Welcome to Australia; what’s been your favourite part of your visit so far?
It’s a very short visit! I haven’t had much time to look around, but shooting MasterChef was really fun. It’s something I’ve never really done before so it was really cool. I’ve been out to eat on both nights of my stay. I ate at George’s restaurant, The Press Club, which was really delicious.
Was there a dish or food you immediately wanted to try when you touched down?
Vegemite. I’m actually a pretty big fan of it! But I also really wanted to check out the food scene. I wanted to go to Attica (recently named best restaurant in Australasia for 2016), but unfortunately on the day I had free, they were closed. Next time!
What was it like working with MasterChef hosts Gary, George and Matt?
They’re very funny. I was around them all day on the shoot, and they have a really interesting dynamic. They’re really good at making you feel comfortable, because it’s kind of daunting to go into the competition and judge the contestants’ food!
Can you tell us a little about your Pressure Test dish?
It’s a Beet Wellington that I did a little while ago. It’s pretty much the same way you’d make a beef wellington but instead of beef it’s a smoked and grilled beet with a few little garnishes. There needs to be pressure in the Pressure Test so I had to figure out a dish that would bring that.
Do you feel you can relate to the contestants’ journey on the show?
Yeah, I mean it seems like the common thread is that the contestants gave up a lot to appear on MasterChef, and anyone in this profession understands that you have to give up a lot in order to do what you love.
You’ve cooked for the Obamas and ran your own restaurant from your home. What’s your proudest achievement so far?
I’d say probably doing the six month pop-up restaurant Eureka in New York. I was pretty much running a small version of restaurant; I dealt with all the financials and the staff. Having 24 diners every single night was really cool and I learnt so much. It made me want to open my own permanent restaurant even more.
At only 17 years old you’ve been named amongst Time Magazine’s ‘25 Most Influential Teens’ two years in a row - how do you balance that success with a typical teenage life?
Unfortunately and not unfortunately, you can’t really balance those things while doing what I do. I have focussed really intensely [on food] and haven’t had much of a balance between my professional and personal lives. But that [happens to] anyone who loves something so much. I’m kind of consumed by my job but I love it so much that it doesn’t really feel like I’m missing out on anything.
You jumped in the kitchen when you were 10 years old. What got you excited about cooking at such a young age?
I kind of got into food in a non-serious way at first. I became interested because my mom wasn’t the greatest cook [laughs]. She took me to buy a cook book and, being 10 years old, I picked out the one that was wrapped in plastic on the top shelf - it was [US chef Thomas Keller’s bestseller] The French Laundry. That just kept blowing my mind. At that time I just thought food was stuff to fill you up but that book showed that it was an art form, a refined skill. Ever since then I’ve been hooked.
Did you have that light bulb moment when you realised, “Hey, I’m actually kind of good at this”?
It was and still is about my love for food. I love it and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I just keep going for it because there’s no point in waiting around.
Do you like to cook in your downtime?
No actually, not at all. When I’m not working, cooking is last thing I want to do. I just want to eat someone else’s food.
When you’re eating other people’s food do you analyse the dish like a chef or do you enjoy it as a diner?
I just really enjoy eating and going out to dinner with friends. I enjoy the social aspect of it as well.
Is there a particular cuisine that you’re into at the moment?
I’ve been eating a lot of Chinese food recently. I live in New York and there’s a bunch of little weird Chinese restaurants around Chinatown that sell really cheap and delicious food.
Do you have any culinary heroes that you look up to?
Yes, I really look up to Daniel Humm from Eleven Madison Park [in New York] where I worked, and Rene Redzepi [of two-Michelin star restaurant Noma] who has changed the food world in a really interesting way. Thomas Keller, obviously, because I wouldn’t be cooking if his restaurant didn’t exist. The Internet and social media keep me inspired as well.
How important are the Internet, social media and YouTube to you and your career?
Very important! I mean, it’s a way to learn. I have learnt a lot of cooking techniques just by watching YouTube videos. It’s also important for me to show my followers what I’m doing. It’s really cool to for people to see my food [in photos or videos] as opposed to just reading about it [in a recipe].
With such a strong following on social media, do you have any advice for other young people looking to get into cooking or the culinary world?
It’s not an easy world. Loving cooking and food is obviously the first thing you have to have, but you need to understand that it’s going to be very difficult. Being really young makes it even harder. People will dismiss you just because of your age so you have to work that much harder. Like anything, it’s about determination but at the same time, enjoy it because if you don’t then the really long hours and the really stressful hot kitchens will just become miserable.
How did you deal with being dismissed just because of your age in the past?
Yeah, in the beginning every single time I got the “you’re too young” response. I would just think, “Ok, I have to put my head back down and keep cooking” and that’s been the solution. You can really only prove yourself by what you’re cooking.
What do you think of the term ‘celebrity chef’?
I think it’s a good term and a bad term. It’s definitely brought a lot of recognition to chefs and made the industry a lot more popular. At the same time, it’s diluted the industry. I think it’s definitely changed the job definition of a chef, because being a ‘celebrity chef’ is different to becoming a chef in a restaurant. A lot of it is how the individual person handles it.
Do you have a goal for the next five to 10 years, or is that a scary thought?
No, not at all. I’ve always had more long term than short term goals. In five to 10 years I want at least one restaurant, hopefully. But I really don’t know at all; I had no clue five years ago that I would be in Melbourne right now, so it’s all up in the air.
Speaking of the future, can you tease any upcoming projects or cool things that you’re planning?
Yeah, I’m currently in the process of slowly but surely starting to open a bricks and mortar restaurant [McGarry has previously hosted dinners at his home and at short term pop ups]. I’m starting early fundraising and securing a restaurant space, but at the same time I’m still going to do pop-ups. Next I’m going to San Francisco [to host a pop-up] and I just did one in LA, and I’m probably going to do some more in New York, and then who knows? Maybe Australia.