Here's How You, A Diner, Can Help Fix 'A Very Broken' Restaurant Industry

Flynn McGarry shares his youthful but experienced perspective on how the food industry can survive and who truly deserves customers’ money.
"To be completely honest, the conversations we’re having about gender and race and identity within the food industry are much more pressing and important issues than ageism," says Flynn McGarry.
"To be completely honest, the conversations we’re having about gender and race and identity within the food industry are much more pressing and important issues than ageism," says Flynn McGarry.

Flynn McGarry’s age shouldn’t be a factor when assessing his ability to cook and run a restaurant. Yet it always has been: From his stints hosting incredible dinner tastings at his California home at the mere age of 11 to his opening of Gem, a 16-seat dining room in New York, the now 20-year-old chef has always had to prove his worth as measured against his age. But now, as the entire culinary world faces a reckoning catalyzed by a global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, McGarry suddenly seems ahead of his time, with a view of the world his older peers could aspire to. He is no longer the youngest voice in the room, but rather, a voice of reason. Listen to what the chef has to say in this Voices in Food story, as told to Anna Rahmanan.

On the lasting impact of the pandemic:

I think it’s a very pessimistic view to think that we’re going to be living in this specific reality forever, because my friends in Europe, their dining rooms are open again. That’s given me a lot of hope that one day, things will return to normal if our country can get its shit together.

I also hope this is showing people the importance of restaurants and how much they love them — but also how much there is wrong with them. This [can] be a new era during which we say: ‘We want our cooks to be paid like this, we want to give people health care and be able to have sick leave.’ What does an industry of the sort look like? What is the cost of it?

I think one of the biggest problems is that we’re not all on the same page, but I think this is bringing everyone together. We all see what the flaws are, but I think very few of us want to go back to the way things were because we’re living in a very broken industry. At least for me, it has inspired me to not just look at what the restaurant is going to be in the next six months but, rather, how is the restaurant going to run in the next 15 years? We do know that one day, hopefully, things will be better, so it almost makes more sense to focus on the long term.

I don’t see a reality where we re-open Gem and it’s exactly the same as it was before we closed, and I think that is a good thing. I sort of welcome that. I think that if everyone gets onto that and gets excited by it, it will help a lot of the dealings in the industry as a whole.

“I don’t want to eat at six of the same restaurants. I want to see everyone’s individual thoughts.”

I also think that every chef doesn’t need 12 restaurants. I don’t understand why that is. That’s just inherently not sustainable. You see that the chefs spread themselves too thin. If chefs want to become business people that run many restaurants, let them invest in people who don’t have the same opportunities that they do and help build a bridge. It would actually make the restaurant industry more diverse. I don’t want to eat at six of the same restaurants. I want to see everyone’s individual thoughts — especially now, in a city like New York, where the bar for entry is so incredibly high and expensive. I have been uninspired by New York restaurants in the past few years because it’s the same groups that keep opening the same eatery because they’re scared of taking a risk.

On his experience with ageism:

Ageism is a problem. Yes, I have dealt with some shit for that but, to be completely honest, the conversations we’re having about gender and race and identity within the food industry are much more pressing and important issues than ageism. I still am a white male who is given a lot of opportunity because of that and has also been given a lot of opportunity because of my young age. Is it genuine? Kitschy? Trivial? It is what it is, but I think what is important is that people are starting to focus on equity and who owns what. Even me. Our investors are older, wealthy people. How do we divide that a little bit better?

I think that peers my age are much more aware of [the social issues taking center stage now]. I sort of sit in this weird in-between phase, where I am young but I’ve worked in restaurants for 10 years now, so I’ve experienced every sort of side of it. I’ve worked at all these places that people are talking about and, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the reason why I didn’t want to work in the same place for five years is because I’d be there and see I don’t agree with a lot of the things that are happening.

I think there’s something really important about staying and learning, and I was able to do that, but I think that my personal goal always was to go to a restaurant and think of, “When I have my own place, how do I change [things for the better]?” And it’s really hard. I opened my own place and I found myself falling in the same traps that I noticed before.

“People don’t understand that a pint of tomatoes grown by a farmer that is paid properly and can feed his children is expensive.”

On using this time to reevaluate priorities:

I honestly hope that everyone has taken this time to think and reflect and help become better managers, owners and just reevaluate their set of priorities.

I think there’s going to be a lot of people who just go back to the norm and keep doing things wrong. What I hope [to see] is change coming from the guests. I hope the guests start to value things differently. We have a tasting menu that is $200 and includes caviar and Wagyu beef [and nobody complains about it], but there is also a value in paying everyone properly and giving people vacations. People don’t understand that a pint of tomatoes grown by a farmer that is paid properly and can feed his children is expensive.

The other thing we’re seeing now is how many options there are to being a chef. I honestly hope that limits the amount of people who want to open a restaurant. If you want to open a restaurant, you should know how hard it is and how much work goes into it and only do it if you’re aware of it all. Don’t do it because you want to make money.

I think it’s twofold: I hope guests pay a little more attention to where they’re going and who they are giving their money to, and I hope that restaurants and owners take a little bit more time to say who deserves what and how to make it a great experience not just for them, but for everyone involved.