Directed by Cameron Yates
Featuring Flynn McGarry, Meg McGarry, and Paris McGarry
Running time 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA rating: not rated
by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
Marie: "Restaurants are to people in the 80s what theater was to people in the 60s." I read that in a magazine.
Jess: I wrote that.
Marie: Get out of here.
Jess: No, I did. I wrote that.
Marie: I've never quoted anything from a magazine in my life! That's amazing. Don't you think it's amazing? And you wrote it?
Jess: I also wrote "Pesto is the quiche of the 80s."
Marie: Get over yourself.
Jess: I did!
The above exchange is from one of my favorite scenes in When Harry Met Sally, and it popped right into my brain memories while watching Chef Flynn, a documentary tracing young chef wunderkind Flynn McGarry’s rising talent from approximately age 10 until age 16. And while restaurants may have been a big deal in the 80s, and still are, the past ten years or so have seen a cultural shift, at least in the US, towards a love of food, cooking, and baking. People love to eat. They also love to talk about food, make food, order food at restaurants, and watch other people talk about, make, and order food. And everyone’s got an opinion on the food they talk about, make, and order at restaurants. You know what everyone says about opinions.
I feel like food has exploded as something everyone is into nowadays. In the 90s it was music or movies but now…little kids are watching the Food Network and they’re handing cooking shows out to practically anyone (side-eyeing you, Haylie Duff, Tia Mowry, and Tiffani Thiessen). I’m young enough to remember growing up with a smattering of PBS cooking shows - I’m not old enough to remember watching Julia Child, but Lidia Bastianich, that’s my girl. There was also this old show called Great Chefs Great Cities, profiling, you know, great chefs in great cities of the US in their natural habitats, their restaurant kitchens, to learn about their special techniques. Nowadays we have whole cable channels devoted to cooking and eating and eating while cooking; travel shows heavily featuring cuisines from abroad; celebrity chefs who’ve become crazyass stars in their own right (my personal faves? Lidia, Anthony Bourdain, David Chang, Nigella Lawson, Eddie Huang, Christina Tosi, and Ina Garten; up and coming chefs on the brink of stardom (Matty Matheson, Cara Nicoletti, and Samin Nosrat are kinda my idols right now); more food-related competition shows than you can shake a turkey leg at (I recommend Top Chef, the Great British Baking Show / Bake Off, and Iron Chef - but never Chopped. Dear lord, no.); a bevy of high-quality programming on the subject: The Mind of a Chef, any of Bourdain’s shows, Avec Éric, Chef’s Table, Ugly Delicious, Cooked, and Salt Fat Acid Heat; not to mention everyone and their grandma has a food blog (I had one way back when as well). “Mhhmmm…ok, ok, ok, ok, Jaime, we GET it! Food is having a real moment right nowww!” you exclaim through nibbles of your Dominique Ansel cronut. Yep, food is indeed a real big fucking deal. And I don’t see it changing anytime soon.
And this brings us to Flynn McGarry, the chef in question in Chef Flynn. Watch any episode of MasterChef Junior, Chopped Kids, or Food Network Star Kids and you will understand that our current foodie culture will have a lasting impact on the youth. Youngsters are growing up in this environment, cooing over the latest Bobby Flay brunch ideas or Pioneer Woman’s cowboy casserole or whatever. Flynn expressed a passion for cooking from an extremely early age, going so far as converting his bedroom into a semi-restaurant quality kitchen so he could practice and concoct far from the prying eyes of his big sister Paris or pushy mom with a camera Meg. It didn’t stop there - by the time he was 13, he was doing pop-up dinners out of his mom’s home, tasting menus to be exact under the moniker Eureka, cooking the food of his idols Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Grant Achatz of Alinea. We’re talking serious chef business here - this isn’t a kid cooking his way through the latest Guy Fieri cookbook jam. Nah, Chef Flynn is legit, and that’s where his problems start.
Haters gonna hate, right? And that’s the case with Flynn. At 13 he was profiled in The New Yorker, by 15, New York Times Magazine. He did short apprenticeships at Eleven Madison Park, Next, Alinea, and Alma. He was learning from the best. Not long after, he took Eureka to New York City, his culinary dream spot, and hosted regular tastings for $160 per person. Now he has a new restaurant, Gem, with a similar concept and the reviews I’ve read so far are pretty positive considering how tough the restaurant scene can be in Manhattan. As of this writing, Flynn is about 19 years old.
It’s not just that Flynn is talented, it’s that he’s near mother effing brilliant. In a short span of time, he’s achieved a level of success that took other chefs decades, and he’s just getting started. He’s challenging a system that’s held fast and hard to its hierarchical structure - either go to culinary school or start at the bottom in a restaurant and work, and work, and work, and work, and work until you stand out enough to work, and work, and work, and work, and work until you are truly successful. He’s been criticized for even holding the much revered title of “chef” in an industry chock-full of bitter, tired, overworked chefs who slave every day in the hopes they get a sliver of publicity, let alone regular features and a whole documentary all to themselves before they’re of legal age to purchase a bottle of pinot noir.
Besides presenting these criticisms, director Cameron Yates peppers the film with family background (divorce, an overbearing mother, a big sister on the shyer side) along with home video footage documenting his nascent interest and burgeoning talents. The film presents how some of the foodie world perceives him: as the butt of jokes (one online reviewer referred to him as Chef Doogie Howser), accused of using Lena Dunham-esque connections and favoritism to get to where he is today. To which I say…so what? If the proof is in the pudding, then well, this kid is the future, whether culinary stalwarts like it or not. He’s not going to be the last kiddo chef to float through our culinary cultural orbit. Change is hard dudes - sorry bout it.
Technically speaking the film is fairly standard doc fare - nothing groundbreaking to see here. The original score by Holy Ghost! of DFA Records was a sweet addition - they’re like a cousin to one of my fave bands ever, LCD Soundsystem and this little morsel had me hooked in from the beginning. I will admit what’s gnawing at me the most about Chef Flynn is its lack of addressing McGarry’s privilege - the bedroom kitchen of his “youth” featured numerous commercial hot plates, a sous vide contraption, a brand new food processor, and a bevy of culinary tools and cookware. At the age of 39, I literally JUST plunked down $10 for a meat thermometer at Kitchen Kapers to make my very first roast chicken ever, and this kid was breezing his way through The French Laundry cookbook at 13 with real tools of the trade. Would Flynn have gotten where he is so fast without the connections his screenwriter mother clearly had? The money her job brought in to host exclusive tasting menus and pop-up dinners to in-the-know Los Angeles-based folks? If Flynn had come up in a small town in Anywhere Else, USA, in a family with very little disposable income or access to the variety of fresh produce he did in the San Fernando Valley in California, would he be where he is today? I feel strongly that he would have succeeded, albeit maybe not as quickly.
Say what you will about Flynn, call him names, denounce his title of “chef”, but when he’s commanding a kitchen, as Yates films him in Chef Flynn, he knows just what the fuck he’s doing. Most of the real critics only have good things to say about his food, and it looks elegant, playful, too beautiful and artful to eat. This is his calling, dammit. Just let him have at it already.