"I found that it was a beautiful, happy accident that the foods that I love happen to be the foods that are the best for me. Food that's good for you should taste good."
The cuisine at Chef Seamus Mullen's Tertulia in the West Village features fresh ingredients that sing in a Spanish tongue. After working in some of Spain's top kitchens and stunning New York eaters at Boqueria (which he co-owned) and Suba, he was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, a chronic autoimmune disease that wreaks havoc on the body. Recognizing a disconnect between the health food and restaurant food worlds, Chef Mullen spent three years working on his first book, Hero Food, out today.
Hero Food is a book for both home cooks and chefs: it teaches the basics of filleting anchovies and how to build Trout a la Navarra. Each of his 18 "hero foods" receives its own chapter, loaded with notes on their health benefits and why we should love them, it's a book for all those who respect and crave food's medicinal qualities.
A lot of chefs seem to be leaning to regional cuisine, but is your approach more broad? I consider our cuisine to be ingredient-focused and product-based, not regional. I take different ingredients and inspiration and cook within the language of Spanish cuisine. We know where our ingredients are from and use the best quality we can get, so we can do as little as necessary to make them shine.
How has what you've learned from your time at Spain evolved at Tertulia? I sometimes find that very traditional dishes in Spain can be almost monochromatic in taste: they have one flavor that goes all the way through the dish and it's very intense and bold, but there may not be peaks and valleys. I like to capture that essence of the flavor but then try as much as I can to create points and counterpoints, to really create this balance of flavors.
You've been open since the summer of 2011. What has progressed or evolved in a way you maybe didn't expect? The idea was always to focus on the wood-fired grill because it has such an unusual flavor: we're able to get these flavors of smoke that kind of weave their way through the food that we might not get otherwise. Even vegetables take on this beautiful, unusual smoky quality. But it's become a benchmark of our cuisine in a way that we didn't expect.
What was it like back in 2007, in those first moments when you discovered you had Rheumatoid Arthritis? It was really, really hard. Initially I just knew that I was in a tremendous amount of pain. And then when I was diagnosed I got very, very scared that I wouldn't be able to work in a kitchen again—that this was kind of the end of my career. And of course stress plays a big role in how the disease behaves and the more stressed out I got the worse it was, so I realized there was a huge environmental component for how the disease behaves. Food and lifestyle are a big part of that.
In what ways did you change your lifestyle at work? I have to be very conscientious of saying "no" and not doing things because of the impact they have. What seems relatively insignificant—like lifting a heavy stockpot or a bag of potatoes—could cost me the entire next day. I've definitely had to ask for help more than I did before: showing rather than doing.
Has having control of your own restaurant helped? Very much so, particularly because of the people who work here. My sous chefs Ken and Anup are incredibly supportive. They're really talented, smart and considerate people and they look out for me; my team is really good at grabbing me to stop. Managing expectations and over-communicating as much as possible are really important.
At what point did it become this is the book that I want to write? Pretty quickly after being diagnosed. There's an impact on the way food affects this disease that's well documented, and I wanted to find out what that was. The more I looked into it, I realized that the story was never told from the perspective of somebody who really cared about good food. I found that it was a beautiful, happy accident that the foods I love happen to be the foods that are the best for me, and food that's good for you should taste good. So it was kind of about bringing those two worlds together.
Your book hits the shelves today. How are you feeling about that? I'm so excited to finally have it out. It was a really long process and we did things the hard way, but I think in the end it made the book a very personal book and it's something that I'm really proud of. There's certainly an aspect that makes me feel a little exposed, I guess, and that gives me a certain level of anxiety; you're sharing part of your personal life with anybody who chooses to read it. But I hope it will encourage other people to feel more comfortable about living with the disease, or any sort of illness.
What's one recipe that really represents Hero Food for you? I really, really love the soft-cooked egg with almond Romesco. It's a dish with so much flavor and a little bit of technique. It has the appeal of a good farm egg with a gooey yolk, and the rich flavor of toasted almonds and garlic and olive oil... it's real food that's also really good for you. It takes me back to Spain in some ways, but at the same time it's also a New York dish and very much our food here at Tertulia. It's so simple. It's a really fun dish.
Hero Food is published by Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC.