Shower Thoughts with Flynn McGarry
INTERVIEW BY ARJAN SINGH
Flynn McGarry is the chef and owner of Gem, a restaurant on the Lower East Side in New York City, and the newly-opened Gem Wine, a wine bar around the corner from Gem. We spoke to Flynn about the winter season menu at Gem, which is focused on seafood from the cold waters of the northeast United States. In this interview, we discuss his approach to developing menus each season, his passion for clean water, and his current obsession of ducks, sweaters, and power tools.
TELL US WHY COLD WATER MATTERS FOR SEAFOOD?
The only way to get fresh in the winter is in the ocean. It’s the polar opposite way of thinking. The ground is frozen, so you can’t eat anything from there (or you could, but it’s just dead).
The ocean is the most alive in the winter.
This is something I really learned when I was working and living in Scandinavia. I’ve never seen such quality of any sort of ingredient – especially seafood – as I did there. And it's why so many aspects of my restaurant, Gem, are Scandinavian. We don't think of New York enough as a dark, cold climate, but it really is.
MANY OF US WRONGLY THINK SEAFOOD IS SOMETHING FOR THE SUMMER, RIGHT?
Totally. I really try to communicate to people that this idea of eating shellfish in the summer is wrong. You're not supposed to eat lobster in the summer because everything is molting. That’s when you get sick!
We know you have to keep all your fish ice cold, so why would you want it in warm water?
HOW DOES YOUR APPROACH IN THE WINTER DIFFER FROM OTHER SEASONS?
In the winter, it's about finding beauty in this dark, cold time... in its simplicity and the idea of freshness not about bright, red fruit (like in the summer) but rather stark white flesh from a fish that's really, really fresh.
It's a different type of refreshing -- eating a really cold oyster versus biting into a peach. Both are refreshing, but in different ways and complete opposite spectrums as far as taste goes.
That's what we want to bring through with this winter menu. Flavors that aren't necessarily 'colder' but more nuanced. The current menu is inspired by the Kaiseki format, a Japanese methodology of serving a tasting menu with an emphasis on seasonality, innovation and the use of mindfully crafted service ware. So we move away from our usual vegetable-focus and shift to more fish and shellfish-centric dishes to show the season. And with this menu, the first course is super refreshing and cold and then we serve a hot soup, which is also refreshing, before going back to something cold. There's a balance.
TWO WORDS YOU USED IN YOUR MENU ARE "MEDITATIVE" AND "CONTEMPLATIVE." TELL ME MORE?
Well I think of every year as a journey. And the winter for me is always a time that's meditative and contemplative – you're sitting at home and spending more time with yourself, you're not running around like crazy. There's less going on. Everything is slower. I tend to work less in the winter.
It’s okay to slow down. It's okay to sleep. I sleep like four hours more at night in the winter than I do in the summer.
And this idea of winter is reflected at Gem. The menu is primarily fish, it’s much easier to prepare, so we’re all working less. I always tell the team that winter is the time to focus on the building blocks of how to do well when the craziness comes.
It's all about being calm and enjoying the nothingness. Saying to ourselves, OK, we're slow tonight. That's nice. Let's get ahead, start making plans, start thinking about what we can do so that when we are busy, we're set up.
And I always think of that like January to April/May period in New York as this really interesting time for everyone. Because you just keep getting hit by cold, I don't want to do anything, but we know something fun is coming in the warmth and whatever. And it's just about sitting with it and being like, ‘I have seasonal depression today. That's okay I'm going to just do nothing’. And sort of allowing to live with that and not being like, 'Oh, I should be living the same life that I do in the summer, because it's entirely different.'
And that's why we sort of split into these seasons where we have the meditative period from January to April, then from May until October it’s just chaos. Everyone’s doing things. Moving around, going to parties, you're living. That’s the season where I'm working all day and then going out all night, because I am going off of the energy of all that’s around me.
