6 things we learned from the latest Today’s Special talk
Chefs Hugh Acheson, Mei Lin and Flynn McGarry talked books, ambition and rapid-fire chicken sandwiches at our specially convened virtual conversation
It might not be easy to eat out at a hot, new place in town, but with Today’s Special, you get the next best thing. In this new book 20 established figures within contemporary gastronomy pick out 100 rising stars. The book profiles these emerging chefs, and reproduces a menu of recipes drawn up by each.
To celebrate the book’s publication, Phaidon teamed up with Fine Dining Lovers, to host a few virtual talks. One particularly excellent one took place a few days ago. Leading chef Hugh Acheson (the man behind Five & Ten, Empire State South, and By George, all in Georgia) entered into dialogue with two young chefs he nominated: Flynn McGarry of Gem in NYC and Mei Lin of Nightshade, in Los Angeles. The talk was moderated by Fine Dining Lovers’ own editor-in-chief Ryan King, and is available to watch now on Youtube. Here are just a few things we discovered during the talk.
Today’s Special’s Chefs realise making it into the new book is a big deal Today’s Special follows the format of an earlier book, Coco, published back in 2010. In that earlier book, established figures picked out rising stars, such as Clare Smyth and Alex Atala. An even younger cadre of chefs kept a close eye on the list. “I've read the original Coco cover-to-cover,” says Lin. “There were so many inspiring chefs, so for me to be listed in Today's Special is something that I really don't take lightly.”
Reading and travelling (rather than going to culinary school) is a good way of preparing for a life in the kitchen Acheson (who was featured in Coco) isn’t a great believer in culinary schools, and instead advocates a little self-led experience and research. “Just save the money and travel and learn on your own,” he advocates. “Read a lot, craft your own resumé, by actually going to do services somewhere.”
For some chefs, that experience starts alarmingly early McGarry is the youngest chef on the list, and began working in kitchens before most chefs had even thought about a career. “I started cooking in restaurants professionally when I was 12, which was
definitely illegal,” he admits. “I remember actively researching if I could apply to culinary school while I was still in middle school. When i realised that I couldn't, I was like ‘oh cool I'll just go work in a restaurant'.”
Sometimes, running a good restaurant is a bit like heading up an emergency room Acheson knows that the problems a patron chef may have to overcome during the course of a service range far beyond simple culinary conundrums. “The executive chef/owner these days is like a head nurse in an ER,” he argues. “You're in charge of triaging every situation and every day is different. Sometimes the dishwasher, the machine, is broken; sometimes the dishwasher, the human, is dead.”
It can be hard explaining things to tax collectors The talk touched on restaurant finances - a subject often overlooked when training up future culinary stars. McGarry certainly found that no culinary school could prepare chefs how to account for the myriad situations that can crop up and impact on the cash flow of a particular restaurant at any one particular moment in time. “You know, your cook just walked out of service, you know you need to hire someone but they don't have paperwork so you have to pay them in cash,” he says by way of example. “So you have to pull from your food cost budget for your farmer's market but how are you going to file for the IRS?”
Chefs actually love these problems All the chefs on the call understood the pressures of their chosen profession, but none of them seemed to wish it away. Lin was actually in the process of launching a new fried chicken restaurant, and loved the challenges it presented. “It's a new experience and I’m really looking forward to figuring it out,” she said. “I’m, like, busting out a hundred sandwiches in an hour. That's more than one sandwich a minute, so I’m just kind of learning and seeing where it takes me.”