In the documentary Chef Flynn, director Cameron Yates follows Flynn McGarry, the cooking prodigy who was overseeing an informal restaurant out of his parents’ home in San Fernando Valley at the age of 10, and who was hosting pop-up dinners at some of the country’s chicest restaurants by the time he was 15. Paramount to Flynn’s success is his unconventional relationship with his mother, Meg, a photographer, writer, and filmmaker who’s understandably in awe of her son. A free spirit herself, Meg recognizes the astonishing rarity of Flynn’s inspiration, and has allowed him to essentially run his own life while she serves as an informal manager.
The film is at its most bracingly detailed when outlining how Flynn and Meg run their home restaurant, Eureka. Flynn’s room is outfitted with what one assumes is thousands of dollars of cooking equipment, including burners, torches, and restaurant-grade steel surfaces. The chamber resembles less a young boy’s room than a laboratory that one might see on the Food Network. (Flynn’s bed can be lifted to hug the wall, affording the chef more floor space.) Yates also lingers lovingly on a few of Flynn’s most characteristic creations, such as Beet Wellington and short ribs with shitake polenta and a blackberry red wine reduction sauce. These dishes don’t merely look delicious; they’re visual art that might one day net their creator a Michelin star.
Yates utilizes footage shot by Meg, who, one may presume, might’ve once been toying with the idea of making a film about her son. One of Chef Flynn‘s most resonant scenes was filmed by Meg: a sequence in which a very young Flynn struggles with an umbrella against a powerful wind. The moment seems quixotic, suggesting the drive to create in spite of great forces, yet Flynn is a Don Quixote figure who can actually slay his windmills.
When Flynn makes the cover of The New York Times Magazine, in a superb profile by Carina Chocano, one may wonder if Meg, a comparatively obscure artist, is a bit jealous. This suspicion is exacerbated by the fact that Meg has subsumed her own art into Flynn’s anyway, as her sense of promotion, presentation, not to mention her connections, are pivotal to her son’s ascension. Meg’s sacrifices are both heroic and bittersweet—testaments to parental pride and to a belief in a higher power of artistic creation.
Yates, though, is a little skittish in acknowledging less romantic elements of the art life: money and promotion. Chocano’s article explicitly outlines the fact that Meg was capable of ensuring that the right people dined at Eureka. Meg and Flynn weren’t entirely running a mom-and-son operation that just happened to get lucky, which is an impression that Yates subtly strives to impart. When Flynn is seen inevitably facing backlash for his success, with some comparing his privilege to that of Lena Dunham, the sentiments may strike uninformed viewers as coming out of nowhere. And this skittishness on Yates’s part ironically affirms the bitterness of such sentiments, suggesting that this truth does need to be hidden. Having connections, however, doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have profound ability, which Flynn clearly possesses.
Chef Flynn glides over other details as well, such as the logistics behind Flynn’s attempts to open a restaurant in New York City and his relationship with his photographer father, Will, who’s a recovering alcoholic. At times, Yates appears to be too protective of his subjects, which somewhat neuters the drama of the narrative. Yet this film is still a moving portrait of the love between a genius and the mother who helps him to flourish.