Q&A with Chef Seamus Mullen | interviewed by Jamie Menaker
Seamus Mullen is an award-winning chef, known for his uber-popular, Spanish-influenced NYC restaurants, Tertulia and El Colmado. But he has also become an advocate for food as a tool for healing ourselves, after changing his diet to turn around his own autoimmune condition. Most of all, Seamus is a voice for healthy eating, cooking with local, sustainable food simply because it’s nourishing and rewarding, not a chore or a requirement. Read on to hear why Seamus thinks we should all let go of our love-hate relationship with healthy food.
You faced a health scare and chose to change your diet completely as a result. What did you change & how challenging was that shift?
I was super sick for a long time, living with Rheumatoid Arthritis and dealing with chronic pain on a daily basis. I was taking tons of prescription meds and yet I was just sick, getting sicker. I had a near death experience as a result of the immuno-suppressants that I was on, and that was an all-time low. I was at the bottom looking up and I knew that something had to change — and I was willing to do anything. The irony is that I was actually perfectly prepared to tackle the problem head-on: food was largely responsible for my illness, and food became largely responsible for my wellness. I had the tools and know-how, I just didn’t know what to do with them.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to meet a great teacher in Dr. Frank Lipman, and he helped me change the way I thought of the disease and of how I thought of myself. The moment I no longer thought of myself as a sick person was the moment I stopped being a sick person. The changes I made in my diet were slow and the results were slow, but with the guidance and support of Dr. Lipman, I knew that I was going to improve. I didn’t know exactly how much, but I knew I would get better. The broad strokes of my dietary changes were to take grains and sugars and processed foods out of my diet, but there was a lot more tweaking and experimenting. In general terms, I slowly shifted to what is quite fashionably referred to as a “high-fat, low-carb” way of eating. This is how I have eaten now for about 5 years, and I suspect it’s how I’ll always eat. I don’t think of it as a “diet” but rather as a positive relationship with delicious food.
How has that change reflected in what you serve at your restaurants?
I get this question a lot and while we have made changes at the restaurant, the reality is that we always cooked with impeccable, seasonal ingredients. We have certainly shifted to fewer refined carbs and sugars, and while I don’t want to force the issue of our food being healthy, I think that cooking with great, whole foods, locally and seasonally, is inherently the most nutritious thing to do. And it just happens to taste better.
What is your food philosophy today?
Real Food Heals. Eat well, mostly nutrient dense vegetables, moderate meat, dairy, fish and fruit, and your body will heal. How much you heal depends on a multitude of factors, however I have no doubt that eating as closely as we can to nature (and to our nature we evolved to eat) is the best thing we can do for our bodies.
How have you seen the conversation change around healthy food?
Fortunately we are beginning to understand that there has been so much mis-information about nutrition that we have taken as gospel, and that has severely harmed our health as a people (and that of the planet). There is a sea-change happening and we are beginning to shed the notion of healthy food as punishment, and recognizing that eating for health and nourishment is one of the greatest pleasures Mother Nature has gifted us with.
Is it a challenge to eat healthy when you are at the restaurant all the time?
It can be, but I just try to be disciplined about eating nourishing, nutrient-dense meals, and that makes me much less prone to snacking on sweets and carbs.
Do you eat differently when you are at home?
Not really, I tend to eat the same sorts of things, more or less, whether I’m at home or at work. Granted I have a little more at my disposal in the restaurant than I do at home, but the way I eat is the same. Today, for instance, I had lunch here at Tertulia and I had a BAS (Big Ass Salad) of dark greens, avocado, pumpkin seeds, carrots, herbs, and grilled octopus. I don’t tend to have perfectly grilled octopus hanging around in my kitchen at home, so at home that same salad might have some mackerel or sardines or chicken or grass-fed beef in it.
What are your favorite healthy snacks?
I love macadamia nuts. I keep them in the freezer at all times. My go-to treat, nice and cold! I also love almond butter on carrots or celery. I always have grass-fed beef jerky around the house, and I keep some 7-minute eggs in the fridge at all times. The truth is, however, that I try not to snack, but rather I eat big meals that tend to carry me for quite a while and when I start to feel hungry, I try to enjoy the hunger… It’s really just nothing more than anticipation of the next great meal!
What do you always have in the fridge/ pantry?
