This week’s subject is New York City restaurateur and all-around culinary expert Flynn McGarry, who has been cooking since he was 10. It was at that age that he chose to cook his way through the notoriously complex The French Laundry Cookbook. There’s even a documentary about the transformation of his childhood bedroom to a test kitchen and his subsequent rise through the culinary world. He spent his teenage years staging at some of the finest restaurants in America, like Alinea and Eleven Madison Park, and traveling through Europe working in kitchens there, too. At 19, he opened his first restaurant, Gem, on the Lower East Side.
I met Flynn almost six years ago when I last interviewed him for the first iteration of this series. While we haven’t really kept in touch, I’ve been impressed by his maturity, poise, his food and taste level, and (of course) his ability to dress himself and look right at home in his clothes. We connected again to discuss his plans for the future, the positives and pitfalls of TikTok chefs and recipes, the evolution of his personal style, and plenty more.
Since your restaurant Gem just closed the summer, can you walk me through what you're working on now?
We currently have Gem Wine open, which we moved into the former Gem space. We're working on building out the new Gem location, as well as doing pop-ups in between and looking at Gem outside of the form of a restaurant, until it's open.
As someone who is partially self-taught and used the internet to aid in your education, what do you think about the rise of all of these TikTok and Instagram recipes and “chefs?” Does this have any ramifications in the real world of dining?
I think it's a great thing that there are more avenues for people to experience food. It's a really great way to learn. We’ve seen it in every other industry and now it's becoming much bigger in food—the idea of fame and success and influence based off of knowing how to cook and being on TikTok or being on Instagram gives an inflated idea of reality to younger people going in to the industry. That's the only real issue that could arise from it; giving young cooks this idea that we could make all this money, do whatever we want, and become famous when in reality that’s such a tiny, tiny portion of people who know how to cook. My thing always is, if you want to do this, it's great, but you also need to know how. Cooking is a skill, not just an idea. If you know how to cook, yeah, you could go on TikTok, but you could also just go work in a restaurant. As long as you know it's both, I think it keeps a nice reality, instead of people going in and learning how to cook just to be on TikTok. It’s never going to actually work out in the long term.
How do you continue to innovate and grow as a chef and restaurateur? Where do you get inspiration?
The great thing about being a restaurateur is that it's every part of the experience in a restaurant; it's the operations of a restaurant. It's like my own creative side in food is always moving as I work with new ingredients and new farmers and new fishermen. That's what really drives that and inspires that. But there are so many aspects of having a restaurant. How are we going to pay people what we want? How are we going to run this place? And every day is a new learning experience and something to figure out. That continuous growth really helps. I may already know how to cook most things, but now I'm learning 100 other aspects of the business and it still is all technically one job.
Where do you see yourself in the next decade?
I want to open this next restaurant and be there. At the end of the day, I'm in that period where it's like, “Do I want to be the chef that has 10 restaurants? Do I want to be the chef that has one restaurant?” Gem and Gem Wine have been amazing, but it's been the idea with them since day one that they were experiments, and they were places to experiment. I don't feel as though I would want to open a bunch of restaurants until I have one that feels grounded. So, I really want to look at this next restaurant as a way to create this thing that is built to last, where I can work there for the next 10 years and not feel like I'm bored by it or burnt out by it, but in a sustainable way. It's a place where we can have people grow in the company, and it really becomes this hub. So then, yeah, maybe eventually we do other projects. But I really look at the next 10 years as doing the same thing that I've been doing, but with a very different perspective towards it.
When did you first become interested in clothing and style?
Probably when I was 12 or 13, around that period, when I started to really get into cooking. In that period, you do the thing where you either get shut down by everyone making fun of you or you're going to engage in it more.
What are some favorite brands?
Some very good friends of mine have a brand called Another Aspect in Copenhagen and all of their clothes just fit me really well. I really like Husbands. I also have a bunch of Ralph Lauren sweaters. I go very classic preppy a lot, but then if I'm cooking, I'm in a Gildan white T-shirt because I can destroy as many as possible.
I have so many of those for when I’m cooking at home or because my baby's going to be throwing up on me at some point. How have you honed your personal style over the years?
I think what's funny is my style has gotten a lot simpler as time goes on. I look through my closet sometimes and I'm like, "What the?" from when I was really trying more. I eventually realized what looks good on me and what I like to wear and what's easy. With cooking, you know things that work now and you can repeat them. I think my style has gotten a lot more confident in its simplicity. [There were periods where I thought], "Oh, I can have this statement shirt," or something weird and interesting, and now I would rather wear a white button-down every day. I have friends that succeed so well in that area and I think their confidence works with that. I feel most confident when I am like, "Oh, I'm just wearing a black sweater and trousers and there's no chance that I'm looking crazy.” Clothing's about confidence.
Do you see any synergy between clothing and food? I’ve read you’re obsessed with the word “sprezzatura.”
Italians describe it best, and I think it's this idea of if you look like you're trying, it never works, even in food. In the end there is always a conscious effort in anything that you do well. But I think the goal for me in anything is, “How do I look like I didn't even think about it?” Eventually, if you do that enough, you don't even think about it and it just becomes ritual. The people that I've always looked at as style icons, they're not trying. They're just like, "This is what I wear.” That's the confidence that is such a cool thing, not when you are showing up with everything new and you're really, really trying to get someone to be like, "Wow, that's crazy." It's when you show up like, "This is what I threw on today and it looks good on me." It takes a really trained eye to know what looks good on oneself, or even as you're cooking, to know, "Oh, do I like this? Or are people going to like this? What is the angle that I want to achieve with this?” And then the comment is, "No, I like this and it works for me." It takes a long time to get there.
If you had to wear one outfit for the rest of your life, what would it be?
FM: It would be a white button-down, Levi's 501s—I literally wear my R.M.Williams boots most days—and a black crewneck sweater.
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