Seamus Mullen, Chef/Owner of Tertulia and Author of Hero Food
It's not everyday we get to hang out with celebrated chefs, so when the opportunity to visit Seamus Mullen in his own home presented itself, we jumped at the chance. We'll be the first to admit going through a bit of a fangirl moment - after all, he's spent time in some of Spain's most renowned kitchens; has competed on The Next Iron Chef; and has a laundry list of celebrities passing through Tertulia, his first solo restaurant here in New York. He quickly revealed, however, just how grounded he is, always letting his ingredients take center stage (and demonstrating how very little can't be improved upon with a few shavings of buttery jamón). Seamus is a true devotee to his craft and we have no doubt it's his eagle eye for detail, evident in both his restaurant and well-appointed home, that makes him the great chef that he is. Get ready to be inspired.
Read on to learn how Seamus's love affair with Spain began and for an incredible - yet easy to replicate - recipe for truffle risotto. Plus, an opportunity to win a signed copy of his informative and beautiful book, Hero Food!
Hello, chef! Please tell us a little bit about yourself, the amazing journey you've taken from your upbringing in Vermont to Spain, the country that seems to have largely shaped your cooking style and aesthetic.
I grew up in rural Vermont, in a tiny little town called Vershire. I was never particularly good at school, but I did have a knack for languages, which my high school Spanish teacher picked up on. She encouraged me to go to Spain for a study abroad program, and that really opened my eyes to a whole new world that was out there. Somehow I ended up in Michigan at Kalamazoo College (otherwise known as the Ivy League of Michigan) but was soon back in Spain, I couldn't stay away. Fast forward a few years and many highly random jobs later (including, in no particular order: working at an internet startup, driving a bus and teaching Spanish at UPenn), my grandmother Mutti really encouraged me to take cooking seriously and turn it into my career. My restaurant path took me from San Francisco (Mecca) to New York (Tabla) to Spain (Mugaritz, Alkimia and Abac), and back to New York (Crudo, Suba). In 2006, I opened Boqueria with a partner and in 2008 we opened Boqueria Soho. In 2010, I left Boqueria to pursue my own projects and I opened Tertulia in August 2011 - and here we are!
Huge congratulations on your first book, Hero Food, which focuses on the healing powers of foods you (re)discovered after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. It seems many of these foods already fall within the realm of your cooking repertoire. How difficult was it to change your old diet to accommodate this new, more healthful one? What food do you miss most from your old life?
Thank you! It was certainly a labor of love... a very long labor of love, but it was all worth it. I am eternally grateful to my editor, Dorothy Kalins, and to one of my best friends, Colin Clark, who shot all the gorgeous photography.
Health and nutrition are, naturally, of great concern and importance to me. RA can be a very difficult disease to understand and cope with, and it's certainly exacerbated by a job that is as physically demanding as being a chef is. But at the same time, I'm very fortunate that my profession just so happens to be in a field that allows me to better understand my health and nutrition, and do something about it. What I've learned or realized along the way is that all too often we think of "food/cooking/cuisine" and "health" as two separate categories, but they are not mutually exclusive - in fact, they very much go hand in hand. Hero Food is, first and foremost, a cookbook. Whether you pay much attention to nutrition or health or not, at the end of the day, it's a collection of delicious recipes that I hope you'll want to make time and again. But my larger goal is to bridge the gap between the concept of "healthy" food and "delicious" food, and drive home the point that healthy food can be delicious, and vice versa.
It was a bit of a happy accident that I was already well-versed in the Mediterranean diet, which is rich with olive oil, fish, legumes, beans, etc. So I already had a leg up in terms of eating things that were good for me. More recently though, I've incorporated a few more changes to my diet, which have had a noticeable effect on how I feel. I've been reading a few pretty amazing books on health and nutrition that have really changed the way I think about food, such as Wheat Belly and Why We Get Fat. For example, I've cut out gluten from my diet, avoid sugars and too many carbohydrates, and increased my intake of protein and good fat, such as grass-fed butter. I do miss the occasional sandwich or slice of pizza, but overall, it hasn't been too tough of a transition. (To learn a bit more about RA, visit the NIH site here.)
DIY copper pot rack created through the handiwork of chef Seamus
You've worked in some incredible kitchens and have quite a few celebrities among your fan base. Tell us: who's your favorite guest so far?
My favorite guest story would have to be when I cooked for Isabella Rossellini - she must have enjoyed it because afterwards she took my face in both hands and planted a big one, square on the kisser. With tongue, I might add.
