Teen Chef Flynn McGarry on Shake Shack and the Chef vs. Cook Debate

7 minute read

Flynn McGarry is no stranger to the spotlight. In fact, at the ripe old age of 16, he’s already a darling in the food world. Beginning at age 11, the young chef started hosting a lavish supper club at his house in California, drawing praise for his precocious talent. He currently runs Eureka, a weekends-only restaurant in New York City where up to 12 guests can spend $160 for a 14-course tasting menu. TIME caught up with McGarry, who returns to our Most Influential Teens list this year, to talk about his new dishes, his favorite fast food and whether he calls himself a cook or a chef.

TIME: First, you’re in LA now, but your semi-pop-up restaurant Eureka is still going in New York, right?

McGarry: Yeah, I live in New York, I’m just visiting L.A. for two days. Coming for an event and also visiting family.

How much longer will Eureka be open?

We think until around March, until next year.

What are some dishes you’re serving that you’re especially excited about?

The more-or-less “signature” things that have stayed on the menu a little bit longer, everyone’s written about the foie gras Ritz cracker sandwich, which everyone gets right when they sit down. Now that the seasons are changing, though, it’s with quince instead of sour cherry. Right now we have desserts like these little tarts filled with caramelized crème fraîche that’s warm and topped with a bunch of caviar that’s just a little one bite play on caviar and crème fraîche, but it’s caramelized in this method that creates this sauce that’s just really flavorful. And then another one is sea urchin from Maine, and it’s cured in sea water, so it pulls out all of the iodine from the sea urchin, so it’s just like a pure ocean flavor, served with carrot and coffee puree and carrots that have been pickled in a coffee vinegar.

What’s your favorite guilty pleasure food?

I don’t really know if it’s a “guilty” pleasure, but I love Shake Shack. I don’t know if it’s the guiltiest, but I mean, it’s not healthy, per se.

What do you get there?

I get the Shack Burger. Right now they have this pumpkin spice thing of course, which is delicious, and then the fries—depending on how hungry, with the cheese.

What are your thoughts on the cook vs. chef debate?

In general you’re just the chef of what you call yours—I’m the chef of Eureka, I create all the dishes, I cook all the food, I’m the chef of it. And then if I go into anyone else’s kitchen or whatever, I immediately go back to being a cook.

Who has influenced you the most as a chef?

I think as far as, not even so much food, but as far as things they’ve told me and career advice, I think Daniel Humm’s definitely inspired me, possibly the most, as a chef.

What advice has he given you?

Just a lot of ideas, the main thing was, the first time I was staging at 11 Madison Park, they would have me make a dish for everyone to try, and I made this dish, I can’t even recall, it was something, I guess there wasn’t enough acid or something, and he told me that every single dish I ever make has to have a perfect balance of salt, acid, sweetness, all that. That’s what makes a dish delicious, and that’s the main thing that’s stuck with me. Now every single time I make a dish, I sort of run through every single thing in my head to make sure, is everything in balance?

Who have you still not worked with that you’d like to learn from?

A lot of people! I think it would be really cool, he’s not really anywhere right now, but cool to learn from Ferran Adria, just because I don’t really know much about that style, but I think its definitely a cool thing to know about. And maybe some Japanese places, but I don’t speak Japanese, so that would be a little difficult.

Do you speak Spanish?

I don’t. I took French, and I can barely speak that.

Well that’s a useful one in your profession.

Yeah. When I go to Paris it’s nice, I can order food in restaurants. But Spanish would probably be a little more helpful, especially being from L.A., but I get by.

What restaurant do you wish you could have attended that’s now closed?

I guess El Bulli. I never got to go, but someone came and ate the other day and was just showing us photos of it, and it just looks insane. Just everything about the location, the food, the experience, just seems like a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

What advice would you give to young and aspiring cooks and chefs?

First and foremost, while it is important to cook your own stuff and kind of create dishes and be creative with it, you can’t do any of that until you know all the basics. So to learn all the basics on your own or go work somewhere to learn all the basics, and then from there start kind of doing your own thing. But never be like, “Alright, I’m done learning from other people.” Never get to a place where you think you know everything, because you never will. Especially in cooking—there’s always something else to learn.

Have people your age and younger reached out to you for advice?

Yeah, there’s been a surprising amount of people my age or younger that have gotten into cooking and will send me an email about, like, they want to start a pop-up—which is great, but I mean, I would say you’re putting yourself out there for everyone to judge and scrutinize and all that. You just need to be very confident that you know what you’re doing before you do that. Because once you start it, you can’t really go back.

What’s next for you after Eureka?

After Eureka, we’re gonna start the process of opening a real restaurant. It takes a decent amount of time, but that’s within the next few months to a year, we’re gonna start looking at spaces and getting investors locked down and all that kind of fun stuff.

Will that be in New York?


What would be your ultimate idea of success in the culinary industry?

I think the ultimate idea of success would be to have a restaurant with three Michelin stars somewhere high up on the 50 Best list, but mainly just something that, you’re full every night, people come and they love it, you have a great staff. That’s the biggest achievement. All of the accolades, the goal is to just help you get there. If you have three Michelin stars, you have three Michelin stars, but what that really just means is you’re full every night and you’re attracting a much higher caliber of cooks and people who really care about the restaurant. That’s the end goal, to have a place where people can learn, and people are inspired, and you have a great restaurant. And then, hopefully, more than one.

Read next: The 30 Most Influential Teens of 2015


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