Humility found in the most unlikely of places

Chef Flynn McGarry. Photo by Melissa O’Brien.

I went to the Architectural Digest Design Show in New York two weeks ago. It was a terrific concentration of furniture and arts and lighting, decorative stuff, electronics, appliances. It was overwhelming, of course, to try to take it all in in a few hours, but it was hugely inspirational and fun. In part because of the stuff there but mostly because of the people.

I wanted to know everyone’s story: What inspires you? How did you get started doing this? How do you make this thing? Is the show going well for you? What I found was that people were more than happy to answer my questions. Which is why I know so much now about the field bed that Riley, the brains behind Hinterland, is making. Also, I very much want one, not because it makes any sense in my life or I need one, but because I met the person who makes the thing and he told me about what inspired him and who he is and how long he’s been making things and what he loves the most about all of it.

The thing has a story; the story is meaningful.

The guy standing there had come to New York from British Columbia, and when I asked him what inspired him to create the field bed he told me a story about army camp beds and his relationship to the woods where he lives and how those things manifested in his idea for this beautiful little bed. Suddenly the bed sitting there in the middle of a huge warehouse in the middle of a huge city meant something.

I think that’s the way it’s supposed to work. I really believe that things we make aren’t all that meaningful unless they matter to us in some important way that has nothing to do with making a living. When the heart is in the object, the object matters. Otherwise it’s just taking up space in an already overcrowded, filled-with-crap world.

If you’re going to make something, make it timeless. Make it because you can’t not make it. Make it because it looks like all your dreams.

Of all the things I saw, it was the furniture of Campagna that went straight to the marrow for me. I saw the booth from a short distance and it took my breath away; I had one of those moments I’ve described here before, when something resonates with me on a level where words don’t make sense or even matter.

The young man whose work it is was humble, almost invisible, really. I didn’t take any pictures because I wanted to touch everything; I wanted to know as much as I could about the person and the work. The lines of his chairs and tables are clean and elegant and reminded me of the work of architect John Pawson. Nothing fussy. Nothing to detract from the purpose of the piece: this is most obviously a chair meant to be sat upon: this is most obviously a table, meant to be used for work or eating. Nothing frivolous. I loved it so and I told the maker as much: “Your work touches the heart.” To which he responded with gratitude, “That means everything, thank you.”
“You’re welcome; you’ve earned it.”

What surprised me about the people I met at that fancy show, the ones I found myself talking with, was how modest and grounded they were. How important their work was to them and how elegantly the pieces of themselves were reflected in the things they were making; how they faded into the background, and the work, the objects, told the story.

The same story had played out the night before at the restaurant called Gem. The owner, Flynn McGarry, has every reason to think himself something important. Because he is; he has been cooking for the public since he was about 12, and today he runs a successful restaurant in New York at 20. (Watch the wonderful documentary called Chef Flynn to learn more of his story.)

One might expect Flynn to be…a little obnoxious, a young man with a large ego. One would have thought he would be hidden away in a kitchen, too busy or important to speak with diners at his restaurant …you know, that chef thing.

He was anything but. Flynn was humble and kind and completely present. He brought food to our table and cleared our plates. He took the time to answer our questions, he told Coco to keep cooking, and his old friend and member of the staff, Nora, invited her back to work in the kitchen with him. Flynn was lovely in every way and already knows how life works: It’s not about him, it’s about the food.

He is a magician, a scientist, an artist. Flynn himself is small, quiet and unassuming; his food playful, gorgeous, astonishing. In my 53 years here I have never experienced the fruits of this world done like that. In the hands of Flynn McGarry food becomes a vehicle, transporting the eater to another realm. The dishes were visually enchanting, colorful. The tastes…words fail.
It was funny. We went to some very fancy places in New York recently. And discovered there some of the most talented, sparkling, humble, kind and respectful humans you can imagine.

There is hope, friends, there is.

A Gem of a meal
By Coco Eyre

Oranges with bottarga and fresh cheese.
Photo by Coco Eyre

Gem feels less like a restaurant than a warm and cozy house, and Flynn’s cooking is out of this world.
Here’s what a food writer for The New York Times said about it: “His cooking is nuanced, his plating is often lyrical and the flavors, at least this spring and summer, have been delicate, subtle and very fresh. The vegetables and fruits he uses in profusion look and taste as if they had dropped off the vine right on to the hand-spun, earth-toned ceramic dishes.”

Our dinner consisted of 12 courses. We started the evening with raw scallops and pickled white asparagus, a combination I would have never thought of. There was lamb tartare with chamomile and nasturtium; delicate Bluepoint oysters with sweet potato and rye.

My favorite dish of the night had to be the oranges with bottarga (salted cured roe of the mullet fish) and fresh cheese. The saltiness of the cheese paired perfectly with the light acidity of the fresh oranges. We ended the evening with a parsnip cake topped with a toasted oat ice cream, a chanterelle cinnamon roll and candied parsnip and apple.

The food we ate that night inspired me to rekindle the love I used to have for cooking when I was on Chopped Junior. I got burned out after all the intense training and prep and the weirdness of the TV world, but after eating at Gem I started to remember all the amazing things you could do with just a few simple ingredients, and I was inspired by the fact that Flynn is only 20 and he’s running his own restaurant already. I cannot wait to make my way back to Gem in the near future.