Anchovies, almond butter, macadamia nuts, olive oil, avocado oil, pumpkin seeds, coconut oil, beef jerky, eggs, sour krout, kimchee, kefir, really good cured meats, raw coconut water, pastured eggs, frozen wild blueberries, fresh strawberries when they are in season, and the occasional piece of stinky French cheese.
Where would you tell someone to start who is looking to eat cleaner and healthier?
Start looking at all the places that sugar creeps into our foods, and then try to limit the sugar intake to natural sources of fructose in limited amounts, so a piece or two of fruit a day. Experiment with reducing carb intake to 150-200g a day, and increasing healthy fats which are much more satiating. (I’m not big on tracking food or looking at macros, but it’s helpful in the beginning to understand just how much sugar and carb we tend to consume.) Try to skip breakfast, or just have coffee/tea and water with lemon, then have a huge lunch of mostly vegetables. Try to go a week without eating anything that is “ready to eat” out of a package. Yes, this means Kind bars. And drink more water!!!!!
The best trick of the trade that you are willing to share?
The microplane! This little tool is amazing for taking dishes to a new place. Finish a salad, a grilled fish dish, or some veggies with a microplane of lemon zest and a drizzle of fruity olive oil and you’ll see what I mean. Use it to grate a half-clove of garlic into your vinaigrette.
Oh and speaking of vinaigrettes, here’s a great one that I use on everything from hard-boiled eggs, to grilled asparagus, to a leafy green salad:
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
1 TBSP grainy Dijon mustard
1 tsp raw honey
1 filet of anchovy, minced up
1/2 clove garlic (grated on a microplane of course!)
pinch of sea salt
pinch of dried Herbes de Provence
1/2 cup Extra virgin olive oil
Put everything in a small mason jar and shake the buhjeezus out of it. It takes less time to make than it does to open the safety seal on a bottle of ranch dressing!
Any advice or last words for readers?
A word on so-called “cheat meals”: I hate this term. I hate it for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it implies that the rest of the time we’re suffering, punishing ourselves with horrendous “healthy” food, so that once in a blue moon we can “treat” ourselves to something that tastes “amazing.” This just further serves to promote an antagonistic relationship with food. As far as I’m concerned, while taking down a whole bag of potato chips might feel good the moment those chips hit your lips, there will be some serious food remorse shortly after. When you eat, delicious, nourishing food, there is no remorse, there is no negative relationship with food. There is no love-hate, there is only love-love.
And a word of advice: Don’t be scared of cooking! Cooking is fun, even if it can be intimidating, it’s important to learn how to cook. Once you have a few easy things under your belt (like the vinaigrette above!), you can swap out ingredients and come up with infinite possibilities. It’s very hard to be healthy if you don’t cook at least some of your own meals. And remember to enjoy your food, it’s not just fuel, it’s ritual, it’s nourishment, it’s passion, it’s pleasure. As humans we only have two basic necessities for survival: food and sex. And fortunately for us, Mother Nature, in all her infinite wisdom, made both things incredibly pleasurable, but only if they are nourishing!
Seamus Mullen is an award-winning New York chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author known for his inventive yet approachable Spanish cuisine, and a leading authority on health and wellness. Seamus opened his first solo restaurant Tertulia in Manhattan in 2011, which was awarded two stars from The New York Times and a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant. In 2013, he opened El Colmado, a Spanish tapas and wine bar at Gotham West Market, a food hall in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. He has been named a semi-finalist for Best Chef NYC by the James Beard Foundation 3 years in a row. In 2009, he was one of 3 finalists on the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef.” He can often be seen as a featured judge on the popular Food Network series “Chopped” and “Beat Bobby Flay,” and is a frequent guest on programs such as The Today Show, The Martha Stewart Show, and CBS This Morning.
More recently, Seamus has become a leading authority in the conversation on food, health and wellness. An avid cyclist who raced competitively in his twenties, he was diagnosed in 2007 with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that forced him to rethink his relationship with food, and led to his first cookbook Hero Food, published in 2012. Through food, exercise and lifestyle changes, Seamus was able to successfully turn his health around. He shares his story through numerous speaking engagements around the country, and has been featured in major publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Chicago-Tribune, and The Guardian. He has written about his experience for The New York Times and through his bimonthly column in Men’s Journal.
Find Tertulia at www.tertulianyc.com
Find El Colmado at www.elcolmadonyc.com