Flynn McGarry recently had a transcendent experience in Isabella Rossellini’s garden. The chef, who co-owns and runs the intimate, elegant restaurant Gem in New York City, was having a busy day, one similar to all the rest of his days, starting at the restaurant before most New Yorkers wake up. He worked all morning and then, for the first time in months, left the 12-block radius of the Lower East Side that encompasses his apartment and his restaurant. After his trip out to the Hollywood legend’s farm in Bellport, Long Island, he’d have to come back to the restaurant and work nine more hours. But he had to see the garden again.
McGarry had cooked there last summer, when indoor dining was shut down in New York, and he was finding his way through a rare period of pseudo-downtime, hosting a series of roving pop-up restaurants. He returned on one of those perfect spring days full of promise. It was 66 degrees, he says, mid-May — can you imagine anything more beautiful? There were chickens bok-bokking somewhere, and vegetables beginning to emerge from the dirt. He met with Rossellini’s gardener, who he says never lets anyone pick vegetables in the garden, unless that person is McGarry or one of his cooks. He cut a leaf of kale, still warm from the sun, “and I ate the stem that literally tasted like candy,” he says. He knows that chefs are always fetishizing some freshly plucked leaf, but still. “I was like, I have not felt this, like, free and happy since last year, when I had the same feeling here.”
He was overdue for a pause. McGarry, who is 22 and signed the lease for Gem right after his 19th birthday, has been running at full speed, with rare breaks, for all 11 years of his career. “I feel like my frequency is at a 10. And that singular moment brought my frequency down to a one,” he says. When I meet him at the restaurant on a Sunday morning a couple weeks later, he looks spry but tired, like a coed in the throes of finals. His strawberry-blond hair, usually perfectly tousled, is slightly deflated. He’s confident but still boyish, and he keeps playing with the slim string of tiny pearls around his neck.
Since Gem reopened in February, McGarry has been working hundred-hour weeks, arriving before 9 a.m. and only leaving once he and his small staff have cooked hyper-precise, elaborately plated dinners for dozens of people. In Rossellini’s garden, though, “everything was fine. And I didn’t need to be distracted. I think that existing at a 10 is a distraction from dealing with the discomfort that is, I decided what I wanted to do when I was 10 years old. And I did it. Now what do I do?”
The story goes that the 10-year-old McGarry plucked The French Laundry Cookbook off a shelf, and became obsessed with cooking. And not just the sort of cooking the average 10-year-old got into (if you’re me, that was a guacamole recipe from Rachael Ray). He set his eyes on the upper echelon of global cuisine, fine dining that required legions of cooks in perfectly starched whites with tweezers at the ready. His parents’ relationship was in turmoil, he’d been bullied in school; the kitchen was a place where he could do his thing, feel confident, and have something that was all his own.
Soon, he was cooking elaborate tasting menus in his mother’s house in LA’s Studio City neighborhood. He called his restaurant Eureka, named after the street where he grew up, and the people at his dinners quickly expanded past the happy-to-oblige friends of his parents. They also started paying. The New Yorker published a Talk of the Town piece about him in 2012, under the succinct headline “Prodigy.” From then until 2019, when he turned 20, he was the country’s most famous teen chef, a moniker that both shaped and haunted his career. To gild the lily, a 2015 Vogue profile called him the “Justin Bieber of food.” To be fair, his hair really is quite impressive.
When he was 14, he started cooking a few days a week at Alma, a short-lived but critically adored restaurant in downtown LA, where chef Ari Taymor took on the challenge of creating a fine dining neighborhood restaurant. (“He’s the closest thing I have to a mentor,” McGarry says of Taymor. “Honestly, a very interesting thing is that [Gem] is Alma.”) McGarry worked there for two years, taking breaks to stage — kitchen speak for brief, unpaid internships — at fine dining meccas like Eleven Madison Park in New York. He moved to the city full-time when he was 16, and began hosting pop-ups and traveling to Europe to work in kitchens in Copenhagen and Oslo. He had long told anyone interested that his goal was to open his own restaurant when he was 19. And that’s exactly what he got.
A profile in the New York Times Magazine in 2015 brought McGarry his first big wave of backlash, mostly at the hands of professional chefs decades older. On Instagram, David Santos wrote in a long-winded rant that "Chef is something you earn through years of being beaten and shit on and taught by some of the greats.”
“I’m sorry you went through that,” McGarry remembers thinking, “But why do you want anyone else to go through that? One of those people wrote an article [saying], ‘He can't call himself a chef until he misses his child's birth.’ And I wanted to be like, I don't want to be called a chef then!” In the seven years since that article came out, the restaurant industry has begun a long-overdue reckoning regarding its labor practices and the ways in which they affect the mental health and safety of its workers. And McGarry has become one of the first members of mental health-literate Gen Z to rise to the top of the hierarchy. He has long offered paid leave (a rarity in the industry), and refuses to yell at his cooks. But for a control freak like McGarry, ensuring quality of life for his staff — saner schedules, easier hours — usually means he’s working like a madman.
