Education of a Chef


Renowned chef Seamus Mullen spent his whole life in the kitchen. But when crippling pain literally laid him low, he had to rethink everything he knew about food to heal himself.

By Grace Edquist


For chef Seamus Mullen, food was the answer.

And not just as inspiration for his life as an acclaimed chef and restaurateur—but as a key and defining factor in healing himself from the immobilizing pain he started to experience in the early 2000s.

He was working grueling hours at his first restaurant, Boqueria, when he started experiencing periodic, agonizing flare-ups concentrated in his shoulder, knee, or hip. At times the attack was so severe it felt like a hot knife jabbing into his joints, rendering him immobile—quite the predicament when your job is to be on your feet in a bustling kitchen all day and night. Multiple trips to the hospital proved inconclusive: he’d leave with pain medication, but no diagnosis.

That he didn’t understand yet was that his body was simply run down, exhausted, depleted.

“It took me a long time to realize I didn’t just wake up one morning sick,” Seamus says from a table near the open kitchen at Tertulia, his celebrated Spanish tapas restaurant in New York City. “It was a slow and insidious process. All the small decisions I made along the way chipped away at my health until I got to this breaking point.”

That point was a day in 2007 when Seamus woke up with a pain in his left hip so excruciating, he couldn’t move. At all. After several hours of lying on his living room floor, unable to get to his phone across the room, a neighbor found him and called 911. An MRI showed that his hip was swollen with liquid, putting pressure on a nearby nerve. A few days later a 33-year-old Seamus was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder that causes the body to attack its own tissue, resulting in intense, uncontrollable pain in the joints. It has no known cure. “I thought, ‘Am I ever going to cook again?’ ” he says.

From that day forward he resolved to make changes in his life, his diet, his habits. And, after years of research and experimentation, Seamus is transformed. He’s a vibrant, active guy who not only owns four (and counting) restaurants in New York and London, but is also an author, speaker, and avid outdoorsman who runs, bikes, and practices yoga. What he learned along the way, he works hard to share: You can live a full and healthy life, he says, simply by paying attention to what you put in your body.

Something Has to Change

When Seamus first got out of the hospital following his diagnosis, he had to focus on reducing the pain—which food alone was not able to do. “The only thing that’s going to change your traumatic, acute inflammation is prednisone,” he says. “The problem is that we’ve become dependent on using those drugs for long periods of time, chronically.”

His goal was to get ahead of the pain and prevent future flare-ups, and to do that he had to cultivate a long-term, holistic approach to wellness. So in addition to the medication, he started to examine his whole lifestyle—not only what he ate, but also down to the smallest details of how he lived. “I kind of had to go backward and I had to start making all of those right decisions, not only on a daily basis but sometimes even on an hourly basis: how much water I was drinking, how much sleep I was getting, what my stress levels were. [I had to] think about every piece of food that I ate and what its implications were,” he says.

Seamus dove further into his research, reading up on what thinkers like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle have written about our food systems and how what we eat affects our health. He cross-referenced foods with anti-inflammatory properties with foods found in Spanish cuisine, his longtime culinary touchstone after having lived and cooked there multiple times, to discover new favorites.

“I started looking at the things that I liked cooking with most, and I started to realize that those things were really good for me,” he says—ingredients like olive oil, parsley, garlic, almonds, stone fruits, and small, oily fish such as sardines and anchovies. He concentrated on eating more of what made him feel good and cutting out things that didn’t, namely sugar, alcohol, grains, and processed foods. “I realized that there’s no value in eating something that’s going to make me feel like crap,” he says.

Though he had begun to refine his diet, other parts of his life had yet to slow down. Less than a year after Seamus’s RA diagnosis, Boqueria opened a second New York location. Seamus’s status as a celebrity chef continued to rise, and he was recruited to be a contestant on the Food Network’s popular show “The Next Iron Chef” in 2009. He made it into the top three, but experienced an RA attack so severe that at one point he had to take to a wheelchair between scenes.

