Five Thoughts about The New York Times Magazine Food and Drink Issue
The New York Times Magazine Food and Drink Issue broke this weekend, with wunderkind Flynn McGarry on the cover and a terrific profile of Barbara Lynch, among other pieces, inside. Herewith, a few thoughts and observations about the most cheffy articles of the bunch:
1. The Kid Stays in the Kitchen. Did it bother you that there was a teenage chef on the cover of the food issue? From a purely business standpoint, it made sense to me. If I were an editor or publisher looking to generate some attention, I’d stick the kid with the Alinea-inspired kitchen in his bedroom, a talent agent on speed dial, and an Uber account on my cover over just about anybody else. Nevertheless, I gather from some Twitter action over the weekend, that an anti-Flynn wave has commenced:
Any backlash against @diningwithflynn needs to stop right the fuck now. Kids a hard worker and compared to me at 15 so far ahead of the game
— ari taymor (@AriTaymor) March 29, 2014
Personally, I’m not hopping on the backlash bandwagon. Quite the opposite: In our home, my wife showed the magazine to our twin 9-year olds as evidence of what you can accomplish if you put your mind to it. Both of them have aspirations–our daughter to be a graphic or fashion designer; our son a professional athlete–and their eyes were just about popping out of their heads when they saw McGarry there. I know there was disappointment among some friends of mine that Barbara Lynch and Kristen Kish weren’t on the cover (indeed, they might have at least been mentioned there) but in our home, children of both sexes found inspiration there based on age and accomplishment, and that’s got to be worth something.
I’ve wanted to meet Flynn McGarry for some time, having known about him for a while. But much as I’d like to make his acquaintance, I’m even more curious to taste his food. Carina Chocano’s story was an interesting, though coincidental, follow-on to Alan Richman’s piece this week about “egotarian cuisine,” which I must say I found timely, refreshing, and important. (Lost in much of the naysaying was that Richman didn’t dismiss all of the food out of hand, just the stuff that isn’t enjoyable and/or satisfying to eat–is it actually a radical thought that those should be the baseline standards for any dining experience?)
Truth be told, though I’m rooting for him, I’m a little worried for McGarry. Not because of an outsized ego; I know many people who have met him, and he is very well liked, hence the invitations to stage in major kitchens. No, I’m concerned about what appears to be a narrowness of experience, and I don’t mean kitchen experience, because he’s obviously got that in spades.
The story–and it’s not the first one I’ve read about this prodigy–reminded me of a conversation I once had with the head of the Columbia University Film School. I was a first-year student and interested in a program Columbia had at the time in which you could earn an undergraduate degree and a masters of fine arts in a total of five, rather than six, years. I met with the head of the film school to ask what he’d be looking for when the time came for me to apply.
“Don’t just come to me with a bunch of film classes on your resume,” he said. “If that’s all you have, then what are you going to make movies about? Show me you knocked around Europe for a year, or worked some crazy job in Alaska.”
When I read Sunday’s article, I felt tremendous admiration for McGarry and also a twinge of concern. (I didn’t realize before this particular piece that he was home-schooled.) It was the same concern I felt when I saw an episode of Master Chef Junior last fall: that the technique being developed by these wonder-whisks is astonishing, but what vision do those who have done little more than cook bring to their craft? Professional cooking, like many arts or art-like pursuits, expands with the worldliness and curiosity of the individuals who practice it. A related point is made in Rosie Schaap’s bartender article in the magazine, which reveals that, like many of America’s first “celebrity chefs,” whose groundbreaking food was informed by their pre-culinary lives, many of our top celebrity bartenders are career changers, and bring a world of non-food reference points to their work. For example, Todd Maul, of Boston’s Clio, is a former furniture maker, and references that craft in relation to his provided cocktail recipe in the piece. I just hope that McGarry makes time in his young life to get out of the kitchen and away from the media to be — you know — a kid, and to bring that life experience to the plate.
It’s probably none of my business what McGarry and the other young toques out there do with their lives, but this was my personal response to the story. There are too many cautionary tales (Andre Agassi comes to mind) of childhoods prematurely surrendered to the hard-to-deny combination of talent and ambition. The kitchen will always be there; one’s sixteenth year comes and goes, in hindsight, in a millisecond….