How 'Hero Food' saved my life: Top chef Seamus Mullen on his battle with rheumatoid arthritis and how 18 ingredients saved his cooking career
19:36 GMT, 16 July 2012
Top chef Seamus Mullen has released a new book, Hero Food, based on 18 ingredients that he says help him battle rheumatoid arthritis.
It follows the 38-year-old's diagnosis with the chronic disease five years ago, during filming of The Next Iron Chef, in which he was a contestant.
He was eliminated from the show, confined to a wheelchair and feared he would never be able to stand or cook again.
Healthy haute cuisine: Seamus Mullen at his restaurant Tertulia in Manhattan
He says that it is thanks to the help of the ingredients featured in Hero Food that he is back on his feet.
Packed full of healthy meal ideas, he says his recipes are based on 18 ingredients, among them parsley and olive oil.
When Mullen looked for a health cookbook for delicious as well as flavorful recipes after his diagnosis, he couldn't find anything like it.
He decided to write his own. It took him three years and the book was published in April.
While it's become the fashion for top chefs to embrace the concept of healthy eating, for Mullen it's a matter of survival.
He says what he eats can determine whether he can stand on his feet, or move his aching hands.
For example, Mullen learned that because of the folate parsley contains, a handful mixed in the blender with lemon juice and an apple could help reduce the inflammation in his hands. Olive oil, he found, was not only good for the heart, but served him well as an anti-inflammatory agent.
Mullen also serves up the tasty yet healthy dishes at his first solo-eatery Tertulia.
'The joy of eating good food can be very empowering – knowing it's doing the right thing for you and your family'
His restaurant has become one of the
most sought-after casual tables in town, not to mention a celebrity
haunt (on one night Beyonce, Jay-Z, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin all
popped in together). At Tertulia. Mullen uses fresh, unprocessed,
healthy food in his book that tastes fabulous, and creating fabulous
food at his restaurant that's also pretty healthy is quite the challenge.
But Mullen feels he has a
duty to try it.
a certain responsibility I have as a restaurant owner and a chef,' he
says. 'I'm an ambassador for cuisine – I want to represent it as best I
can. I don't do silly things like deep-fried foie gras doughnuts.
Everything in moderation.'
should be joyful,' he adds. “And the joy of eating good food can be
very empowering – knowing it's doing the right thing for you and your
For a guy who's famous
for Spanish food, Mullen has an unusual resume.
Handling hero food: Top chef Seamus Mullen, carves a Jamon Iberico, in the kitchen of his restaurant Tertulia in Manhattan
Mullen grew up in
the tiny town of Vershire, Vt., on a farm. The family raised its own
meat, and for Seamus as a young boy, it was not unusual to see, for
Seamus as a young boy, it was not unusual to see, for example, 'My mom
breaking down whole pigs on the kitchen table.'
After college in Michigan, Mullen did a bit of everything, including driving a bus. He was drifting, and it took his beloved grandmother, Mutti, now 91 and his primary caregiver for much of his childhood, to set him straight.
'You need to get your act together,' she told him sternly during a wine-tasting trip to Sonoma. 'Do what you enjoy doing. You are happiest when you cook.'
SEAMUS MULLEN'S SIX BEST HERO FOODS
Olive oil: contains monounsaturated fats, lowers cardiovascular related disease and helps reduce joint inflammationAlmonds: the non saturated fats in almonds help lower bad cholesterol Sweet peas: the zinc, dietary fibers and essential vitamins help fight toxins and reduce inflammationBerries: vitamins and antioxidants help boost your immune systemQuality meat: omega 6 fatty acids are good for joint function Parsley: contains folate, which helps reduce inflammation
Source: Men's Health
She also took him to Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' groundbreaking restaurant in Berkeley, Calif.
There, Mullen says, 'I learned that a simple tomato salad could be something that's monumentally delicious. The total opposite of those awful tomato salads in the pizzerias I'd worked in.'
After kitchen jobs in San Francisco and New York, Mullen was 30 when he returned to Spain to learn the cuisine firsthand.
Back in New York, he yearned to introduce eaters to the traditional, fresh Spanish cuisine he loved.
With a partner he opened Boqueria, a tapas bar. It was a hit.
But eight months later, in 2007, Mullen, overworked and exhausted, woke up in excruciating pain. It turned out his hip was full of fluid, pressing on his sciatic nerve. A specialist finally determined the cause: rheumatoid arthritis.