Something—something more—had to change. “At 35 years old, I realized that I had to make some major changes in my life or RA would get the best of me,” he says in his cookbook, Hero Food, which he wrote as a means of sharing his journey toward health and the recipes that helped get him there.

So Seamus decided to leave Boqueria in 2010. He began more complex experiments to fine-tune what worked best for him. For example, he put olive oil to the test to see if it really had the anti-inflammatory benefits he’d heard so much about. He removed olive oil and olives from his diet for two weeks. “By the fourth day, my joints felt really tight and painful,” he says. “I returned to olive oil and instantly knew relief.”

The incremental improvements Seamus made—not only adding foods with anti-inflammatory properties to his diet, but also cutting back on the long hours and stress—started to add up, and after two years of diligence, he began consistently feeling better. He felt good when he woke up in the morning. He had more energy. He lost weight.

He was able to exercise and hop on his mountain bike again. And, perhaps most important, his formerly elevated white blood cell count, a key marker of RA, had dropped to a normal level. Food wasn’t just treating the symptoms, it was treating the root cause.

And when Seamus opened Tertulia, his first solo restaurant, in 2011, he made sure that it wasn’t at the expense of his health. He made time for eating right, getting sleep, and staying physically active.

“Now that [I’ve been vigilant about my health] for the past few years, I’m very much in tune with how I feel based on what I eat, and I would say that the single most important driving factor in my physical state is food,” he says. “I went from being as close to a bedridden cripple as a chef could be, to being an incredibly physically active person. I can attribute 80 percent of that improvement to food.”

Finding His Heroes

The process of fine-tuning his diet and discovering which foods made him feel his best served as the basis for Seamus’s cookbook Hero Food, published in 2012.

“The book was really about initially drawing a correlation between what I ate and what I felt,” Seamus says. It details the efforts he put into getting healthy following his RA diagnosis—but, critically, also shows the reader that healthy foods can be not only delicious, but indulgent.

Seamus’s treasured heroes are: anchovies, olive oil, dried beans, almonds, grains, good eggs, good birds, sweet peas, parsley, berries, carrots, corn, stone fruit, good fish, squash, mushrooms, greens, and good meat. The “good” distinction here refers to factors other than just the food itself: “When I cook, I’m aware of much more than recipes. I’m obsessive about the way a pig is raised, about the provenance of my chickens, and in turn, their eggs. I fret about how my vegetables are grown, about how my fruit is treated, about the freshness and sustainability of the fish I use.”

In the three years since the book was published, Seamus says his personal philosophy toward food has continued to evolve, but one belief hasn’t changed: that good, healthy food should be treasured.

“I want people to embrace a celebratory relationship with food, and convince people to ditch an antagonistic relationship with food,” Seamus says. “If you’re eating well out of obligation and not out of joy and pleasure, then you’re never going to be successful. Like, ‘Ugh, I have to have another kale smoothie’—there’s no joy in that. I think joy is fundamentally important.”

It’s a message he’s taken to conferences, on TV shows, and into his restaurants. He knows that this process of eating whole, real foods worked for him, and it can work for others, too. And he’s noticing signs—chia seeds for sale in Walmart, juice shops cropping up across the country—that our society is hungry for this lifestyle.

Seamus sees his next project, likely a book, as a way to help others replicate this lifestyle. He wants to create a 30-day meal plan for people who have RA or another autoimmune disorder, such as Crohn’s Disease, or for anyone who wants to feel more energetic, eat better, and be healthier. “And as long as you do the work and adhere to it and follow it, you’ll feel completely different afterward, and there’s no feeling of ‘Oh I’m starving,’ or ‘I’m missing out on this, missing out on that.’ ”

And that is what Seamus Mullen really wants to share.

“You can live a really indulgent, healthy, happy life with food, and, at the same time, you can watch—and feel—your body change in a very positive way.”

This article appears in Vol. 1 of the Wanderlust Journal

Grace Edquist is an editor at Wanderlust Media


Posted on April 18, 2016