Food for Thought: Intrinsic Motivation and the Prodigy Chef

Portrait of Flynn McGarry by Peden & Munk for the New York Times

Flynn McGarry, Precocious Chef
(Peden + Munk for the New York Times)

The New York Times Magazine‘s upcoming cover story is a profile of 15-year-old chef Flynn McGarry of southern California. McGarry currently works a few nights at an LA restaurant and regularly hosts a $160-a-head at Eureka — a supper club held in his parents’ living room. Homeschooled since the seventh grade (and autodidactic for much longer), McGarry plans to skip college and open his own restaurant by the age of 19.

Looks like he will have little trouble reaching that goal.

“[At age 10], I had no clue what Michelin was,” McGarry says. “I didn’t know all of the rankings and all the food. And then once I got on Google, I was like, ‘Oh.’ That kind of opened my eyes to it.” On the Internet, he learned about molecular gastronomy, sous vide and so-called progressive cooking. “It’s, like, you go on YouTube, and you watch a Thomas Keller video, and then there’s this Grant Achatz video.” McGarry picked up proper knife techniques by watching online demonstrations; then he began experimenting with flavors and preparations. “When I was like 10, I wanted to be in a Food Network show, and then when I saw [those videos], I just fully did like a 180.”

His parents encouraged his desire to become a serious chef. When the counters in the kitchen proved too high, they made him a prep kitchen in the dining room that was modeled after Keller’s at French Laundry. When McGarry decided he wanted a private space to create menu ideas, his dad constructed a kitchen in his bedroom to resemble Alinea’s in Chicago. They redid the electricity, built the tables and removed the closet doors to convert it to a pantry; McGarry would get an induction burner for a birthday, a vacuum sealer for Christmas. When McGarry eventually visited the restaurant, he remarked, “This is what I put in my bedroom!”

The turning point, however, occurred after his 11th birthday. McGarry contracted whooping cough, and he was forced to stay home for almost three months, much of which he and his mother spent watching “Iron Chef Japan.” When he recovered, they gave a dinner party for Meg’s friends from the “Le Bernardin Cookbook.” “It was funny,” Meg recalls. “It was like a school play. Everybody applauded at the end, and he realized, ‘Oh, this is a really cool thing that I want to do.’” McGarry, who had long been bullied at school, returned to sixth grade, but during the next year, he asked his mother if he could be home-schooled in order to focus on cooking. “I was actually relieved,” says Meg, who at that point had spoken to several principals about the bullying. “I don’t want him to be unhappy. And I want him to do what he likes to do.”

The story and accompanying video are a fascinating example of how intrinsic motivation can fuel extraordinary effort, making work a labor of love.

In the video, McGarry states that he has no love lost for school. How might schools more successfully create opportunities for nontraditional learners who are nevertheless precocious, hardworking, and gritty, like this exceptional young man?

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