'I felt like the rug had been pulled out from me,' he says. 'Once I learned what it was, I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to cook again.'
While coping with disease, Mullen opened a second Boqueria with his partner.
In 2009 he ventured into celebrity chefdom, making the final three contestants on the Food Network's The Next Iron Chef, before his symptoms struck again at the worst possible time.
He was eliminated and came home in a wheelchair.
Mullen is not alone among chefs to speak
about healthy eating, though usually the issue is weight and diabetes –
both Paula Deen and Art Smith, for example, have disclosed in the past
few years that they have type 2 diabetes.
Hero chef: Mullen at his Manhattan restaurant, Tertulia, where he serves up Spanish food that is both healthy and tasty
But Mullen is presenting a different approach to healthy eating, notes Meryl Rothstein, a senior associate editor at Bon Appetit magazine – one that is useful not only for those who suffer from the same illness.
'He's not talking about a low-fat or no-carb diet,' she says. 'Rather he's working with building blocks, what ingredients can make you feel better, what ingredients work well. It's, “OK, if I eat really good eggs and cook them in really good olive oil, it's healthy and it's wholesome.”'
Rothstein notes that you wouldn't
necessarily look at the menu at Tertulia and say, this is from a guy
who's written a health cookbook.
But there's a concept linking the two, she says, and that's 'quality ingredients, at home or out.'
The write stuff: Mullen's healthy-eating book is on sale now
Leading a visitor around Tertulia one morning, Mullen makes it clear he decorated the place with a rather obsessive attention to detail.
The walls, a mix of wood, plaster and brick, reflect the style of Asturias, the region of northern Spain he loves.
The door is a Spanish smoky blue. At the bar, barrels are filled with wine on tap. The vaulted ceiling, the sand tiles, the visible electric lines along the wall, even a mailbox outside – all evoke rural Spain.
The food is an eclectic mix. Along with favorites like grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes or arroz a la plancha – rice, snails, wild mushrooms, celery, fennel, and Iberico ham – a meal can include unfamiliar ingredients like kokotxas, the fish muscle that controls the gills, or percebes (goose barnacles), or cod tripe.
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Good for you: A summer salad with crabmeat, portrayed in Seamus Mullen's new cookbook, Hero Food
4 ears white sweet corn, husks removed
Zest and juice of 1 lemon1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar1 clove garlic, grated5 tablespoons olive oil1/2 pound jumbo lump crabmeat (pick through to remove bits of shell)1 English cucumber, skin on, halved lengthwise and sliced into half-moons
Handful cherry tomatoes, halved1/4 cup pickled shallots (see recipe below)1 avocado, peeled, pitted and dicedSaltGround black pepperAleppo pepperHandful fresh basil leaves, torn into large piecesLeaves from 1 branch fresh tarragon, torn
Bring a large pot of salt water to a boil. Add the corn and blanch for 2 minutes. Remove the corn from the water and set aside until cool enough to handle.
Once the corn can be handled, cut the kernels off the cobs. To do this, stand each ear on its wide end and saw down the length of the cob with a serrated knife. Turn and repeat until all of the kernels are removed. Set aside.
In a large serving bowl, combine the lemon zest and juice, the vinegar and garlic. Mix well, then whisk in the olive oil. Fold in the corn kernels, crabmeat, tomatoes, cucumber, pickled shallots and avocado, being careful as you mix so as not to mash the ingredients.
Season with salt, black pepper and Aleppo pepper, then garnish with fresh basil and tarragon.
Nutrition information per serving: 410 calories; 250 calories from fat (61per cent of total calories); 28 g fat (3.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 50 mg cholesterol; 30g carbohydrate; 18g protein; 6g fiber; 440mg sodium.
Recipe: Pickled shallots
1 cup cider vinegar1/2 cup water2 tablespoons sugar1/2 tablespoon mustard seeds1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns1/2 tablespoon coriander seed
1/2 tablespoon fennel seed1/2 tablespoon guindilla pepper1 sprig fresh thyme1/2 sprig fresh dill
1 clove garlic3 shallots
To make the pickling liquid, in a medium saucepan over high heat, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, mustard seeds, peppercorns, coriander, fennel, guindilla pepper, thyme, dill and garlic.
Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. You should have about 1 cup of liquid. Strain out and discard the solids.
Use a mandoline to slice the shallots paper-thin. Add the shallots to the pickling liquid and simmer for 2 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and let steep for 10 minutes. Can be used immediately or refrigerated, covered, up to a week.