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CORPORATE| 03.11.2021

My confidence has always come from saying to myself “So, wait. What? I’m not gonna do this?”

Flynn McGarry started cooking at home when he was 10 years old. By the time he was 13, he’d already set up his first restaurant, Eureka, in his parents’ living room. He played host to 20 guests, serving up a 165-dollar tasting menu that he prepared himself. Flynn has always been able to count on the help and encouragement of a tight support network, one of whom, Cameron, among his best friends, has helped him gain the confidence to follow through with his own unique cooking style. Self-taught, creative and bursting with innate talent, Flynn has emerged as one of the most promising chefs of the day. Gem, his pared-back, modern restaurant, which he opened when he was just 19, is one of the most talked about gastronomic attractions in New York.
I come from a culture where having food to eat in the first place was historically the most important factor. And I come from a big family too, so there wasn’t much time to prepare elaborate dishes. The result is my food history, if we can call it that, is not very positive, and to this day, I struggle to get excited about food, which is a drawback when you consider that I now live in Spain, where the pig is so revered, they even have sayings about it. Can you tell me a little about your own food history and your introduction to the world of cooking and food appreciation?

I grew up kind of in a semi-similar scenario, where food was never the most appreciated thing, you know? I grew up in Los Angeles, and my parents had this idea of like, “We don’t really care that much about cooking, but we at least want it to be healthy” and we had such great access to ingredients and fresh produce. So I think that even though they weren’t teaching me about recipes or whatever, I was still learning about the quality of what I was eating. And I think that also made me want to know more about food and see how you could push these things further and kind of create upon these ingredients. For me, food is really curious – I think many people have a really intense kind of nostalgia with food when they’re raised cooking with their mother, you know? And that’s cool but also, you’re very constrained in terms of what you grow up knowing. I was able to look at it with just like a complete blank slate, where I was always able to look at it, and still am, as more of like an art form in that way, because it’s not attached to these home-cooked dinners or whatever. It’s more attached to asking myself how do we push these ingredients and use them creatively as opposed to just like purely emotionally. And so I got into to kind of creating in that way and then it just kept growing. And I think I still, to this day, have two relationships towards food. I have obviously the creative one, where I go in the kitchen and just kind of try to push things to their fullest extent. But through the 11 years I’ve been cooking – wait, no, I’ve been cooking longer than that, I’ve been cooking for 13 years. In the 13 years I’ve been cooking, I’ve created this sense of nostalgia and emotion related to ingredients and cooking a meal for people as well. So that’s how I developed that thing that I never really had around food before.

Do you think restaurants in New York have a social obligation to help low-income families or homeless people in their neighborhoods, by making leftovers available for collection at the end of the evening, for example?

I think that there is a responsibility on restaurants to help their community and to be part of their community but doing that in New York is illegal. To do that, you have to do it through a very specific set of circumstances and through specific companies. I think that it’s a very American idea to put it all on the restaurants and say, “This is your responsibility to do this. Ok, we’re going to make it really hard for you to do it. You have to go out of your way to do it. And we’re going to give you no assistance to do it.” And I think that there is a great opportunity there to give some assistance to make it like a semi-easy thing to do. Another thing – New York doesn’t have a composting program. I think the city is really behind in a lot of ways where you have this insane resource of so many restaurants and, you know, there’s a lot of waste and there’s a lot of stuff that you could do. But there’s no way to do it right now, there’s no place to help. You have to do it on your own and figure it out. And I think that’s where the city could offer a little bit more assistance.

It sounds like it could be an initiative for the new mayor of New York, right?

It would be a great initiative for the new mayor. I mean, we’ve seen in the pandemic how they helped out restaurants a little bit and gave them certain things, like you could sell wine to go and whatever, these sort of things that then they pulled away after. And you know, for a moment, it felt like the city actually cared about restaurants. And now it sort of feels like we’re just back at the same place, where it’s like, these people are here to service us, even though we’re actually a huge part of the community and everything. So you know, I’ve always thought my role in all of this is just to – unless I want to get into politics – is just to stay small. We don’t really have much waste ourselves, we just buy what we need. We can support people by employing them and we’re helping out the ones who are closest to us. We have such a small footprint that we kind of keep it small because I know that the second we start to get bigger and bigger, I’d be stressed out about all of these things. So in the meantime, I’ve just really kept it as intimate as possible and tried to reduce our waste and reduce all these other things.

 

 

I read a high-profile figure say recently that the single most important decision we make in life is who we form personal relationships with. I would say that’s the second most important decision we make, with the first being what we put in our mouths. It’s not just a question of needing sustenance to survive, but more the acceptance that eating freshly prepared food instead of highly processed food fundamentally affects our life outcomes in ways we’re only beginning to understand. What’s your take on food education and awareness, especially in terms of lower-income and minority groups?

