Walk down Forsyth street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and you’ll pass a restaurant opened earlier this year with its name – Gem – printed terribly trendily in black across the centre of the window panes. Chef Flynn McGarry is the man behind the space, and something of a celebrity in the cooking world.
Why? For something as simple and – apparently – as extraordinary as his age. Mr McGarry, you see, was testing out experimental cuisine from his bedroom at the tender age of 11, before finding his way into some of the most renowned kitchens across the globe, launching sell-out dining pop-ups and, finally, landing a permanent spot for his very own restaurant. Yes, he’s only 19. Should it matter as much as it does? Probably not.
“I have become very understanding of it,” says McGarry. “The way that our culture is, if people don’t understand something they write it off so that they can say, ‘Oh I don’t get this, so it’s bad’. Or they try to fit you into a box. I think that everyone is so afraid of new things and changes and I was sort of on the forefront of that – I understood that that was going to be met with confusion. It’s part of the gamble.”
Gem, which is McGarry’s mother’s name spelled backwards, represents the finish line, what he’s been driving towards for all these years. The space is split in two, one part acting as a daytime cafe, the other as a dining room serving a set menu that offers a balance of fine-dining dishes and sharing plates. A lot of what’s on offer puts vegetables as the star of the show.
“To me, cooking meat is boring,” McGarry explains. “The goal when you have a really great piece of meat or fish is doing absolutely the minimum to it, because it tastes great on its own already. You know it’s going to taste good – the hardest thing is just not fucking it up.”
An aged beetroot, prepped for hours in myriad ways, is one of the richest treats on Gem’s current menu. “Some people mistake it for meat initially, they’re shocked by how satisfying it is. That confuses people a lot, in a very positive way. People are getting it: with less comes more.”
The whole dining experience mirrors this concept. The space is quiet, there’s a rug hung on the wall and a slightly 1970s vibe to the furniture. Finish your dinner and you’re welcome to stay, just like you would at a dinner party. It’s something McGarry says his guests are looking for.
“Our clientele is a lot younger, people in their twenties and thirties who are willing to try new stuff, and willing to see new kinds of tasting menus. They don’t just want the same thing over and over again. I don’t really think of it as a restaurant, it’s like my house and people just come over for dinner”.
It’s one thing to know that diners’ tastes are changing, that the old formal rules no longer always apply, but it’s another to have the commitment and, yes, the courage to rework them. I ask what pushes him. “The idea of perfection. I’m looking for it but I know it’s not going to happen. I’m a self-aware perfectionist; I want this, but I know that there’s no actual world that this exists in. But having that, it keeps me doing that stuff every day, showing up at work at seven in the morning to make dinner.”
McGarry sounds like an old hand, but one who hasn’t been jaded by an industry notorious for flogging its staffers with punishing hours, bad pay and little respect. Owner and head chef of three-Michelin-starred Maaemo in Oslo, Esben Holmboe Bang, had a young McGarry in his kitchen, and tells me: “Flynn came in as a curious and hard-working cook. There was a lot of talk in the US about how young he was, but all I saw was a dedicated professional with tremendous ambitions and a determination to fulfil his potential. This field is real simple; a lot of people talk but don’t walk the walk. If you want success you have to dig in and sacrifice for it. Flynn has talent and determination. He will have success. End of story.”
With Gem, McGarry has found a first end-point, a culmination of a dream borne out of his bedroom years before. “The goal for so long was just this, and now that it’s happened it’s kind of put a reset on everything. It’s everything that I wanted in one space – truly, every aspect of it is so incredibly personal. It takes up so much energy, but also fulfils every aspect of what I love doing. It keeps me excited. At least for now. When it stops, I guess I’ll figure out something else.”