Seamus Mullen: The Chef Who Ate His Way to Health

Mj 618_348_seamus mullen the chef who ate his way to health
Photograph by Christopher Testani

Few people have subjected their bodies to as much wear and tear as Manhattan chef and restaurateur Seamus Mullen. The mastermind behind the red-hot Manhattan restaurant Tertulia and a regular on the Food Network, Mullen has seen it all. He contracted dengue fever on a mountain-bike trip across Costa Rica. He was bitten by a vampire bat while cooking at an eco-lodge in the jungles of Venezuela, an injury that required an emergency helicopter trip to the closest hospital. He spent five months on a punishing 11,000-mile dirt-bike trek from San Francisco to Panama and back. There have been bike races, cyclocross challenges, and mountain-bike half-centuries – not to mention years of brutal 90-hour workweeks in high-end restaurant kitchens all over the world.

And it doesn't end there.

After completing his Panama trip, Mullen settled in New York. One night in 2002, he was motorcycling over the Brooklyn Bridge when a van smashed into him from behind, shattering one of his legs and putting him into rehab for a year. Characteristically, Mullen hurled himself back into high-pressure cooking jobs – first in New York, then in Spain, and then back in New York, where he opened his first restaurant, Boqueria, in 2006. It was an instant hit, and Mullen earned a reputation as a cutting-edge interpreter of rustic Spanish fare.

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Shortly after launching Boqueria, Mullen began experiencing mysterious pains – "like a hot knife stabbing into my shoulder," he says. One day the pain grew so excruciating, and Mullen's screams so terrifying, that a neighbor called 911. Mullen later awoke in the hospital. He was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an incurable disease in which chronic inflammation of the immune system causes joint pain and immobility. He managed to persevere thanks to a regimen of powerful anti-inflammatory medicine, but he could no longer exercise and soon found himself 40 pounds overweight.

Then in 2009, shortly after traveling to Tokyo to compete on The Next Iron Chef, Mullen collapsed in Boqueria's kitchen. It looked like a major heart attack. An emergency CAT scan found 36 distinct embolisms, or blood clots, scattered throughout Mullen's body. In fact, his lungs were filling so fast with blood that he was on the verge of drowning.

Doctors saved Mullen's life by draining his lungs. He remained in the hospital for 10 days and was put on blood-thinning medication for the next year and a half. As he slowly recovered, Mullen looked in the mirror at his once-athletic self. He hated what he saw, and he made a vow: He would regain his health. And he would do it, in large part, by doing what he does best: cooking.

He began by poring over books by Michael Pollan, the nutritionist Marion Nestle, and the cancer specialist David Servan-Schreiber. He came away convinced that systemic inflammation – the driving force behind not only rheumatoid arthritis, but also heart disease, diabetes, and, it is believed, many forms of cancer – can be fought with food. The key appeared to lie in avoiding all processed foods and focusing on traditional whole foods instead. "I began taking notes on the foods that are important to my cuisine," Mullen says, "and I discovered that many of the foods I love are also good for me. The secret to getting better already was in my hands."

Mullen cross-referenced lists of the most anti-inflammatory foods with the key ingredients in Spanish cuisine, developing a new personal diet based on the healthy fats in pasture-raised beef and lamb; the beneficial microorganisms in aged European cheeses; the antioxidants in super-fresh seasonal vegetables and extra-virgin olive oil; and the omega-3s in small, oily fish like anchovies and sardines.

After just a few months of eating this way, Mullen's chronic pain eased and he began losing weight. He also began rethinking other aspects of his life: the long hours, stressful business partnerships, and lack of time for healthy pursuits. He quit Boqueria. His health was by no means perfect, but in 2011 he had enough strength to open Tertulia. A year later, he published Seamus Mullen's Hero Food: How Cooking with Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better, one of the most acclaimed cookbooks of 2012.

Not long ago, Mullen found himself facedown on an examination table in Hong Kong. Seven acupuncture needles protruded from his bare behind. The treatment was meant to boost blood flow around a hip joint chronically inflamed with arthritis.

Mullen's wife, Lynn, has family in Taiwan, and he has been coming to Hong Kong for years. But this visit was different: Mullen was taking time to explore tai chi, the Chinese tea ceremony, and especially Chinese medicinal cuisine, in which dishes like pig-lung soup and turtle-shell jelly are thought to balance conflicting energies – yin and yang – within the body. "I'm drawn to the Chinese way of seeing and treating the body as a complete system that you keep whole and healthy through regular attention," he told me, "instead of the Western way of just waiting for something to break and then treating the symptom."

Later, lunching in a Cantonese restaurant with purple velvet walls and a flatscreen television flickering on the wall, Mullen asked the mustachioed chef, "Tell me where these fried birds' nests come from again?" The chef, speaking through an interpreter, replied that wild swallows form edible nests by spinning their own spit into little bundles on the sides of cliffs, which are harvested at great risk by rappelling down from above. The chef had tucked the nests inside chicken wings stripped of bones and meat, and then deep-fried them. The result was a crispy chicken-skin package around a wad of gelatinous bird saliva. "Good for youth, look younger, and also your lungs," the interpreter told us, with immense confidence. Mullen devoured it.