With Tertulia, you're really opening up New Yorkers' perception of Spanish food beyond patatas bravas and gambas al ajillo. Other than drawing from your extensive time abroad, what else inspires you to create these fresh, innovative dishes?
You're exactly right, there is so much more to Spanish food than just tapas. Spanish food is still relatively underrepresented here in the U.S. - people know it mostly as tapas on one end of the spectrum, or the super avant-garde, El Bulli-end of the spectrum. But there is such a broad range of Spanish cuisine that is still unexplored, and that's what I'm trying to do here. In Spain it's called cocina de producto, or product-based cooking, where the ingredients are the real stars, and you do just enough with them to make them shine. I always say that I cook in the language of Spanish food - my food definitely has Spanish roots, and draws from the traditions I learned and embraced in Spain, but I am an American cook, cooking in New York.
As a professional chef, you must have a treasure trove of tricks up your sleeve - can you share a couple with us?
Definitely! Here are a few favorites:
When barbecuing, bury vegetables (eggplants, onions, peppers, etc.) directly in the coals. Let them roast in the intense heat of the coals until tender. Remove, let them cool, brush off the ash, peel and discard the exterior, and you're left with incredibly sweet, smoky, intensely flavored vegetables. You could also blacken eggplant/peppers in a dry cast iron pan slowly turning them until completely charred all the way around, for the same effect.
Embrace vinegar for finishing dishes - a couple of drops can balance the right amount of acidity and brightness in a stew, sauce, even a risotto. It's always good to have your workhorse vinegars, and then your finishing vinegars.
One last trick - one of the secrets to robustly flavored vegetarian cooking is having a rich, aromatic vegetable stock. Perhaps the greatest way to achieve really intense umami in your vegetable stock is to add dried shiitake mushrooms, in addition to aromatic veggies like carrots, onions, celery, or fennel.
What comfort dish do you and your wife, Lynn, like to make at home?
If we are cooking, we're big on one-pot meals at home - stews, risottos and the like. Easy and delicious! We are in and out of the restaurant so much and our schedules tend to be unpredictable, so it can be tricky to plan ahead or try to make anything too elaborate at home. And of course there are times where we cave and order in, in which case our go-to comfort food is Thai - specifically Pad See Ew noodles.
What is your biggest kitchen pet peeve?
My biggest kitchen pet peeve is not cleaning as you go! It's one of the most important lessons we learn as cooks. Especially in New York, where space is such a premium, both at home and in the restaurant. It helps you stay disciplined, organized and focused because you have to finish what you start, before moving on to the next step. It's my opinion that you're not finished cooking until you're finished cleaning. I love my wife dearly and she is a great cook, but sometimes it looks like a tornado hit our kitchen!
Favorite kitchen utensils or gadgets?
Probably our Lagioule steak knives that we received as a wedding gift. They are really beautiful and just the best quality. And of course, my collection of Japanese knives.
In terms of gadgets, I do love my VitaMix blender. It just leaves all other blenders behind in the dust. I use it to make all kinds of soups and purees, but I especially love it for making smoothies in the morning. I'm a big fan of green juices and smoothies - I have a favorite parsley-based recipe in my book - but lately I have been making these coffee smoothies. I've been following Dave Asprey's Bulletproof protocol. The Bulletproof smoothie is coffee, MCT oil and 2 TB of grass-fed butter. I know it doesn't sound that appetizing but it's actually quite good, and gives me great energy. In Tibet, sherpas have been doing this for years at high altitudes, using yak butter mixed with tea. Think of it as Tibetan tea with yak butter with the added advantage of the caffeine kick.
They are more of an appliance brand than gadgets per se, but I'm a huge fan of Breville; they make the best home kitchen appliances. Really smart, well-considered designs. I have their SmartGrill, juicer and oven, all equally awesome. My latest acquisition is the Breville burr coffee grinder. I'm a bit of a coffee junkie so I'm pretty excited to use this.
Also, never underestimate the value of a good old spoon! It's good for tasting, basting and making a point!
Top pantry essentials in your kitchen?
