A Conversation With Cameron Yates

Cameron Yates

On Saturday night, filmmaker Cameron Yates will bring his newest documentary, “Chef Flynn,” to Guild Hall in East Hampton, as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival SummerDocs series — where it will make its New York premiere.

Prior to the screening, Mr. Yates dished on the celebrity chef — who has been called a wunderkind, a prodigy and the “Justin Bieber of food” — his artistic lineage and the six-year project that cut through the hype and wove together a story from hundreds of hours of footage shot over his entire lifetime.

The Express: When did you first hear about Chef Flynn McGarry?

Cameron Yates: My father sent me a short piece that was in the New Yorker— “Talk of the Town” — called “Prodigy.” It’s quite common for my father; he sends me articles all the time. I always read everything, and this one popped out to me. I’m particularly into food and into prodigies — kids who know what they want to do with their lives from a very early age.

What interested you about Flynn?

Particularly with Flynn’s story, not only was he doing elaborate tasting menus out of his mother’s living room, but I also had a feeling that there was something about this family life that I wanted to know more about.

I contacted his mother, filmmaker Meg McGarry, out of the blue, and made a plan to meet up when I was in L.A. This was about, at this point, six years ago. It wasn’t until we sat down for a meal together — it was Flynn, Meg and his sister, Paris — and I immediately knew. The mother-and-son dynamic was incredible.

What struck you about their relationship?

Flynn seemed to be, at the age of 12 or 13, at least 20 years his senior — just the way he talks not only about food, but just life in general. I was just fascinated. I could sit down and listen to him for hours. But he was very serious and we were meeting for the first time, so obviously at that age, he was a little self-conscious. And Meg was just hilarious. They were a family I wanted to spend time with, and document them.

What happened next?

I pretty much told them I would love to make a film about them. Flynn had just started getting recognition and press, and they were interested in doing a cookbook or cooking show, or possibly a reality show. They weren’t really thinking about a documentary and also noticed that my first feature documentary, “The Canal Street Madam,” took about six or seven years to make.

I think they were a little hesitant about it: embarking on a longer journey. So we just became friends. Flynn, in that time period, came to New York to apprentice at Eleven Madison Park again. There were times we went out to meals, and Meg and I would go see films together. It was a year of becoming friends and forming a relationship with them until they finally called me and said, “Hey, we’re doing a dinner in L.A. — would you be interested in filming it?”

How did you decide to approach his story?

My mentor is Albert Maysles, and I come from a tradition of vérité documentary filmmaking, so my approach in general is to form a relationship with my subjects, to know that I’m going to be there for long term — even if they don’t know that — and really just observe. Observe and allow them to speak. I think of documentary filmmaking as therapy, in a way. Building this relationship and creating a space for your subject to open up and tell their story, but also just to live their lives in front of the camera, which is a tough thing. For me, being in front of the camera, is an uncomfortable space. Flynn had always been under the lens, whether it was from his family or from the media, and I was really interested in exploring this dynamic.

It wasn’t only just meeting Flynn and Meg and the family, but also seeing Meg’s footage that she’s shot. I had a feeling that there was so much more footage out there than she’d put online, and that was something that was a gradual process, that we talked about for a while, and it took about a year to get to the point where Meg trusted me and we sat down and watched all the footage together, and then turned it over to the filmmaking team to get into that.

What was your reaction when watching the footage? I would imagine it’s a ridiculous amount of material. 

Yes. The initial reaction was jaw drop. She’s a narrative filmmaker from a narrative background, and the shorts she was making with him, there were multiple takes. I was interested in her voice outside the camera — she’s very talkative to him from behind the camera — and seeing their dynamic when Flynn didn’t want to be shown, or did want to be filmed, their back and forth was incredible.

Even though I was filming, there were certain times I couldn’t be in L.A., or Meg was so used to it that she would still be picking up her camera. As we were filming, Meg was still filming at the same time. You couldn’t ask for anything more, to have a subject that also were filming.

Over the six-year process, would you say you watched Flynn grow up?

Absolutely, I watched him grow up over the years. He came out of his shell completely, but also watching his food develop. That was one thing I had to try early on, just to make sure he was the real deal. Seeing his dishes develop over the years, and the relationship with his mother evolve. The film documents them getting to a point where they realized they need to separate a bit and go on their own paths, for Flynn to continue his artistry and for his mother to rediscover her talent and artistry, as well. It was an incredible period of growth for both of them.

You also document the criticism that came Flynn’s way. 

The criticism we’re talking about is other chefs who have gone through the more traditional route — whether going to culinary school or working the line, all the positions in a kitchen for many, many years — were a little startled by someone his age coming up so quickly into a position of power.

It’s interesting to me. Of course I was protective when it was happening, but the way that he handled it was so mature, and there were many insults and criticisms. Flynn would take into consideration what the other people must have been going through, and really feeling for them in a way, even though they were attacking him.

I know he’s gotten to a point where you can’t read every comment on every article or every piece of criticism about you, or else you would never create a new dish. I think it’s a similar thing with film and filmmakers, if you read every review. His maturity in that is way beyond mine.

The people he brings into his kitchen now, he wants to help educate them and allow them to create dishes and do their thing, as well.

“Chef Flynn” will screen on Saturday, August 25, at 7 p.m. at Guild Hall, located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton, as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival SummerDocs series. Tickets are $25 and $23 for members. For more information, call (631) 324-4050 or visit guildhall.org.