Updated: Jun 22
When the definition of sustainable gastronomy extends beyond what’s on the plate ; Flynn McGarry turns the restaurant into an experience where not only is the food refined and delicious, but it also promotes a sustainable lifestyle where everyone would be given a chance to blossom and progress.
Photo: Courtesy Flynn McGarry
Flynn McGarry is an outstanding Chef whose genius goes far beyond the food he cooks. What immediately stands out with these types of Chefs are their true leadership regardless of age, their commitment, and their passionate vision.
Flynn McGarry took his first steps in gastronomy at the age of eleven. He opened his first restaurant, Eureka, a pop-up food experience in L.A, at the age of thirteen. Then he opened a second one in the West Village in NY where he served a 14-course tasting menu. That early talent, which he mastered by cooking his way through expert level recipes in Chefs cookbooks and studying YouTube videos, led him to go work with the best teachers: Daniel Humm, René Redzepi et Thomas Keller.
Beyond his undisputed talent, Chef Flynn places sustainability at the heart of the experience he and his team offer the guests at Gem, the restaurant he opened in Manhattan's lower east side in 2018. Gem is a fine-dining concept that is informal in spirit while enjoying a refined execution. It is a hybrid approach to haute gastronomy that takes itself a little less seriously. To McGarry, the definition of sustainability extends beyond what’s on the plate; it is first and foremost a lifestyle model based on respect, development, and empowerment of its employees. Ambitious and resilient, he dreams of a restaurant industry that would put forward a virtuous circle in which everyone would be given a chance to blossom and progress. This responsible approach would then become a beacon to inspire the other players in the U.S. culinary scene.
Welcome Flynn to Chefs for Impact!
By Flynn McGarry as told to Chefs for Impact
How did you keep yourself busy the past few months?
“We closed Gem around mid-December for our winter break, which is usually a time for us to regroup and rethink how we can do things better. We were supposed to reopen on that day when everything was shut down in NYC. So, we’ve been closed for 6 months now. I’ve been working on a couple of other projects. I’m writing a children's book where the idea is to teach food as a creative field just like art and music.
When the lockdown happened, we didn’t want to be very reactionary simply because it is not our business model. Part of our philosophy is to take time to do things, and to do them well. We waited to see how, going forward, the restaurant industry will look like in NY and how we can adapt to that in a way that it feels genuine to our concept.”
Do you think this crisis will affect your client’s expectations?
“I think the only positive aspect of this crisis is that it makes everyone look deeper into what they have and what they want. My dream is that, after having cooked at home for several months, people would realize how valuable the restaurant is, and how much everyone has been underpaid in this industry forever. You go to a restaurant for the experience, not just to eat dinner, and I think everyone is realizing they miss that aspect of it.”
Gem_Photo by Aaron Bengochea
How can gastronomy be more sustainable?
“First and foremost, it’s about where you get your products from, how you support the small farmers, and how you choose the purveyors you work with. But we need to look far beyond that.
At Gem, we’ve been working towards sustainability in a lot of ways: sustainable lifestyle, sustainable creativity, and sustainable ingredients. When consumers eat sustainable food, it is a way to support cooks in providing them with the nice livelihood that everyone deserves. Chefs need to start thinking more about the impact they have on the purveyors they work with, employees that come and work for them, and how to create a more sustainable future for the entire ecosystem. Restaurants should be thought more as something almost academic, where you can teach the next generations of cooks to carry similar values.
Fine dining has always been the highest level in the industry and it trickles down through all of gastronomy. The way we should look at these types of restaurants, besides cooking crazy food, is that they run the most sustainable kinds of businesses with the best management practices, treatment, pay, and education of their employees while creating the best opportunities for them. This should be the marker for everyone else. It would also be a way to get rid of the classism within the industry. Every restaurant can show some kind of sustainable model at their own level. Most people I’ve worked with in Michelin starred restaurants ended up opening mom and pop, very small, relaxed energy restaurants. These restaurants are better because they are searching for perfection at their own level.
My hope is that other Chefs are taking this time not to worry about the future, but to think about how we can make our industry less fragile and how we can add some longevity to everyone’s business. It’s important to look at sustainability not only from the food angle. Sustainable lifestyle will be the gold standard for the industry going forward.”
Do creativity and sustainability go hand in hand?
“I think sustainability is all about creativity. No matter what, it is our job to look at it this way and have this mentality in order to apply it to every single aspect of our businesses.
Right now, we take the time to look at the way the restaurants are structured and restructured. It seems to be a given, but people care more about what they do when you provide them with more equity, a higher pay, more responsibility, and more room to fail, thus more room to learn.”
Gem_Potatoes Cooked In Yogurt_Photo Courtesy of Gem
How do you get your message and values across?
“That’s the hard part. I think a level of transparency, without ruining the experience, is very important for our clients to understand where their money is going. It is important that people look at the restaurant on a much bigger scale. Eating dinner in a sustainable restaurant does not mean only paying for the food. It’s about investing in the future of sustainability and agriculture, paying the person who worked 12 hours that day, cleaning the restaurant as well as making sure everything is ready for you to come. If we raise our price by $25, we might be able to provide someone with healthcare. I hope this crisis will make people value the whole chain even more.”
Do you think this crisis is an opportunity for change?
“I’m not optimistic on the fact that the entire restaurant industry is going to become functional, but I think that if you try hard enough, you can be this sort of beacon that is leading the way. Everyone doesn’t have to conform to it but it might make people want to go to your restaurant more. We see more people supporting places that are treating their employees well. I see this crisis as an opportunity for change where consumers become smarter and start to care more about the way places are run.
It’s my job and it’s my choice to go sustainable. If I can’t do it sustainably, why do it at all? Going forward, this is the big question I’m asking myself: what’s the point of having a restaurant that is just going to pay your rent, and maybe your investors back if it’s not going to generate enough to invest in your employees and create better opportunities for them or change people’s lives for the better? You could be a private Chef instead, and still doing what you love to do. If reopening a restaurant tomorrow means starting to buy from Sysco or not being able to pay the employees well enough, then I might want to change industry.
The right mentality is to want to open a restaurant in order to create a better restaurant industry. Training the next generations is the only way things are going to change for the best.”
What do you hope is next for Gem?
“In the short term, we are trying to get ourselves back up and hire people back, as well as doing some fun things for pick up at the restaurant.
Looking at the big picture in the long-term, I’m asking myself how to do things more sustainably. Is New York the best place to do that? It’s a time that makes everyone think differently and this is the time to see the restaurant as an ecosystem. I would like Gem to become this new beacon and experience that could move to different places in a much larger space. The most sustainable way to build this kind of model follows the idea of an ongoing loop to run everything: Employees would grow the food, cook the food, and turn the scraps into nurturing the food. The farmers would know how to cook and the servers would know how to grow vegetables. Everyone does everything in this continuous virtuous circle.
Finally, my wish for the future is that people see the restaurant industry as a career and not just a job. It is up to Chefs to create a sustainable environment so that people continue to come and work with them."
Gem_Duck Glazed in Huckleberry_Photo Courtesy of Gem
Learn more: https://www.gem-nyc.com/