As the country lurches back to normalcy, burnout has come back to McGarry’s life in full force. It has forced him to wrestle with the duality of his desires: to run a successful restaurant that he’s proud of, and to live a life that doesn’t run him into the ground. He’s back to working seven days a week, booking as many diners at Gem as the restaurant can allow, because why would he deny people the level of hospitality he spent a decade chasing and crafting?
For him, the pandemic began with a period of what he refers to as “forced reflection.” He’d shuttered Gem in January and February of 2020 in hopes of relaunching mid-March as a space that was part restaurant, part creative studio. The concept would allow McGarry to leave when he wanted, while maintaining his professional home base. When it was clear that wasn’t happening, he and his then-girlfriend planned a trip upstate for two weeks, and stayed for two months.
Soon he was back in nature, the way he had been as a kid, playing on the beach in Malibu and gallivanting through fields of lush California flora. (McGarry’s affinity for plants shows the second you walk into Gem — he turns dried plants into design objects and arranges gothic bunches of peonies for the sleek black-walled bathroom. He could easily have a second career as a high-end florist.) Leaving the city and cooking for someone he loved, he “had this complete new experience of, oh, I love cooking again in a completely different way. Like I love making a roast chicken. I love making pasta all day.”
“I think that existing at a 10 is a distraction from dealing with the discomfort that is, I decided what I wanted to do when I was 10 years old. And I did it. Now what do I do?”
He was also working on a forthcoming book about creativity and cooking for kids. It required that he look back at the previous decade of his life, and try to fish out some lessons for the next generation. And all of this reflection came at a time when he didn’t even know if he’d be able to reopen Gem. “It was the first time since I was 12 years old that I had spent more than a month not working five days a week in a kitchen,” he explains. His editors wanted him to not only explain what he did, but why he’d done it. After talking to journalists for nearly a decade about what it was like to be a teen chef, he was tasked with the annoying assignment of finally explaining it to himself.
After a year of self-reflection — and a few years of therapy — McGarry has a calm, confident self-awareness. We’re sitting outside the restaurant in an ad-hoc pair of chairs, and he crosses a white Birkenstock-clogged foot over his knee, staring off into the stretch of park across the street. “I started cooking because my dad was an alcoholic and my parents were getting divorced and I had no control,” he says matter-of-factly. “I was 12 years old. I couldn't do anything. I had to just accept it. And when I put a squash on a cutting board, I had control over it, and I could create this thing.” All of this has become clear to him in the last year, but it’s a heavy thing to put in a book for kids; he had to find a way to nurture creativity without recommending his own exhausting path.
When he came back to the city a year ago, McGarry spent a month biking around, redesigning his home kitchen, cooking, and watching movies. He and a friend, another former teen chef, did a pop-up in Martha’s Vineyard where they cooked all day, took a break to swim in the sea, came home and showered, and then served dinner to 40 people seated at folding tables using little more than a Weber grill. It was a dramatic departure from the buttoned-up style of cooking he does at Gem, and he thrived. He was happy. Someone inclined to psychoanalyze might say he was allowed to be a kid again. And then he met Isabella Rossellini, and she let him into her garden.
Most of the people who achieve comparable fame and success by McGarry’s age are in the worlds of entertainment or sports, where the inevitable what now? moment can be followed by a break between film projects or by sitting out a tournament. McGarry’s gifts, meanwhile, lie in service, which requires consistency, being there live and in-person each night then showing up the next day to turn surf clam shells into forests and arrange flowers in the bathroom. He spent a year cooking up this new version of Gem that we’re sitting outside of, the pauses in our conversation punctuated by birds. He also thought a lot about the unsustainability of the world he has meticulously built for himself. “What brings all these people joy and what brings 12 people a livelihood is just me distracting myself from actually figuring out what I’m doing. That’s a crazy concept.”
He decided that the discomfort is worth it, for now. “That beautiful moment of people coming here and being like, ‘I feel like I'm in Paris right now’ — it makes me really happy and is satisfying in the same way that eating kale in a field is satisfying, or cooking dinner for someone that you love is satisfying,” he says. Sure, he feels like the restaurant will fall apart if he steps away, but he also loves having his hands in everything: the flower arrangements, the wine list, the furniture, the clam shells.
“Right now, I need to find ways to satisfy myself a little bit. And like, I have no clue how I’m going to get there.” He shrugs, gives an optimistic little grin. “It's fine.”
Top Image Credit: Prada clothing, Tiffany & Co. Schlumberger® brooch
Photographer: Christian Cody
Stylist: EJ Briones
Groomer: Matthew Tuozzoli
Junior Art Director: Shanelle Infante
Bookings: Special Projects