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Chef Flynn's rise from 'prodigy' to NYC's Gem, captured on film

"I was fascinated by this story,"  director Cameron Yates says.

A young Flynn McGarry in the documentary "Chef

A young Flynn McGarry in the documentary "Chef Flynn." Photo Credit: Chef Flynn Film

In 2012, The New Yorker profiled a 13-year-old who was hosting 10-course tasting menu dinners at his San Fernando Valley home under the headline “Prodigy.”

That piece drew the attention of filmmaker Cameron Yates, who soon reached out to the phenom, Flynn McGarry, about making a documentary.

Fast-forward six years, and McGarry, now 19, runs his own fine-dining restaurant, Gem, in New York City. And the documentary, “Chef Flynn,” is out Friday at the Film Forum.

Using home videos that McGarry’s mother, Meg McGarry, a director herself, shot, as well as his own footage, Yates follows McGarry as he goes from a little kid hosting dinners for family and friends and using his schoolmates as staff, to getting staging stints at such esteemed restaurants as Eleven Madison Park, to running his hyped 2014 pop-up in New York City, Eureka, at the age of 15, this time with a professional staff under him. Along the way, he also garnered more media attention, from a cover profile in The New York Times to TV spots with Larry King and Jimmy Fallon.

After initially approaching the McGarrys, Yates spent a year getting to know the family before they agreed to let him make a documentary.

“I was fascinated by this story,” the NoLIta filmmaker, 38, says. “I come from the Albert Maysles, sort of vérité documentary school of filmmaking. Knowing that your subjects, not only that they trust you, but that you’re in there for the long run, and you want to show something larger than just the small sound bites,” it’s really important for me.

That time paid off, as it took some convincing to get the McGarrys on board.

“At first we were sort of against it, we were a little scared by the idea of that,” McGarry says. “It was happening at such a crazy time as well. As we figured out what was going on and what we wanted to do, it felt comfortable.”

Yates started filming in 2013, following McGarry through 2017 as his pop-up attracted more interest and he gained more fame. He also pored over years of family home footage and photos. Yates estimates he ended up with around 400 hours of footage — “everything from early VHS home movie to cellphone video to professional cinematography cameras,” he says.

“It’s kind of an incredible range over the 18 years in the life of him, growing up and becoming a chef,” Yates says. “I was so excited to be able to be in there and stick around for six years, but also knew that I would be able to tell the whole story because of all this other footage his mother has shot.”

For McGarry, the documentary is an opportunity for him to revisit forgotten moments with his family — and see ones he wouldn’t be able to remember.

“My sister found this clip of me as a two-year-old when everyone was calling me ‘Chef Flynn,’” he says. “It’s a funny thing to see how it all played out on more of a grander scale.”

The film doesn’t capture everything, of course; for most of the filming, McGarry and Yates were based on opposite coasts, meeting up for special pop-ups or events in New York City. And when a 16-year-old McGarry traveled around Europe, working in restaurants in Oslo and Copenhagen, he did that on his own.

“Those experiences I wanted to just be by myself, and didn’t really want cameras around,” he says. “I think that was nice that the story sort of worked its way around all those things.”

In the documentary, a young McGarry is captured as saying, “I think New York is the end goal as far as a place for a career in a restaurant.” The film stops short of McGarry achieving just that, with scenes of the chef scouting locations for what will become his first restaurant, Gem, which opened earlier this year on the Lower East Side.

For McGarry, it was an appropriate ending for the film.

“I think it’s nice that it ended before that next chapter — just encapsulates sort of one period,” he says. “Well, a pretty big period so far of my life, but kind of stops at a nice time where it’s sort of saying, there is another part to it.”

As for what’s next, McGarry doesn’t have any big goal in mind, but is focusing on running his nascent restaurant.

“That’s the only thing that we’re thinking about,” he says. “Just how can we make this better every single day.”

IF YOU GO

"Chef Flynn" opens Friday at the Film Forum, with Q&As with the cast and filmmakers at the 8 p.m. show on Friday and the 12:40 p.m. shows on Saturday and Sunday | 209 W. Houston St., filmforum.org

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