They may call it writer’s block, but Chef Flynn McGarry will be the first to tell you that any professional can find themselves afflicted. Last Spring, everything was seemingly coming up roses for McGarry, who at just 20 was running his own restaurant, Gem, in New York City’s Lower East Side, and popping up everywhere from New York Magazine to the The New York Times. But then came an announcement on Instagram: the block had come for McGarry, and he was going to Europe (and closing the restaurant) to fix it. In a conversation that ranged from Hamilton watches to Ham, we began by asking Flynn how travel got him back on track.
So it’s early June, and you've decided it's time to get away. Where do you go first?
I went to Belgium, to stay with a family I used to cook for. They had once told me: “If you ever need somewhere to calm down, come to our house.” It's outside of Antwerp, with tons of land where they grow their own vegetables, and a lake. The mum in the family is the head designer for [Belgian designer] Axel Vervoordt, so it’s as gorgeous as you can imagine.
How did you ever leave?
You know, there were like a solid two weeks where I was like, “Wait, am I not going to want to go back to New York?” The first day I was there, I think I slept for 20 hours. My body didn’t even know that possibility existed.
Why the need for the change of scene?
I felt, for the first time, like I was going to work. Because we had a large staff, my entire day was just managing people, when all I wanted to do was cook. Usually at this point chefs choose to step back, and enjoy their life a little more, but I like working and had no desire to step away. I know that to be honest we still need to figure out what this restaurant is, and that’s the fun of it.
Flynn inside Gem, on the Lower East Side
Judging by the fact you’re reopening, it seems travel did the trick?
It did. In Belgium, for example, on July 8th, I was picking the flowers off linden trees to dry to make tea. They were drying, and emitting a really beautiful smell, as I was drinking this parsley-stem infused vodka. Immediately, my mind went to oysters. I thought oysters poached with Linden, and a little yuzu, and some parsley oil would be delicious. I tried it out…
It was disgusting.
I was like, “Oh, shit!” I can't talk about the inspiration, if the inspirations don't work out.
So the plan failed?
No, I simplified it. I thought, “What do I love more than anything about Belgium? Waffles.” So, I cooked oysters into a waffle. I tried it, and it's fucking delicious. I’m testing it today to get the texture exactly right.
Beyond Belgium, where else did you go?
Copenhagen. I used to live there, and it’s the perfect city for me. Even just for bread or coffee, in every bakery their standard is that much higher. Every cafe, even in the daytime, has candles lit, even in the summer. It makes no practical sense, but when you’re there…
I know that to be honest we still need to figure out what this restaurant is, and that’s the fun of it.
It elevates the room.
It just makes you feel comfortable right away. Feng shui, or whatever that word is. It just makes you feel calm. Even at Noma, you’re spending $1,000 but you still feel relaxed. We’ve always wanted Gem to be a space like that, where you feel comfortable hanging out in even though it’s a fine-dining place.
Gem’s design does stand out. What was the inspiration?
I wanted it to look like my house.
Must be a nice house.
My house is way smaller than the restaurant, but they do mirror each other. I became obsessed with terracotta, and so my collection spilled over into the restaurant. I’m lucky to have found a home nearby with outdoor space, where I grow all the herbs for the restaurant.
You'd never know walking through Chinatown that a fine dining restaurant was growing its delicacies above you.
I always walk down the street with a basket of flowers and herbs and everyone looks at me like, “Who the fuck is that?”
I’m lucky to have found a home nearby with outdoor space, where I grow all the herbs for the restaurant.
I love New York, but the reason that I love it is that I’ve found a way to create my own little universe within it. I can’t say where, but I'm opening a bakery soon just because I needed bread near me that tasted as good as it does in Copenhagen.
Flynn, just outside Gem, on the Lower East Side.
Beyond bread, a friend of yours, Samuel Hine [GQ’s Associate Editor], encouraged me to ask you one question: Why is Campari superior to Aperol?
[Laughs] I'm so excited that this question finally came up somewhere. Let me explain: If I offered you a really nice glass of red wine, or that same nice glass of red wine but with a bunch of sugar and water poured in, which would you choose?
The first one.
Right! The first is Campari. Anyone can drink an Aperol Spirtz. Campari is the alcohol equivalent of drinking a straight espresso. It takes a little bit of a higher palette. Most people think it tastes like cough syrup. Which do you drink?
What’s in a Negroni?
That one. But we’re getting off script. Because of your profile, do diners feel they’re entitled to meet you as well when they come to the restaurant?
Yes, but I’m aware of that. I talk to everyone. We actually had someone call to say: “I don't want to come if I can’t get a photo.” So that's a whole kind of, new dimension of the restaurant world. But I’m happy people want to meet me!
I love New York, but the reason that I love it is that I’ve found a way to create my own little universe within it.
But it must be a pain when you’re trying to keep things cooking to a tight recipe?
Yes. You have to know when to say: “I need to go cook your food.”
