How To Become A Chef? Let Me Count The Ways

flynn_mcgarryThere’s much to be said in favor of tradition, and traditional ways of doing things. But some people, including 16-year-old Flynn McGarry, who aims to have his own restaurant by age 19, say “why does [the traditional] kind of struggle –  having a terrible life, missing all of your family events, being treated like shit for ten years — why [does that have to be] the mark of being a chef?”

That comment, in a interview, was in response to David Santos, a chef who recently closed a restaurant called Louro in NYC’s West Village two and a half years after he opened it – and  (after a 70% rent hike. Santos, in an Istagram post, was adamant about McGarry not deserving – in his opinion – to be referred to as a chef:

“I’m sorry but I hope I’m not the only chef that’s offended by this. I shit this morning [with] more knowledge and life on the line then a 16 year old has. The fact the media even calls him a chef offends me to no end. Chef is something you earn through years of being beaten and shit on and taught by some of the greats.

“Not doing trails [a type pop-up restaurant, where food is prepared and offered in multiple ‘sampling-size courses by a specialist – a chef, by some reckonings – in a small environment, for a limited period of time, say, a night or three] that your family pays for. Because as a real chef I don’t treat people who trail the same way as people who sweat and bleed for me.

“If you go to this [‘chef’s table’ of McGarry’s, where he serves two rounds of 12 people on three successive nights] and fork over $160 plus then your [sic] a damn fool because I can name so many more actual chefs that actually deserve that money.

“Maybe one day he will indeed be a great chef I’m not saying that but earn it before you offend most of us that actually are.

“And any idiot that works 3 days a week can put together a couple great tasting dishes. If you can’t your [sic] fucking worthless. Try managing people and dealing with the ins and outs of an operation and still being creative and inspiring to the people that work under you and intrust [sic] their futures in the knowledge you will pass onto them. That’s a chef – that’s what a chef does. It’s not about playing dress up and plating a couple dishes.”

Well, yes, there is that – about managing people, and being prepared to pass your hard-earned knowledge on to a next generation. McGarry may not have acquired either of those skills yet, but hey, he is only 16 – and his focus, since his age was represented by a single digit, has been on the food: Studying it, learning how to mix-and-match ingredients in both traditional dishes and, more importantly, in dishes he creates himself.

(He’s also been quoted as saying, “I want to learn as much as possible, but I don’t want to wait too long.”)

And the fact that McGarry has, just recently, passed his high-school equivalency exam (he’s been home schooled through much of his school ‘career’) suggests it’s unfair to fault him for not having learned, yet, to “manage people and [deal] with the ins and outs of an operation and still [be] creative and inspiring to the people that [sic] work under you,” as David Santos included in his laundry list of McGarry’s shortcomings.

Santos, who also wanted to cook, professionally, from an early age, learned a lot about food through the good fortune of being part of an immigrant family from Portugal that regularly traveled to the old country to spend time with relatives – relatives who raised much of what they ate, and young David “loved every minute,” he’s quoted as saying, of helping an aunt build a fire for the bread-baking followed by ingredient-gathering for meals to come.

After high school (where he excelled in baseball), he went to cooking school – Johnson & Wales, in Rhode Island – then, somehow, moved fairly quickly into gaining experience at “New Jersey’s most acclaimed restaurants: Nicholas and The Ryland Inn,” according to a bio of him on Louro’s web site. He also picked up a lot of pointers traveling around Europe and South America, “soaking up the culinary heritage of the visited countries and their cuisines rooted in peak quality seasonal ingredients,” his bio says.

McGarry was fortunate in having connections – serious connections: His film-maker mom knows lots of food-loving important people in California, and she’s encouraged many of them, including Hollywood actors and producers, to experience her prodigy son’s culinary samplings (in the form of small-dish-size servings) at a dinner party at her home. His professional photographer father has busily performed his specialty as guests show obvious delight in the results of Flynn’s efforts.

And professional publicists make sure the activities of the young cook – Flynn doesn’t call himself a chef; even his twitter feed (@diningwithflynn) says, simply, “I cook” – are widely exposed.

Santos also has been fortunate to be able to work with Chef David Bouley (Bouley’s, in NYC’s TriBeCa area, described on the restaurant’s web site as “the most memorable dining experience in New York [that] set a new standard for fine dining in America”) and Per Se  (where a Chef’s [tasting] menu is priced at $310, at lunchtime). So, like McGarry, he clearly has friends in high places.

Thomas Keller, the 60-year-old cook book author and owner of Per Se (as well as a number of other restaurants and food-based operations) is, at 3.75 times McGarry’s age, exceptionally successful as a restaurateur who, as it happens, got his start working in a Palm Beach restaurant his mother managed. His route led him not to cooking school but, through meeting a French-born master chef in Rhode Island, to opportunities to work in several prominent U.S. restaurants, from which he traveled to France, where he apprenticed under several Michelin-ranked chefs before opening his first restaurant. T hen, in time, he returned to the U.S. where, in a good deal more time, he came to be the only American-born chef to have multiple restaurants with three-star Michelin Guide ratings. His efforts have enabled him to bank some $30 million.

Santos, who appears to be in his thirties, also appears to be a long way from accomplishing anything like what Keller has. And McGarry is still three years away from the year he anticipated, a while back, opening his first restaurant.

But, without formal training, he’s already done so – in a manner of speaking: Last month (Sept. 2015) he launched a three-day-a-week “Chef’s table”, as he calls it in a dining room that the owner – Creative Edge Parties – doesn’t make much use of on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays. His 14-course offerings are, for each of 12 guests at each of two (sold out) nightly seatings, priced at $160, tax and gratuity included. He calls his Chef’s Table/restaurant Eureka –after a street he once lived on.

This is not the first time he’s used that name for a food-serving place: Flynn  launched his first dining club at age 11 in Los Angeles, where by the time he was 14 he was referring to it, mimicking its followers’ description, as a fine dining establishment.

It quickly outgrew its fixed location, initially in his and his mother’s home, at was reborn as a pop-up restaurant – a place where food could be prepared and served wherever the surroundings allowed. And it quickly became, in that guise, an L.A. staple.

Eureka’s web site says that, at age 16,

“Flynn became the youngest under-30 Zagat honoree for his Eureka pop-up in Los Angeles and was named one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential teens. As well as being self-taught from a young age, Flynn received his culinary training by staging and working at fine dining restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, among them Eleven Madison Park and Alma, and recently has returned from stages in [exceptionally well-known] Copenhagen and Oslo [restaurants].”

The site fails to mention that Flynn also was invited to participate in a staging – food prep and serving in special locations, or under special circumstances – at the White House for the benefit of guests at the 2013 version of the annual Easter Egg Hunt.

Three dramatically different paths toward careers as professional cooks – no path being better, or worse, than another. Two of the paths have proved their worth through the success of their followers. The third path, the one being diligently followed by a teen who, despite his age, already is invited to work alongside some of the best in the business, looks likely to succeed, as well.

As Vogue magazine

Flynn McGarry at Eureka, his pop-up restaurant. Photo: Cameron Yates, Grub Street
Flynn McGarry at Eureka, his pop-up restaurant.
Photo: Cameron Yates, Grub Street

said about him last month, “the one undeniable thing about McGarry is that he’s passionate about what he does. He’s . . . taking hold of the opportunities that have presented themselves and provocatively reinventing the way we experience fine dining” – adding, in Flynn’s words,

“I cook and the rest of it just sort of happens.”

Remember Flynn McGarry’s name, and his favorite name for a restaurant: Eureka. You’re likely to hear a lot more about it, in time.