I’ve actually worked with a couple of programs where you go into schools and help the kids start a farm and learn about ingredients. And even that was sort of shocking at first, going in and seeing how there are so many people who would see a bag of potato chips for a dollar and they’d always get that. But you could buy an apple or all these other things for the exact same price. And I was really interested in that, but how much of it is education? A lot of it is to do with resources and access, but I think that there’s a huge hurdle to get over in terms of just pure interest. And I think that that’s been something I’ve always been focused on – this idea of, if you come at it in a way where you’re saying it’s important and it’s your nutrition and it’s your health and whatever…

That’s boring, yeah!

Yeah right, that’s boring! I’ve always thought it was important to look at food as an enjoyable experience, you know? You eat a vegetable because it tastes good, not because it makes you healthy. And I think that restructuring how you communicate that is very important. I think that if we started to go to children and instead of saying “Eat your vegetables because they make you healthy”, just say instead, “Eat these carrots because they’re delicious”. And I think that’s where there’s a gap, because the knowledge stops at the nutrition level, and doesn’t go further into things like “How do you cook something to make it taste good?” Thankfully, I learned how to cook vegetables and enjoy them. And now if I want a snack, I’ll roast a carrot. And it’s funny, in other countries, I feel this is a lot more advanced. When I worked in Denmark, everyone had a better understanding of cooking and health through that enjoyment aspect. And I think we definitely need to get a lot better at teaching kids by saying “You shouldn’t do this because it’s healthy. You should do this because you’ll enjoy it.”

Right, excellent. So that’s another initiative for the new mayor. We’ve got two now. Let’s see how many we finish with.

Ok, he’s got a lot to do!

 

 

For sure, they’ve got a lot on their plate already. Let’s move on to something that everyone’s talking about nowadays: sustainability. When you’re experimenting with new dishes, do you consider the distance the ingredients will have to travel to get to your kitchen? Do you try to use only in-season produce in your restaurant?

We only work with a handful of farms, and I know them personally and they’re all in New York. My thing about sustainability is like, and I know this is going to maybe sound crazy, but I don’t even really think about it because it just is what we do anyway. We don’t have to try to be sustainable. I don’t want to serve Chilean fish, I want to serve what’s local and good at the moment. And we’re also small, so we’re only buying very sustainable amounts of things. My interest in sustainability revolves more around how everyone has only ever talked about sustainability in terms of what you’re cooking and not about the people cooking it and how we have the most unsustainable lifestyle in our industry. And we care more about serving something that hasn’t travelled very far than we do about making the life of the person who cooks it more sustainable. I don’t even have to think about whether the eggs we’re serving are sustainable. I know they are, because I know the guy who got them from the hens. It’s such a small relationship that we can start to think about how we can be more sustainable in other ways – in our lifestyle, in our physical space etc. Sustainable is like a catchall term, and I think that people don’t explore it enough. I spent a lot of time researching sustainability as a concept, like a philosophical concept, and it goes much further than just food that’s good for the environment. Even the idea that not eating animals at all is not sustainable, because you need animals to graze farms. I think it’s a much more complicated word and issue than people realize, and so I always try to remind people that sustainability doesn’t just mean that your fish is local. It means a lot more than that. It means that your fish might cost $10 dollars more than you think it should because the guy fishing it hasn’t been living sustainably his entire life, and maybe we should start thinking about that as well. And so I think that it’s a much bigger conversation, but I think we need to try really hard to do our best to push it forward.

Your buddy Cameron has always supported you and pushed you to become the best version of Flynn that you could be. Can you express what it feels like knowing you can count on that level of support from someone? Did you ever feel like quitting and scaling back your ambitions, but felt you couldn’t because you would be letting other people down? Like Cameron, for example. 

When you do a job that’s very constant and which at times can feel very polarizing and lonely when you’re doing it on your own, I think it’s important to have a group, a support system. I’m lucky to have one that’s known me for so long. In Cameron, and even other friends of mine who have been there through the whole process, I think it’s great to be able to turn to people who’ve known you since you started out, who can help you want to keep going. I don’t think there’s ever been a time where I felt that I wanted to stop or anything like that, or that I felt like I’d be letting down these people in my life. Any time that I had any doubts or wanted to pull back, I’d go to my friends and they’d all support me and say, “If that’s what you want to do, then do it.” And I think that’s where my support system has been really strong, and especially with Cameron. I’m my own toughest critic, I’m the one who pushes myself the hardest. And so for me it’s actually really helpful to have someone to go to who’s going to say “Yeah, it’s fine if you need a day off. You should have a day off, you should take a little break.” So I think that that’s kind of what I’ve always loved about having a support system – it actually brings me down to Earth as opposed to like pushing me further away. I can push myself all the way. I prefer having people in my life who can help ground me.

That’s a great perspective. So self-confidence is something that has come naturally and at an early age to Flynn. Would that be right?

In some ways. I think that determination is a better way to put it. The confidence comes from having to do it! You have to find confidence wherever you can. My confidence has always come from saying to myself “So, wait. What? I’m not gonna do this?”. So determination can push you to be more confident than you might otherwise be.