And then the first frost hits, and then it's this period of calming down, it's going out a little bit less, it's a bit more reflective. And for me, that’s the time where I always ask myself ‘how has this year been thus far?’ We’re almost done and what do I want to square away, make sure everything's good. And the menu becomes more hearty, more warming, more soulful.
I base these menus off of the way I think about how we feel and act in these seasons, not just the seasonality of the ingredients themselves.
In the summer, I am going to be at the market at 7 in the morning and buy 100 pounds of peaches because they are perfect that day and say to the team “we have to make something new with this.” Whereas in the winter, I know it’s going to be the same menu until April/May.
No one comes in January. It's fucking dead. So, I think that's where I focus on what having that space and time to reflect can bring me instead of being depressed by it. Asking myself, what's actually good about this and what can I use this time for?
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE DISHES ON THE MENU AND WHAT WAS MOST CHALLENGING?
I really love the fried sea urchin. I had this idea of wanting hot on the outside and ice cold on the inside... And this idea of looking at this little ball that's just like a fried ball, but has all of these different things going on.
That was also one of the harder ones, it wasn't necessarily difficult but was more trial and error. It's such a small bite. I think that that's definitely one of my favorites. I really like the clam soup also.
DOES THE MENU STRUCTURE DIFFER FROM WINTER TO SUMMER?
In winter, the meal is very structured. In summer, the idea is that the menu has no structure. And that won't be so apparent, because we're going to change the menu all the time. It's knowing when we need structure and when it will help and knowing when structure's going to hurt.
Structure in the summer hurts because if I say this is the menu and... the peas are perfect one day, but gross the next... which by the way, happens all the time.
It rains so there's no more fruit, you need no structure to work with that. In the winter, you need structure. You need to wake up a certain time every day. Or at least I do.
In the summer, I keep my schedule open always because you never know.
I feel like winter is always about compensating. We have to figure out something to do because we don't have anything... but this menu is the opposite. We have a plethora of fish to use and the whole thing is about refinement and just getting it to this perfectly simplistic place.
HOW DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE ROLE OF WATER IN YOUR COOKING?
Water is important, all of it. We use water in cooking very specifically. For example, we make a lot of our soups and stocks with just water instead of chicken broth, for example, because the water won't interfere with the actual flavor of the ingredient.
For example, we started our last menu with what we called a root vegetable tea. We freshly grated all of these vegetables and then steeped it with water for about five minutes. It was a tea, not a broth. If it was a broth, we would've simmered it for hours and the vegetables then transform into something else. With a tea on the other hand, it's as if you're drinking water that's infused with different flavors, letting them come through in their purest form.
That's the biggest way water comes into play -- when I want something to really shine on its own and feel 'clean.'
And of course that water needs to be pure.
HOW DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE QUALITY OF YOUR WATER?
We've always been a big proponent of water filters. We use this system called Nordaq, there's about seven filters for our water. It costs us a lot of money, but it's worth it. They are specifically made for restaurants and to enhance the flavors of both food and wine.
There is this guy in LA known as the water sommelier. I worked with him when I was 13. I actually did always think in my head about this relationship between water and wine. The whole thing about the Nordaq filter is its water designed to drink with wine.
It tastes like nothing, which is the idea. It's also always perfectly cold... I’m a big fan of our water machine. One of my friends would always refer to Gem as the restaurant with the best water in New York City.
We also use that for cooking and for rinsing things. We have nine filters on our espresso machine. There's things that we are really, really careful about with water because they're so nuanced, espresso, wine, whatever. You can easily fuck it up so quickly. I think we use it when it's necessary. Especially like in cooking, sometimes we want it to be watery in a way, and sometimes we don't. It's a nice balance between the two.
WE OBVIOUSLY SPOKE ABOUT SEAFOOD. DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE SEAFOOD RESTAURANT GLOBALLY?
This current menu at Gem and even the idea of how we approach seasons is inherently inspired by the way that Noma runs now. At first, I was like I don't want to copy them and then I was like, they just figured out the right way to cope with the seasons and for some reason, they're still kind of the only people who are actively being like “This season we do this and this season we do this.” I've been to the seafood menu there twice it is the craziest quality of fish I’ve ever had.
