Brow Beat

Want Your Kid to Be a Celebrity Chef? You Better Have a Lot of Money.

This week’s New York Times Magazine.

The cover story of this year’s New York Times Magazine Food and Drink Issue is a profile of Flynn McGarry, a 15-year-old Southern Californian who hosts a supper club in his mom’s house and plans to open his own restaurant by the time he’s 19. McGarry is a bona-fide prodigy: He’s interned in some of the best restaurants in the country (Alinea, Eleven Madison Park, Alma), and he invents dishes like “abalone with kale, almond and ember-roasted chicken broth.” (“I was always really creative,” McGarry tells Carina Chocano, the author of the profile, in something of an understatement.) Chocano thoughtfully analyzes McGarry’s culinary genius, ambition, media savvy, and preternatural ease around adults: traits that have served, and will serve, McGarry well as he pursues Michelin stars.

There is another trait that has served McGarry well, and it’s one Chocano leaves unanalyzed: He is very well connected. His supper club evolved out of a dinner party he threw for his mom’s friends, a group that includes Hollywood actors and producers. (McGarry’s mother is a filmmaker; his grandmother is a former NBC executive.) And then there are the material advantages McGarry has had in his rise to celebrity chef-dom:

His parents encouraged his desire to become a serious chef. When the counters in the kitchen proved too high, they made him a prep kitchen in the dining room that was modeled after Keller’s at French Laundry. When McGarry decided he wanted a private space to create menu ideas, his dad constructed a kitchen in his bedroom to resemble Alinea’s in Chicago. They redid the electricity, built the tables and removed the closet doors to convert it to a pantry; McGarry would get an induction burner for a birthday, a vacuum sealer for Christmas. When McGarry eventually visited the restaurant, he remarked, “This is what I put in my bedroom!”

Chocano later mentions “a rack containing roughly $6,000 worth of highly specialized kitchen equipment, including a chamber vacuum sealer, induction burners, a binchotan grill and an immersion circulator that McGarry bought after he sold one of his guitars when he was 10.” McGarry doesn’t produce high-end restaurant food just because he’s a culinary genius—he produces high-end restaurant food because his parents have bought him lots of high-end restaurant equipment.

This is not to say that McGarry doesn’t deserve his burgeoning success—just that most aspiring chefs his age don’t have custom-built kitchens, “highly specialized” equipment, managers, and wealthy clients. It’s natural that McGarry’s parents would want to reward his interest and knack for cooking with all the gadgets and cooking lessons money can buy—what parents wouldn’t?

But it highlights a problem that’s endemic to all the arts but particularly pronounced when it comes to cuisine: It’s a lot easier to get ahead when you come from an affluent background. Sure, anyone with a stove and a few pots and pans can learn how to cook—but you can’t learn how to cook the modernist cuisine favored by the world’s best chefs without a boatload of expensive lab equipment. And you can’t turn that modernist cuisine into a viable business unless you know people with the disposable income to buy your $160 tasting menus and invest in your restaurant. Even chefs who aren’t child prodigies—the ones who go the traditional route of culinary school and grueling jobs as line cooks—had better have a lot of money to begin with if they want to avoid crushing debt.

Flynn McGarry seems like an extraordinary kid, and I hope he emerges from child stardom into a successful and fulfilling adulthood. But if McGarry—white, male, privileged—is the future of American cuisine, then the diversity problems that have recently been a hot topic in the restaurant world aren’t going away anytime soon.