My top three would easily have to be sherry vinegar, good salt, and excellent olive oil. Those three relatively simple items, but of the best quality, make a tremendous difference in cooking. I love Pedro Ximenez sherry vinegar made from the PX grape for rich braises and stews - it has a deep, sweet flavor and mild acidity - and Montegrato Fino sherry vinegar for finishing salads, vegetables or anything that requires a delicate pop of fruity acidity. I always have at least kosher salt, sea salt, and fleur de sel on hand. My preferred olive oil is Valderrama Arbequina or L'Estornell unfiltered Arbequina olive oil.
Grass-fed butter is something I've become hooked on recently. I've used it often before of course, but it wasn't until a few months ago that I learned just how good it is for you, nutritionally-speaking. People shy away from using too much butter, but grass-fed butter is actually extremely nutritious. Among other things, it's got Vitamins A, D, E and K, lots of antioxidants, and it's a great source of Omega 3s and 6s. It's great for everyone, and particularly for someone like me who deals with chronic inflammation.
I always have good quality anchovies around - Don Bocarte or Ortiz are both great brands. Anchovies are one of my favorite foods (in fact there is a whole chapter dedicated to them in my book). I get weird looks when I say that, but I am happy to report that people are starting to come around! I serve a dish at my restaurant Tertulia called Tosta Matrimonio - it's a duo of black and white anchovies on olive oil bread with slow-roasted tomato and sheep's milk cheese, drizzled with a little bit of aged balsamic vinegar. It's been on the menu since Day 1, and it's one of our most popular dishes - once people try it, they totally become anchovy converts! And for good reason - they are super flavorful, and are incredibly healthy and good for you. They pack a big punch, so a little bit goes a long way. At home, we find ways to use it all the time - we put them in salads, in scrambled eggs, etc. Trust me on this!
I don't always happen to have a leg of Ibérico ham laying around, but luckily, today I do! It is hands down the best ham in the world. When I don't have the world's best ham readily available at home, I do usually have a good selection of cured meats - chorizo, sausage, soppressata, etc.
As you can see, I'm a big fan of Brooklyn Roasting Company too! When we moved to Dumbo, we discovered it was just around the corner from us, and as it so happens, one of the cofounders, Emily Sheppard, used to work with me back in the day at Boqueria. Their coffee is really excellent, and I'm really proud of what she's done with the company and how it's grown.
As far as condiments go - ketchup and mustard, because I secretly love hot dogs, and Sriracha, because it's good on everything! Last but not least, I always keep a stash of emergency chocolate somewhere. Oh, and ice cream.
Who is your biggest food inspiration?
Wylie Dufresne, for his out-of-the-box thinking and innovation. He looks at food as a logic problem that needs to be solved and comes up with a really unusual and unique point of view.
Jordi Vila, whom I used to work for at Alkimia. Jordi has expanded on the Catalan tradition that is his foundation, and has created a new Catalan cooking that is true to the flavors and ingredients of the past but integrates a lot of new influences. He's the guy that taught me to think about tradition but executing with impeccable technique. Elevate something humble to a completely new level just by considering how you prepare it.
On the personal tip, both of my grandmothers. Mutti, on my mom's side, is the one who really inspired and encouraged me to pursue cooking as a career, so I really have her to thank for where I am today. She attended the Cordon Bleu in Paris when she was young, and she introduced me to good technique at a young age. Meme, on my dad's side, was also instrumental in my culinary upbringing. My grandfather Proctor Mellquist was the editor-in-chief of Sunset Magazine for many years, so the two of them were really at the forefront of the California cuisine and lifestyle. I would visit them during the summers and was exposed to all sorts of incredible things at a young age such as truffles, foie gras and the most amazing coffee, which is probably what kicked off my caffeine habit; when other people were making Folgers, they had an Italian espresso maker and made Americanos in the morning and perfect frothy cappucinos in the afternoon.
Favorite restaurants, high and low?
Neta: this is one of our favorite new restaurants, just a few blocks away from Tertulia. They're doing some really amazing, inventive things there. And they make an incredible peanut butter ice cream.
Kyo Ya: Kaiseki is probably one of my favorite cuisines, and in New York, they do it best.
Pok Pok: Andy Ricker just kills it here. And I'm not just saying that because he's a friend of mine. His food here is so intensely flavorful and awesome, there's no other Thai place like it in New York. I could eat here every day.
Asiadog: I don't know why, but I just love hot dogs.
Locanda Verde: Consistently excellent, all the time.
Miss Lily's: Love their juice bar.
This isn't a cookbook but I love Edible Selby. I love the way Todd Selby understands the whole package, how food, design, and aesthetic are all rolled into one experience.