Flynn, inside Gem, surrounded by the vegetables and flowers he grows in his Chinatown apartment
The leafy, detail rich interior of Gem
How do you get yourself in the mood for that energy to invade your space every night?
Before the restaurant is open we have 45 minutes, from five o'clock to 5:45, where you just have to run because everything is coming together, and we play the loudest weird German techno guy that really gets you going. At five o'clock I will have already been in the restaurant for 10 hours, so you need that kick. Even as the night goes on we’ll keep some music going because you need that rhythm to keep you on track.
You've said before that you’re a fan of pressure. Has that changed?
It’s funny, I brought this up to my therapist recently. Everyone in the food industry talks a lot about like balance within your workday. This is an unpopular opinion, but I find my balance in going from 100 to 100. I’d rather work for ten months like a maniac, and then take two months off entirely. I need that intensity. That said, I’ve rearranged the calendar so Sunday is my one fully off day.
What was it before?
Before, we were closed on Sunday and Monday, but on Saturday our deep clean would finish at four in the morning. So I’d sleep in until like noon on Sunday, groggily get lunch somewhere, and do all the orders for Monday’s prep day, which involved a bunch of paperwork and shit like that. Then I’d go to sleep at nine so I could be at the farmers market in the early hours of the next day. Now, we aren’t opening until Wednesday.
That sounds healthy.
Which means on Sunday I can turn my phone off and … only worry about the bakery.
Inside the kitchen at Gem
Preparations for the evening's tasting menu
You mentioned being obsessive about terracotta pots. Is there anything else?
Ham. Ham would definitely qualify as an unhealthy obsession.
How does that manifest?
I buy $500 worth of a giant ham, take it home and work down it. I'm also obsessed with really specific things like this porcelain cup, that I want to use for our lights. I’m obsessed with Little Forks, too.
They’re these old small forks that we’re definitely going to use in the restaurant. I’ve collected tons of them. I have like 100.
I’d rather work for ten months like a maniac, and then take two months off entirely. I need that intensity.
I've been cooking in women’s penny loafer slides. They slip on so easily.
And is that a vintage watch I spot?
This is a Hamilton from 1926, which I bought for myself. I only recently started wearing watches, and as a gift bought myself a Hermes watch from the 70s that is very futuristic and cool. It’s kind of ridiculous that I wear nice watches because I’m always taking them off to wash dishes.
You wouldn’t buy a waterproof swim watch?
Never. I'm a real looks over function guy.
Flynn’s Hamilton from 1926
“I've been cooking in women’s penny loafer slides. They slip on so easily.”
You’ve said no-one should feel they don’t have another career inside them. I know the woodworking and design of the restaurant comes from you – do you see something else coming down the pipeline soon?
I know I'm going to not be able to run restaurants forever. The next dream changes every day, but currently it’s moving to Copenhagen and designing home kitchens.
You clearly have a talent for it.
I refer to it as aesthetic OCD. I can't be somewhere where something doesn't look how I want it to.
I want our guests while they eat to also think: “This is a great chair. A beautiful room. The song is at the perfect volume where I can still talk to someone. The handle for the bathroom feels really nice. The water glass.”
You’re talking like Jony Ive’s Apple videos.
Somewhat! I mean, I care so much. One interviewer once mentioned that I kept getting distracted by uneven tiles in the background as we spoke. When I moved into my apartment I hated the floors, so I redid the floors. I'm renting – I technically should not have done that. I’m obsessed with the sound of putting something down on the table. We had these plates with a rough bottom. I hated the sound of it hitting the table, so now we have a charger plate that has felt on it underneath, and a beautiful napkin so you don't ever hear it clinking.
The next dream changes every day, but currently it’s moving to Copenhagen and designing home kitchens.
You must always be fine-tuning.
I really focus on people seeing what I want them to see, and hearing what they’re supposed to hear. My favorite word ever is sprezzatura– it means a “studied carelessness”, and I've always thought it's the best phrase ever. When someone walks in the door for their meal we may just be hanging out then, but we’ve just worked 19 hours. That vibe is what’s so attractive about Italy. My friend was just there, staying with his grandmother, and he called me to say “It’s so beautiful. You wake up and there's salumi and there's jam and bread.” And I was like “Someone spent a bunch of time making that!”
Last question - is there someone whose career you’d like to emulate, and why?
Dries Van Noten and Wes Anderson come to mind as people whose career is totally in line with who they are, but it’s really anyone that doesn't allow any sense of conformity. In the chef world, the only next step if you’re successful is to become a business person, and sit in board meetings managing your brand. It’s the last thing I want.
Even though you’ve worked for it for so long.
That's what I realized. I love being a chef, but there was a huge kerfuffle on the internet about me being called a chef. And now I'm like, I don't want to be tied down to that title! They can keep it! If I feel like I want to do other things, I'm just going to let myself do that.
Thanks to Flynn for speaking to us