Documentary about 20-year-old restaurant owner now playing in New York, LA and more cities
[This article has been updated to include additional quotes at the end]
Young chef de cuisine Flynn McGarry owns the restaurant Gem on Manhattan's lower east side. But he temporarily left New York to come to LA recently--to do some cooking and to help spread the word about a new film that documents his rapid ascent in the culinary world.
Chef Flynn, directed by Cameron Yates, is now playing in LA, San Diego and New York, expanding to Chicago, Minneapolis and other cities in the coming days (click for details). It shows how McGarry, as a boy perhaps inexplicably settled on the preparation of high quality food as his life's purpose. He says there is an upside to discovering your true calling at such a young age.
"It's very freeing to know what you want to do and not have that weighing on you all the time, like 'What do I want to do?'" McGarry told Nonfictionfilm.com. "That question is already answered. And then I can just have the sort of freedom to do it."
Do it he has, achieving a level of sophistication that can only come from many, many hours in the kitchen. In McGarry's case that kitchen was located in his bedroom, at least for a time. His mother, Meg, agreed to let him set up an elaborate food prep area in his own room as a kid, and to be home-schooled so he could spend the maximum amount of time possible developing his culinary skills.
"In order to be a chef you have to work 18 hours a day five days a week and you can't really basically do that if you have any resemblance to like a normal 13 or 14 year old," McGarry observed. "It takes that sort of removing yourself from regular school to actually become fully in the food world."
Chef Flynn premiered at Sundance last January and has played at many festivals including SXSW, Berlin and CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. It qualified for Oscar consideration and is in the running for the Academy's documentary shortlist, which will be announced December 17. Yates says he spent about five years working on his film.
"We met when Flynn was 12, started filming when he was around 13, 14, and just by chance I was able to follow him until he was 18, right before he opened up his first restaurant in New York," Yates explained. Fortunately for the director, he was able to draw on early video of the cooking prodigy from when he was still in grade school.
"His mother Meg had shot all this incredible footage over so many years," he commented, "so going into the project I knew that I would be able to tell the entire story of him growing up and becoming a chef."
McGarry's mother is an important character in the film, sometimes expressing ambivalence about devoting so much time to her son's interests that she neglected her own pursuits. Mother and son took the stage after the world premiere of the film at Sundance. Asked how he felt about the documentary, Flynn made some comments and then tried to hand his microphone to his mom.
"I have my own mike," she said pointedly, causing her son to blush and the audience to laugh. The moment suggested a woman who would like to be regarded in her own right, not simply for her son's accomplishments. Nonetheless, the documentary inevitably has led to some focus on her successful parenting. McGarry credits both his mother and father (they divorced when Flynn was young) for allowing him to pursue his passion.
"Since this film has come out I have been meeting a lot of people who come up after the movie and be like, 'I wanted to chef when I was young and my parents said no.' I can't even put myself in that position because even before I was a chef kind of whatever I wanted to do both my parents were unrelentingly supportive of," he noted, adding, "Not that I don't think this would have ever happened if they weren't, but I think that it happened so quickly, a huge part of that comes from the fact that they were so gung ho about it and just kind of letting it happen, not even easing into it really, just sort of being like, 'All right, we're going to do this in its fullest extent.'"
Meg was in attendance at the restaurant Little Prince in Santa Monica on November 19 as Chef Flynn, joined by Chef Ari Taymor, presented a "special, curated one-night-only menu." Flynn, who was days away from celebrating his 20th birthday, spent his time aproned before a tiled oven--clearly where he prefers to be, clearly in his element.
I did not sample the duck, being vegetarian, but I cheated to enjoy the smoked black cod, which was delicious. The desert, "Little Prince Sunchoke Split," was out of this world.
The server suggested various wines to complement each course. In another year Flynn McGarry will be old enough to legally partake himself.
McGarry's early success inevitably has led to some backlash from internet trolls and the like seeking to carve up the young chef. But as the film shows, he's remarkably even-keeled about the "haters."
"I've always, even through school, been very good at dealing with the negative criticism," he told me. "I think a huge part of it related from working in kitchens at the time because it's given me a thick skin -- when on a day-to-day basis you're dealing with an intense place, you're getting yelled at, you're getting called names, everything kind of rolls off your back a lot easier. I also think it's very easy, at least for me, to look at it in a more objective way. They're people on the internet and they don't really know the full extent to it... There's no real way around that. You just kind of have to live your life regardless of it."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.