He could hardly have been more out of place. Square-jawed and freckle-faced, with two three-quarter sleeves of tattoos, Mullen grew up off-grid on a Vermont farm, doing his best to skateboard dirt roads and butchering hogs with parents he describes as "back-to-the-land-ers." It sounds idyllic, but Mullen wasn't always happy. "It was pretty rough at times," he says. "I didn't really fit in. I felt like an outsider at school and yearned for city life. I left Vermont as soon as I could."

After boarding school in Massachusetts, it was off to Kalamazoo College in Michigan, where a professor suggested a year abroad in Spain. He fell in love with the country, especially its food. He eventually landed a coveted position at the San Sebastián restaurant Mugaritz, under Andoni Luis Aduriz, one of the most influential and creative chefs in the world.

Returning to New York, he drew on every aspect of his unique past – the farm boy's simplicity, the world traveler's cosmopolitanism, the endurance athlete's competitiveness – and soon was a bona fide culinary star. About a year after leaving Boqueria, he launched Tertulia, which generated a ton of early buzz. Both New York magazine and The New York Times declared it one of the city's best new restaurants. Every evening, lines extended down the block.

Tertulia's menu is packed with elegant Spanish dishes that fit with Mullen's new understanding of healthful eating. Take the tosta matrimonio, a Galician dish of cured and pickled anchovies, slow-roasted tomatoes, and fresh sheep's milk cheese over toast. By replacing the bread with house-made flax-and-quinoa crisps, Mullen produced a near-perfect anti-inflammatory dish – while sacrificing none of the flavor that diners expect.

Mullen won't be putting fried birds' nests on Tertulia's menu, but that was never the point of his trip to Hong Kong. As we walked along the city's crowded streets and alleyways, he told me that the visit had been spurred by another recent round of health problems. In 2012, while traveling in Thailand, Mullen suffered a grand mal seizure in a restaurant. A few weeks later, back in New York, he was struck with a mysterious fever of 105.8. He spent a grueling week undergoing ice baths and spinal taps before a friend recommended a doctor named Frank Lipman, a specialist in functional and integrative medicine.

Lipman suspected intestinal trouble – or as Mullen puts it, "Squatters living in there and not paying rent."

A full colonoscopy turned up precisely that: a minor civilization of worms living among crystalline mucous structures that had likely taken years to build. Looking back, Mullen believes he first contracted those worms during that long ride to Panama and back in 2001. His body could have beaten the worms on its own, he suspects, if it hadn't been for the motorcycle accident soon after his return to the States. The struggle to recover from his injuries, Mullen believes, depressed his immune system enough that his worms got an unshakable foothold. "They ended up eating and shitting in my gut for the next 10 years," he says. "They even perforated my gut wall, so all that worm shit went into my bloodstream."

Early last year, Lipman put Mullen on antibiotic and anti-parasitic drugs that quickly eliminated the worms. "I literally woke up one morning in May and felt great," he says.

Now, Mullen, 40, is determined to regain the athletic prowess he enjoyed as a young man. That's led to a profound appreciation for the importance of everyday wellness – eating right, limiting stress, exercising, getting enough rest, and keeping his immune system in peak condition. He recently opened a second restaurant, El Colmado, a wine and tapas bar in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. This time he is determined to work sane hours.

To that end, back in Hong Kong, Mullen led me into a little storefront restaurant that specialized in something even more exotic than deep-fried swallows' nests: medicinal snake soup. Mullen's serving arrived: a white ceramic bowl with dark gray strands of snake meat floating in a pale-gray liquid. He asked what kind of snake had been used.

"Five kinds," said the owner's daughter.

"Not poisonous?" Seamus asked.

"One kind is poisonous, but they are the best to eat," she replied. "Always good for healing, circulation. Help you live longer."

Mullen inhaled the entire bowl. "Not bad at all," he declared, and began chatting with the waitress about what locals consider healthful eating.

Recent blood tests suggest that Mullen's new approach to life is working. The rheumatoid arthritis appears to have vanished completely. He's also been experimenting with a so-called ketogenic diet – think Atkins on steroids, with heaps of animal fat, fresh vegetables, and no grain-based foods or sugar. He's finally shed the weight he gained in his 30s and now boasts 14 percent body fat, with the cholesterol profile of a man 20 years his junior. He's even training again – for La Ruta de Los Conquistadores, an epic, 200-mile mountain-bike race in Costa Rica that takes competitors from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean. "Never accept your situation – that's my big takeaway," Mullen says. "I got it in my head for so long that sickness was just the hand I'd been dealt in life. It's been amazing to realize the power was inside me all that time."

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