When you grow up on a self-sustaining organic farm in Vermont, it’s safe to assume you’re going to have a different understanding and appreciation for food compared to the average kid. For Seamus Mullen, an acclaimed New York City chef and past finalist on The Next Iron Chef, that meant a childhood of being surrounded by the freshest meat and produce imaginable—a land where packaging and chemical additives didn’t exist.
“Growing up around so much quality food, I’d go visit friends; it was so bizarre for me to eat processed foods,” says Mullen. “I honestly didn’t know what to make of it.” While the chef’s palate may seem refined at an early age, Mullen’s exposure to fresh food also came with a hard work ethic. Inspired by a family of cooks, specifically his grandmother, who studied at the acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris, Mullen took what he learned on the farm and started cooking professionally at age 16 in local restaurants.
A Culinary Roadtrip
Mullen’s culinary destiny eventually took him to Spain, allowing him to cut his teeth in a country where food is a vital part of cultural expression. “The way food is regarded in Spain is very different from the way we think of it in the U.S.” says Mullen, who noted that the Spanish tradition of lunch and siesta is still a significant part of the nation’s fabric.
“Everything stops,” added Mullen. “For three hours in the middle of the day, your whole life revolves around food, and not only the meal, but the conversation and valuable time you spend with your family around the table. It’s so different from grabbing a sandwich to go and bringing it to your desk.”
Mullen brought his love for Spanish cuisine back to the states, as head chef at prominent New York City restaurants Boqueria and Suba. Last year, Mullen opened his first solo establishment, Tertulia, a tapas bar specializing in the rustic delicacies that have come to define his career as a professional chef.
This month, Mullen will release his first cookbook titled Hero Food, which encompasses many of his beloved Spanish recipes. The inspiration for the book’s title stems from an event in Mullen’s life that nearly floored his career; the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in 2007. The debilitating autoimmune disease struck Mullen at a time when he was running two very busy kitchens, and the thought of having to give it all up, while succumbing to the crippling symptoms, became a terrifying reality.
In the face of adversity, Mullen needed some heroes and found them—in the healthy foods that shaped his life and career . “As I started to read more about [rheumatoid arthritis], I learned that there was a correlation between what you eat and how the disease behaves, and ultimately how you feel and your immune system’s ability to deal with the disease,” says Mullen. “The ingredients that I chose for the book, it was really kind of a happy accident. So many of the foods that I gravitated towards and loved, also happened to be the ones that were really good for me.”
A Celebration of Food
With Hero Food, Mullen has composed a health-conscious food bible, with recipes more like that of a French laundry cookbook than ones you’d find in the wellness section of your local bookstore. “I wanted to create something that was a real celebration of food, and a reminder that if we celebrate it carefully, it could have a really positive impact on how we feel,” says Mullen. “The emphasis was food that is delicious and craveable. My goal with Hero Food is that when you read the book and its recipes, you forget that it’s about food that is good for you, and just think about it as food that is good.”
In total, Hero Food explores 18 key ingredients that helped Mullen manage his rheumatoid arthritis and get back on track, which can do the same for you, no matter what your physical and/or health condition is. As a sneak peek, we’ve selected five of the book’s hero foods, and had chef Mullen provide a quick rundown of their nutritional/health content. For information and recipes on all 18, Hero Food hits bookshelves April 24.