Cameron Yates' foodie doc about a budding teen chef is a riveting look at how ambition knows no age, but its smaller scope stretches a bit to get to feature length.
If you were to ask the average ten-year-old about the presentation of their food, they’d probably respond that they enjoy dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets. Culinary wunderkind Flynn McGarry, however, began a love affair with haute cuisine. Director Cameron Yates documents Flynn’s journey from his at-home dinner parties to magazine covers and the dream of opening his own restaurant in the food doc Chef Flynn.
McGarry began his prodigious gastronomic journey at the age of ten, when his mother Meg McGarry was going through a divorce and would only cook a limited number of dishes. Tired of eating the same thing over and over, Flynn offered to cook for his family. Flynn moved beyond merely making dinner for his mother and sister Paris: he would spend his days in elementary and middle school dreaming up new dishes to try out. Eventually, he throws elaborate dinner parties for his parents’ friends, enlisting classmates to act as his staff. The parties grew in size and complexity, and a seat at a 12-year-old chef’s table became one of the hottest tickets in town. After meeting chefs from Eleven Madison Park, Flynn is invited out to NYC to work for a week. The press soon came calling, and at 15 he had already graced the cover of the New York Times. Behind the scenes, Meg helps her son achieve his dream at all costs, acting as manager and home school teacher. The documentary primarily focuses on the two, with little screen time for anyone outside the mother-son dyad.
Flynn’s talent and passion are undeniable onscreen, exhibiting the dedication and attention to detail that we come to expect of the most professional chefs. It almost seems unreal, and it’s easy to wonder if this is how Flynn is in private or if this is a constructed persona for the documentary. There is only one scene, when Flynn is running a pop-up in New York, where we see him really lose his cool and look like the teenager he is. Meg, on the other hand, is portrayed as the doting mother. It’s apparent that she doesn’t particularly care for the life of restaurant management, but admirably sacrifices her creative endeavors (she’s a filmmaker) to help her son achieve his dream. Flynn and Meg are great subjects, both likeable and their personalities shine through on film.
Where the documentary really struggles, unfortunately is in framing and pacing. Yates’ approach mainly plays out like a series of home movies, and for good reason: those videos are the source for much of the doc’s footage. As such, there is little in the way of editing, and some of the footage goes on too long, showing too much of the minutiae of the cooking and restaurant scenes. There is also very little context: we only ascertain the year if it’s shown on a tasting menu, and Flynn’s age at any given time is intermittently provided. We know why Flynn began cooking (he was tired of his mom’s cuisine) but we have no idea why he decided on the food he made or how he was exposed to fine dining. His family background is barely explored – just that his parents worked in film, and they are divorced. In one scene where Flynn reads a mixed review, it mentions that his mother was well-connected in Hollywood. Flynn scoffs at this, but the viewer is left wondering if it’s true or not. It’s obvious that they are at least somewhat well-to-do (not many people will buy their 13-year-old an immersion circulator for sous vide), but the extent of their parents’ wealth and influence on Flynn is left out. This is probably to make Flynn seem more remarkable, but, regardless of his privilege, his talent stands out throughout Chef Flynn.
There is little in the way of a narrative structure imposed on the documentary, which makes the whole affair feel a little aimless. It would have been more cohesive if it had focused on Flynn preparing for a big moment (opening the pop-up would be a prime example) and jumped back and forth between his past and present. There is also talk about how out of the ordinary it is for Flynn to be called “chef” without first going through the training and rigor of restaurant life. While many people love watching celebrity chefs, the world of actual restaurant chefs is much more insular, so it would have been helpful to include interviews with others in the industry to provide context and commentary.
While its subjects are eminently watchable, Chef Flynn feels meandering as a documentary. By only focusing on Flynn and his mother, it seems too insular to warrant a feature-length runtime. Flynn is a talented young chef, but at this stage, it seems this would have been better as a short-form documentary. While examining the plating of one of his line cooks, Flynn comments that there is too much on the plate. The same could be said of Chef Flynn.