A Chef Finds Healing in Food

8/03/2011 10:42:34 AM

FOR a chef, the inspiration to move into new creative territory can arrive with a euphoric flash.

Sometimes, though, inspiration chooses a darker, more distressing route. Consider the story of Seamus Mullen.

“I woke up one day with pain in my hip, and I couldn’t even move,” he recalled the other day, as he took a break from overseeing the construction work on his latest restaurant, Tertulia, which is set to open in the West Village later this month.

He had experienced mysterious blasts of agony before. Now and then his shoulder would flare with searing, paralyzing pain that he compared to “having a hot knife stuck inside your joint.” But he had never endured anything like this.

“I thought maybe if I got out of bed, I’d feel better,” he said. “I tried to stand up, and I collapsed. I couldn’t put any weight on my foot. I crawled on my stomach, dragging myself across the floor, to a couch. Then I realized that my phone was on the other side of the room. I tried to go back across the room, and I couldn’t. So I just sat there for six hours.”

This happened in 2007, back when Mr. Mullen, now 37, was in charge of the Flatiron district kitchen at Boqueria, the often-thronged tapas citadel that now has a second location in SoHo. He was one of the most promising chefs in New York — raised working on an organic farm in Vermont, brined in top-echelon kitchens from San Francisco to Barcelona, and swooned over on the Food Network and Eater. Before long, he’d be wondering if his career was about to slam into a wall.

Eventually a neighbor who carried a key to Mr. Mullen’s apartment heard the chef screaming and opened the door. “I told him, ‘There’s something severely wrong,’ ” Mr. Mullen said. “I had no idea what was going on.”

Neither did the doctors. After several excruciating days, Dr. Harry D. Fischer, the chief of the rheumatology division at Beth Israel Medical Center, determined that Mr. Mullen’s hip joint was swollen with fluid. He had rheumatoid arthritis.

“That was the first time I’d ever heard of it,” Mr. Mullen said. “Initially I was really distraught. I stand on my feet for 12 or 14 hours a day. I thought, Am I never going to cook again?”

Fortunately, Mr. Mullen received medical treatment, and that treatment has been effective, Dr. Fischer said in a telephone interview. Nevertheless, a period of change and crisis began for Mr. Mullen. It came to a head a year ago, when he left Boqueria in a strained split with his partner.

Oddly enough, there has been an upside to all the agony. Mr. Mullen discovered that the very thing he spent so much energy obsessing over — food — could provide him with both physical relief and a core idea for a book.

He now takes medication for his arthritis, of course, but he has also detonated and rearranged his regular diet so that he eats a lot less processed food and a lot more of the ingredients (including olive oil, almonds, leafy greens, stone fruits, and small, oil-rich fish like anchovies and sardines) that often play a central role in the Spanish cuisine he specializes in.

“There’s no question about it,” Dr. Fischer said. “There are clearly foods that have anti-inflammatory effects. It’s certainly an important part of the picture.”

Mr. Mullen calls these “hero foods,” and he’s just finished the manuscript for a cookbook called “Seamus Mullen’s Hero Food: How Cooking With Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better.” Scheduled to come out in the spring, it will celebrate these gustatory “super friends” for what he sees as their power to beat back inflammation, boost the immune system and amplify an eater’s overall health.

“Thanks to the beautiful irony of nature, it just so happens that many of the things that I love are in fact very good for me,” said Mr. Mullen, who had something of an epiphany when he visited the Iberian Peninsula as a teenager. “I’ve been a huge advocate of sardines and anchovies since I first had them, living in Spain when I was in high school.”

He has spent the early part of this summer putting the finishing touches on Tertulia, which is meant to pay tribute to the relaxed, rustic cider houses of Asturias, a mountainous region of northern Spain that is known for its Alpine devotion to the art of dairy.

Not every dish at Tertulia will have roots in Asturias; many of them, though, are likely to have subtle threads of connection to the chef’s array of hero foods. Mr. Mullen plans a take on a Catalan honey-and-cheese dessert called mel i matَ, with an unexpected sprinkle of pistachios and fresh peaches — he’s zealous about the nutritional potency of stone fruits. He intends to lay a seared and tender duck breast upon a creamy, risotto-style bed of farro, a whole grain that makes an appearance in his forthcoming book.

Stout and physically vigorous, with florid tattoos on each elbow (chrysanthemums on the left, cherry blossoms on the right), Mr. Mullen didn’t seem a bit afflicted last month as he bounced around the interior of Tertulia, engulfed in clouds of dust and tool noise — unless, perhaps, the affliction we’re talking about was a sprinkle of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

To say that Mr. Mullen is fixated on details is like saying David Chang has a passing interest in pork. At Tertulia, which takes its name from a Spanish term for a spirited and (if you’re lucky) boisterous bohemian conclave, the guy is literally involved in selecting every nut and bolt.

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