Iluka in Copenhagen is another favorite.
And then Galicia in Spain has some of the best fish I've ever had. That's where all the turbot is from. I think even that's why the color dish is suited for me. To me, there's two schools of fish. In my mind there's clean, cold raw. You want just very simple ethics, what I enjoy about Scandinavian fish. And then I want Spanish — grilled, salty, crusty, crunchy fish. I want both.
WE'RE ENDING EACH OF THESE WITH OUR 'SHOWER THOUGHTS' QUESTIONNAIRE, INSPIRED BY PROUST.
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU FELT VERY INSPIRED?
Like an hour ago. I walked into the restaurant and the team dried barley koji. They dried it and then I puffed a piece, which made it like fried koji, and it was like koji popcorn. It was literally on the counter when I walked in this morning. And it was like this instant thought of I need to make this right now.
That was weird and random.
WHAT DO YOU VALUE THE MOST ABOUT YOURSELF?
I think my ability to be excited by things consistently.
WHAT'S ONE THING YOU THINK OTHER PEOPLE OVERVALUE?
Probably using your time. We put a lot of pressure on planning. I find that everyone I know is always stressed about getting things done. I know there's never enough time. I was always really believed that. I somehow get it all down.
I think that that's a thing that people are overly concerned about. They spend so much of their time thinking about their time. When you could just do and not spend all your time thinking.
DOES THAT HAVE A RELATIONSHIP TO YOUR ANSWER ABOUT WHAT YOU VALUE THE MOST ABOUT YOURSELF, WHICH WAS GETTING EXCITED?
Yeah, it definitely can be stressful for other people, the way that I just sort of couldn't step in and immediately do something. And then I was like, that's how I get things done really well, I'm going to spend three hours doing this tomorrow. I'm going to not do it until you really want to do it.
There was the funny thing where it took me nearly three years for this children's book I am writing, because it took me two and a half years of not writing it, and then a month to write it. Because I wrote it first and then didn't really feel right about it and needed to live another two years of life to do it and got it done. It was this thing where I wrote one version of the book in the beginning and my editor kept being like, “There's something off here. It's not really working.” Then I just kind of didn't look at it for over nine months and then last January, I finally had the time and was in a much better place.
I had this idea that I would have to spend '20 minutes each day writing' but that's not how I do things. It's like you do nothing and then all of it in one go and you're excited to do it. I know that doesn't work for a lot of people...
There's this organized idea of getting things done, that I actually find people are a lot less efficient when they work their life like that.
I'm always a big proponent of striking while on top. When there's the energy and the momentum, do it. If you're busy, you're busy, you're slow, you're slow.
WHAT DOES THE WORD 'WELLBEING' MEAN TO YOU?
Doing whatever feels right.
IF YOU CAN CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT YOUR DAILY ROUTINE, WHAT WOULD THAT BE?
Not going on my phone first thing in the morning.
THE FLYNN MCGARRY STARTER PACK WOULD INCLUDE WHAT?
Currently, because it does change, currently it’s ducks. Just things shaped like ducks, duck paintings. Sweaters, a lot of sweaters, and power tools.
AND LASTLY, HAVE YOU HAD ANY INTERESTING SHOWER THOUGHTS LATELY?
Yes. I usually just zone out in the shower but I had a shower thought recently to redesign my shower. Right now, there's a piece of wood with glass on the back.
It's like a base, the shower is there and then I built around it and I wanted to shift it to be little panes of glass between slits of steel. I’m really into this idea of aluminum metal bathrooms, but like metal bathrooms in a really warm way. The bathroom at Gem Wine is all aluminum.
My favorite part is using a really cold material and making it feel really nice. The idea is I'm doing a rice paper screen. The walls look like rice paper screens but instead of rice paper, it’s metal.
WELL, DUDE, THAT WAS GREAT.
Cool. Thank you. I love talking about water.