Hiroko Shimbo's Japanese Kitchen. For American cooks striving to understand Japanese cuisine, this is the quintessential book. It has all the traditional dishes and techniques.
I'm a huge fan of Olivier Roellinger. He was one of the first French chefs to eschew butter and cream in favor of delicate spice and vegetables. He truly captured the exotic flavors of far flung reaches of the world and brought it into his cuisine in a unique and beautiful way.
And without a doubt, Michel Bras' cookbook Essential Cuisine - it is the standard by which all food photography should be measured.
Just your average, everyday plugged-in New York couple ;)
A portion of Seamus's antique collection on display
Play out your last meal for us.
For my last meal, I'd kick it off with a bowl of heirloom tomatoes, Cantabrian anchovies, and fresh burrata, drizzled with Arbequina olive oil, 50-year old balsamic vinegar, and a fistful of fresh herbs. I'd follow that up with a huge bowl of Santa Barbara sea urchin with chilled dashi, fresh wasabi and yuba skin - I love sea urchin. Then, a few pieces of Toro sushi, shima aji tartare, Kobe beef carpaccio and white truffle risotto. For the grand finale, I'd have a plate of 48-month aged Ibérico ham from 5Js with a glass of Lopez de Heredia 2001 Rose wine. For dessert, two scoops of coffee gelato from il Laboratorio di Gelato and a Romeo y Julieta Churchill Cuban cigar. I think this feast would be most delicious somewhere in Paris, sitting alongside Picasso, Escoffier, Hemingway, Michelle Obama - and of course, my better half.
Whose pantries would you like to raid?
Juan Mari and Elena Arzak - they have probably the most insane catalogued spice collection I've ever seen.
Lior Lev Sercarz, from La Boite Biscuits & Spices. Here's a guy who spends all day, every day, thinking about spices, sourcing irreproachable spices, dreaming up spice blends - he is just amazing.
Yes, that would be an old school barber chair!
2 cups Arborio rice
1 shallot, finely minced
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2 cups mixed wild mushrooms, cut into equal sized pieces
1 teaspoon Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoon dry white wine
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4.5 cups vegetable or chicken stock
½ cup finely grated Parmiggiano Reggiano
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 free range eggs
Fresh black or white truffles (as much as you can afford and then a little extra!)
Fresh ground pepper
2 ounces sliced Iberico ham
In a medium sized pot heat the stock up to a simmer, then turn off. In another medium-sized pot, heat the olive oil over medium high heat and add the mushrooms a little bit at a time so as not to crowd the pot and to allow the mushrooms to brown evenly. Once they have browned, about three minutes, reduce the heat to medium and add the shallots and garlic and sweat for 1 minute, taking care to keep them from taking any color. Deglaze with the Champagne vinegar and add the rice.
Toast the rice, stirring to keep it from burning, for two minutes until the grains of rice begin to turn translucent. After 2 minutes, add the white wine and cook to allow the alcohol to evaporate, about 1 minute. Season lightly with kosher salt and with a ladle, add the stock a little at a time, stirring constantly in the same direction with a rubber spatula (this keeps you from crushing the grains of rice.) As the rice absorbs the stock, add a little bit more, taking care not to boil the rice. Once the rice is nearly fully cooked, about 18 minutes, season with fresh ground pepper and fold in the grated cheese. Cook for another 2 minutes, then remove from the heat and emulsify in the butter until creamy. The rice should be nice and creamy, but you should be able to see each individual grain.
Divide the rice into two warmed bowls, making a small indentation in the middle of the rice. Carefully separate the egg yolk from the white and set aside the white for another use. Nestle the yolk into the indentation in the rice and season with a sprinkle of sea salt and a drizzle of good olive oil. Finish each dish with as many truffles and slices of Iberico ham as your budget allows. Eat right away!
To learn more about Chef Seamus Mullen, visit his website, follow him on Twitter and Facebook, and if you're lucky enough to live in or around New York, be sure to drop by his gorgeous restaurant, Tertulia, where you can pick up signed copies of his photo-filled book, Hero Food!
Thanks, Seamus! We had risotto-filled dreams for a while after this. For your chance to win a signed copy of Hero Food, please leave us a comment below. You have until the last day of the month, Thursday, February 28, at 11:59pm/EST. Winner will be chosen at random - good luck!
*Photos by Christine Han Photography for Pantry Confidential. All photos on Pantry Confidential are original. Please credit and link back to our site when using our images, thank you.