, and Gem is all vegetables. We became busier when we started doing that. In general, diners are a little more informed now about what is or isn’t a good tomato, what is or isn’t a good squash, and I notice that people come back to Gem because we know how to serve these things. I think people are really excited about eating things that make you feel good.
This is all starting to sound a bit California, I’m afraid.
L.A. isn’t the only place where people like a good tomato!
But obviously your shriveled, ambitious soul belongs to the big city.
The ambitious side of me is the New York side — wanting to prove myself, wanting to always do more, wanting to open new places, wanting to compete with the best, wanting to survive, really. I’m comfortable today. Being a “New York chef” is not as fancy as it sounds. It means you know how to clean out a grease trap and deal with all the leaking ceilings and other little disasters that come with running a business here.
How do you think your cooking has changed since you’ve been in New York?
It’s more practical, and I would say it’s more fun, too. I think about how I cooked a long time ago, and I took it so seriously. It was much more rigid. Now I’m having fun with it. I have a team in the kitchen that is really supportive. They tell me when I’m being crazy or when a dish goes too far. It really feels like we’re cooking and not like we’re showing up in the morning to just think about cooking.