About halfway through this documentary, I noticed something unusual about Chef Flynn. Most of the first half of the film takes places within a relatively contained world, wherein precocious, barely-teenaged chef Flynn McGarry creates elaborate meals for his friends and neighbors in their California home. Eventually the story shifts: Flynn leaves his neighborhood and begins to interact with the larger culinary community. What’s notable is that as the scope of Flynn’s world widens, the scope of the film does not. Even as the documentary expands to include more and more people who could offer insight into Chef Flynn the character and the person, director Cameron Yates still only talks with Flynn and his mother, Meg McGarry. The directorial decision to eschew interviews with the chefs and kitchen staff with whom Flynn works, the critics who’ve written about his work, or even his father and sister confirm what a viewer might have suspected from the earliest moments of Chef Flynn: this film is not about cooking. In fact, it’s not even about Flynn.
Of course, there is gorgeously prepared food throughout the documentary, as well as cooking techniques, and recipes scribbled on notebook paper meant for taking notes in history class. It also traces Flynn’s route from a kid whose playdates involved concocting a meal that would meet Gordon Ramsay’s culinary standards, to the teenaged focus of features in The New Yorker and The New York Times. But Flynn could have just as easily been an athlete, actor, or chess master. Rather than a film about food or its preparation, Chef Flynn is a story about parenting a prodigy.
It’s a credit to Yates that the story is neither clearly a cautionary tale, nor an obvious instruction manual for raising an unusually gifted child, although Chef Flynn very much holds Meg’s parenting style up for judgment. In some ways, the story of Meg as a mother starts even before Flynn was born; she hadn’t planned to have more children, but when Flynn’s older sister Paris requested a sibling at the age of three, Meg felt compelled to give her one. It was not the last time she would succumb to a request from one of her children.
Meg McGarry as a parent is the most interesting aspect of Chef Flynn because, despite the fact that Yates sets viewers up to evaluate her over and over again throughout the course of the film, it’s almost impossible to render a verdict. She’s a mother who protects her son from bullies, but who never seems to recognize that he needs to learn social skills. She worries about the financial implications of Flynn’s culinary pursuits, but doesn’t set limits or tell him “no.” She unceasingly supports his ambition and sacrifices her own life and interests to help him pursue it, but even she acknowledges that not all of that investment is selfless.
That the documentary ends just as Flynn begins his first real test of independence, which means that there’s not really any data to use in assessing Meg’s style of parenting. Whether Flynn has what he needs to succeed in the adult world – let alone the culinary one – is unknowable; at this point, we can only speculate. It’s likely that was Yates’s intention all along.