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From the Fall 2015 Issue "Food Fight"
Flynn McGarry began cooking at the age of 10, though he confesses that the urge had already gripped him for some time. Two years of immersion in the cookbooks of some of the world’s great chefs—Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, Grant Achatz of Alinea—was enough to launch his own personal style. His parents dinner table soon gave way to a supper club called Eureka in Studio City, where the complexity of his dishes became legend. The next year, there were apprenticeships as far afield as Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan. Eureka was serving 20 guests with tasting menus of 14 courses, and McGarry’s career was launched. World Policy Journal snagged McGarry, perhaps the world’s youngest chef at the age of 16, for our Chat Room in Paris, midway through a cook’s tour of Europe.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What inspired you to start working in a kitchen, and what inspires you about food?
FLYNN MCGARRY: My mom was a really bad cook, so I kind of thought ‘oh I could do this better,’ and then she was more than happy to push the cooking duties on me. I started trying out recipes from cookbooks and then just became really interested in it. And I have this thing where if I do something, I have to do it all the way, so then I decided if I want to be really good at this I’m going to have to start working in restaurants, and that’s kind how that gradually started.
WPJ: How would you define your style of cooking?
MCGARRY: It’s very difficult to find a specific region or style, so I always say modern American, because I’m American, the ‘modern’ refers to the use of slightly modern techniques, and the food is not very traditional. It gives me kind of free reign to use ingredients from Japan and use techniques from anywhere around the world. If I said I cook French food, then I could only cook French food.
WPJ: You could say you cook global food, or ‘World Cooking’?
MCGARRY: Yeah, exactly. I mean to say I can just use whatever, and it doesn’t limit me in any way.
WPJ: So, that’s the question—do we move to a system where we grow, cook, and consume food locally—instead of shipping produce and products across continents?
MCGARRY: Local food is central. I’d say techniques and some ingredients may come from around the world, like a way of doing fish from Japan, but if I’m in New York, I only cook food from that area. If I’m in Los Angeles, I only cook food from that area. It’s the best food you can get right then, because it takes the least amount of time to get to you, and it’s what you should be eating at that time of the year. I try to source as locally as possible, and I’m a big fan of that. I think it’s definitely going that way just because chefs are starting to become more environment-conscious, and they understand that everyone is going to run out of food at some point. So we must try to slow that down, especially in the fine dining world, because we have a lot of waste. And even though it’s a very small part of the equation, everyone does their best to cut down on it. So I only cook local; all of the chefs I’ve worked for only cook locally. Most restaurants that are at a very high level are only cooking local food now.
I think it’s also important to teach people how to make everything delicious because everyone wants to eat a really nice steak or a really nice tomato. Naturally, you want to eat the best thing. But if we teach people how we can make just the most humble root vegetable or a grain something delicious, if they learn how to make a porridge taste really, really good, they don’t feel like they have to get things from other places.
Take Noma, what they really do is the same. You look at these really humble ingredients, and they just make them taste incredible. To me, the most impressive thing is to take a cabbage and make it taste better than a steak. And that’s just what people ought to start learning how to do if they want to cut down on their environmental impact.
WPJ: This is what have you learned from famous chefs that you found useful and interesting?
MCGARRY: A lot of restaurants at a very high level are still using very high-end ingredients, because when you go and spend a lot of money, that’s what you want to eat. But you’re starting to see a lot more chefs just aren’t taking something and cooking it one way, they’re actually learning and figuring out how can we cook this to make it delicious and treating it like its a science experiment—but with food. That said, fine dining restaurants are such a tiny portion of the landscape, that’s the real problem—when the average person doesn’t have this training in cooking, he can’t see a celery root and think of a hundred different ways to cook it. That’s what really got me into cooking. I saw these really fine dining restaurants and what they were doing. When I was 10, I had no clue that food could look like this, that food could be as conceptual as this, and seeing these chefs take a very plain, ordinary ingredient and turn it into art, that’s what inspired me. It was just shocking how incredible everything tasted no matter how simple it was.
WPJ: We think one of your biggest aspirations as a chef has been to open a Michelin star restaurant, so what would such a restaurant look like?
MCGARRY: My idea of it would be maybe 28-30 seats—not that big a restaurant, tasting menu only, maybe 16-18 servings, and pretty much I just cook. That’s what makes it different. The real difference is that you have to do everything in your ability to make the guest experience as perfect as possible, and then you just have to cook delicious food. It sounds incredibly simple, but it’s all of the little tiny details that sets any restaurant apart. I just kind of cook what I like, and it’s as easy as that.
WPJ: Do you think there is a role for the traditional Michelin star in the future, and how would you like to see restaurant evaluations change?
MCGARRY: You are starting to see a lot of restaurants that are really small and have a lot less money, but they’re still getting Michelin stars. So I think its starting to move in that direction, not only recognizing the restaurants that cost a million dollars to open, and they’re beautiful shrines and they have 10 PR people. Michelin and all these other places, they’re starting to recognize the smaller places—just someone who really likes to cook and went out and did it, so I think it’s definitely moving in the right direction. When you get down to one star or two stars, I think they’re starting to accept restaurants that aren’t ‘perfect Michelin poster boys’ per se.
Personally, I think it’s a great system. It gets people to see your restaurant, which is one of the most important things for business. It’s like, ‘then how should the academy awards change?’ It’s pretty much the same thing in the restaurant industry if you have this achievement. Everyone knows you know what you’re doing, and you’re starting to see more chefs that are really good cooks starting to get stars, and then people starting to come to their restaurants.
WPJ: Let’s talk about your creative side. Apparently you have a passion for painting, for music—how do the arts inspire your cooking?
MCGARRY: I think it really reflects on the plate, and the creativity just behind the dishes. I’m a very creative person so I don’t really put myself in boxes. I don’t say this can only go with this, and this can only look like this. Art has trained my brain to think differently and achieve more, and you know obviously the painting in my case is plating food, so that’s how that one really helps.
WPJ: So you see beautiful food on a plate that’s sort of like a painting, like a work of art?
MCGARRY: More or less. You use a spoon like you would use a brush. It’s very similar.
WPJ: Do you eventually see a pan-European or even a global cuisine that embraces styles from every continent?
MCGARRY: Yes and no. I can see the individual countries or individual continents being more influenced by other continents, but I don’t see it kind of morphing into one because it’s all so different…
WPJ: … and local.
MCGARRY: And local, yes. But I definitely do see that. Like, in France they’re starting to have more influences from Japan, from China, from Mexico, from all these different countries. I think people on each continent are going to start to learn more about what other people are doing. Still, as you were saying with respect to one universal cuisine, you can’t really do that because you can’t get the ingredients that you get in Asia in America, or you can’t get the ingredients in Mexico in Russia. But I do think the techniques and the concepts are already influencing other cuisines.
WPJ: Flynn, thanks very much. Now get back to cooking. We don’t want you to burn anything.
McGarry shares one of his favorite recipes below. Click image to expand recipe or download PDF.
[Photo courtesy of Wally Gobetz]