'Chef Flynn': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Hey haters, have you actually watched this guy cook?

Cameron Yates' doc gets beyond the hype surrounding culinary prodigy Flynn McGarry.

Being a prodigy can be tough. Even if your parents aren't the kind of taskmasters who insist on overachievement to the exclusion of fun, you're almost certain to be resented by the less talented kids around you and the older pros who don't see what all the fuss is about. In the involving and mouthwatering Chef Flynn, Cameron Yates follows the budding career of Flynn McGarry, the California wunderkind who was creating hot-ticket tasting menu dinners at 12 and working under some of the world's most celebrated chefs at 13. The Food Network crowd will go nuts for the doc, but beyond the shots of luscious dishes, there's a pretty interesting character study here as well.

The doc starts with 2014 footage of a 16-year-old Flynn in the woods, foraging for things most people wouldn't recognize as food. "How cool is this?!" he enthuses. Back home, he's throwing a dinner at Eureka, aka the house he lives in with his mother Meg. By this point, he has already been the subject of a "Talk of the Town" New Yorker story; an upcoming cover story in The New York Times Magazine is only going to multiply his fame.

Leaping back, we hear how, after Flynn's mother and father divorced, he got tired of the lack of variety in Mom's cooking and decided to do something about it. He watched a lot of foodie TV, bought ambitious cookbooks, and soon was playing around with recipes by Thomas Keller of The French Laundry.

Meg, an aspiring filmmaker eager to nurture any sort of creativity, let him turn his bedroom into a test kitchen full of pro-grade equipment. She helped organize little dinner parties that quickly expanded beyond family friends. (By 2011, Flynn served a 14-course modernist cuisine menu, and had professional kitchen vets working under him.) And she took home movies of the project. Lots and lots of movies.

Those movies are a boon for Yates, letting us watch the boy from prepubescence to near-adult kitchen mastery. But they might also have served as Exhibit A if Flynn ever wanted to sue for emancipation as a minor. When her usually willing subject asks not to be filmed, Meg refuses to put the camera away; she mounts it to the dashboard and fiddles with it while driving, endangering everyone around her; and as she contributes a too-large portion of the film's voiceover, she seems to feel she owns this story as much as he does.

As Yates starts shooting his own footage, we see enough of Flynn's cooking to understand that he's no joke. Convinced of this, we resent it when the increasing attention TV shows pay him generates a backlash. We see him go in to stage at Eleven Madison Park (chosen best restaurant in the world by an influential poll), and follow in the direction of his dream: Cooking his own menu in New York City.

The dramatic heart of the film chronicles the debut of his NYC pop-up, where he clearly hasn't had enough time to settle in. We see stress we haven't seen before as he tries to train a staff of strangers, his fennel disappearing as the clock ticks toward the first seating. Things go wrong, for what seems to be the first time in his cooking career, and Meg's pushy flavor of support makes one wince. "Get my mother out of the dining room," he begs when she goes out to explain to diners why they shouldn't complain about a long wait in between courses. Amen, kid.

As addicted to social media as anyone his age, Flynn has to learn to cope with those who dismiss him as a privileged boy who has benefitted from presumed family connections. But making the most of advantages doesn't mean you aren't extremely talented, and Flynn is driven, more than anything, by the chance to put his creations in front of diners who can decide for themselves.

The movie closes with Flynn moving alone to New York, going to green markets and trying to start life as an adult. Without a "where is he now" status update in the credits, viewers are left to do some research post-film — where they'll learn that, after putting in his pop-up time around Manhattan, Flynn plans to open his own real-deal restaurant there next month.

Director: Cameron Yates
Producer: Laura Coxson
Executive producer: Philipp Engelhorn
Director of photography: Paul Yee
Editor: Hannah Buck
Composer: Holy Ghost!
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Doc Premieres)
Sales: Eric Sloss

81 minutes