Maybe you’re the type of person who sees a precocious, media-savvy teen phenom like chef Flynn McGarry on TV or the cover of a magazine and think "Good for him” or “That’s interesting.” Or, “Probably a nice kid, but why not lavish some of this attention on working chefs in actual restaurants whose food real people might be able to sample?” Or maybe when you see Flynn — rakishly thin, stylishly coiffed, forever jabbering about emulsions and reductions and his delicately minimalist creations — you can’t hold back a snarl: “Who does this child of privilege think he is?” you snipe, probably in a tweet or a comments section.
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For those who rage at the teen-chef trend, Cameron Yates’s intimate doc Chef Flynn should come with one of those warning signs posted outside roller coasters: Avoid this ride. For the rest of us, Yates’s film will likely prove an enlightening curio: part celebration, part experiment, part cautionary tale, part drama of coming-of-age singular. Above all that, it’s a mother’s story, with Yates following not just Flynn but also Meg McGarry, a filmmaker herself, who has been documenting for years her son’s culinary blossoming — and her encouragement. Before puberty, Flynn only wanted to turn his bedroom into a kitchen. Mom let him, springing for good equipment, and we see Flynn, at age eleven, tour-guiding us through his “bedroom slash kitchen slash workspace.” Here’s a grill, three induction burners, two butane burners, toaster and a scale. There’s his mattress, leaning against the wall, ready to be laid back out at bedtime.
And here are his creations: a “deconstructed Caesar salad” with romaine, jicama slaw and a shmear of Parmesan jelly. Or his earliest signature dish: short ribs with shiitake mushroom polenta and a blackberry red-wine reduction sauce. Like many of Flynn’s dishes, this looked delectable, if somewhat fussily dazzling, a sculpted splat resembling the hat of some Seussian alien.
What sets the film apart is that we see Flynn become a culinary star through the eyes of his mother, who at first encourages him, home-schooling the kid and helping him host lavish pop-up dinners from their Los Angeles home. Then she uncertainly indulges him, as his hobby boils over into a sensational career. She helps him take the pop-ups professional, charging $160 a head and up, sometimes in borrowed restaurants in other cities. More fascinating than the food, eventually, is Meg McGarry’s conflicted pride and doubt — she seems to spend a lot of time in the vanishing point between them. No gourmand herself, she says she sometimes wishes he’d just run a food truck, Flynn’s Fillets. He’s amusingly dismissive of her suggestions and qualms, in that amused/disgusted pleading way kids reserve for parents who are repeating themselves. Instead, Flynn aspires to the buzziest fine dining, to photo shoots and Michelin stars, and Meg knows not to squelch the buzz he’s getting. What’s a mom to do when the New York Times magazine wants to profile her child, a story about chasing his dreams that will go a long way toward fulfilling them?
As Flynn, at fifteen, makes his New York restaurant debut, his borrowed kitchen staff falling behind as the world’s pickiest foodies complain in the dining room, Meg strives to soothe her anxious son. He has never failed before — and even if some diners left in huffs, everyone who stayed raved about the food. She worries that the stress is getting to Flynn, especially when the coverage of him turns from “Look what he’s up to” to, as a Gothamist headline puts it, “New Yorkers Paid $210 To Eat Food Cooked By A 15-Year-Old Last Night.” One highlight of the lively, engaging film finds Flynn, the morning after, reading that piece, a sharp beauty of a post that airs the author’s every snarking suspicion about the celeb chef — but also honors his achievement. It’s a rare moment: We’re watching a real person who we’ve come to know get boiled down, not undeservingly, to a media caricature. Flynn reads aloud, facing with his family two truths: that he’s going to get called a “Chef Doogie Howser” who is given opportunities thanks to “Lena Dunham-esque networking benefits.” But also that he can prove to everyone that he’s more than that.