Long before he was a competitor in the Food Network's culinary hazing extravaganza The Next Iron Chef, Seamus Mullen, chef and owner of Tertulia in New York City, was one of countless young cooks who bought a one-way ticket to Spain in hopes of landing a job as a
free labor stagier in one of the country's top kitchens.
He ended up at Mugaritz, Adoni Luis Aduriz's two Michelin star restaurant near San Sebastian in the Basque region in northern Spain. Fast forward a few years and he returned to New York City and is running Boqueria, a tapas restaurant in Manhattan's Flat Iron District. A favorable review from the New York Times' Frank Bruni "sent the kitchen into a tailspin" more than quadrupling the number of guests each night. After a midnight 911 call, a trip to the hospital and some tests, Mullen was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, a condition where the body's immune system attacks itself.
His first cookbook, Hero Food, offers an impressive array of Spanish dishes using 18 foods, many inspired by his native Vermont, that can reduce inflammation while being coaxed into flavorful meals. Here's what he said:
Short Order: How did Tertulia weather Sandy?
Seamus Mullen: We were very fortunate. A lot of of people were hit a lot harder than we were and we managed to stay open throughout most of the hurricane. We did service by candlelight. I got a ton of dry ice and several hundred pounds of ice to keep all of the food at a safe temperature.
You're melding healthy food and Spanish cuisine, two popular themes, what's been the response so far?
What I was hoping would happen was the start of the discussion that so-called health food doesn't have to taste like crap. It's becoming more and more clear everyday that what we put into our bodies has a dramatic effect on the growth or slowing of inflammation and disease. My job is to make food that is really tasty and entertains people. It's been an interesting rift to bridge. The ongoing joke is that the healthiest looking guy is the guy running the cash register at the health food store.
You're steeped in Spanish culinary tradition, what's your take on its popularity in the states?
There's a bit of a misunderstanding about what Spanish food is. There's a growing curiosity, a lot of it was fueled by El Bulli and kitchens of Spain in 2001, 2002. Tet there's so much more to Spanish cuisine than just the experiential cuisine from vanguard kitchens. That's not sustainable. As a consumer it's not something you're going to have more than once in a blue moon. From an intellectual stand point it requires a certain amount of knowledge, and not everyone wants to be educated at every meal. Nonetheless it did a lot to draw a lot of attention to Spain.
Spanish cuisine can be overwhelming with strong flavors, where would you start someone who wants to learn about it?
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I think it's really important to highlight the quality of the olive oil. That's the center of Spanish cuisine. Bringing in something like a high quality Gambas al Ajillo (shimp in garlic and oil) is a very very easy dish for people to like. Also a lot of meat and potatoes are done with All i Oli [a traditional garlic and oil sauce]. It's something on nearly every table, and it's something very, very simple but it's all about the ingredients. You start with a reference point. There's a lot of Spanish food that is familiar is flavor profile and usually enough to get people to dive in.
Mullen will speak at the Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, November 18, at 2 p.m. at Miami Dade College (building six, first floor on NE Second Ave. between Fourth and Fifth streets).