By Michael Floreak
To tell the story of a chef who transformed his life through diet, you have to talk weight loss. The before and after is the big reveal. The ultimate measure of success. The point of the whole damn thing. But in a long discussion about food and health with New York chef and author Seamus Mullen, weight never comes up. What does? Inflammation, deliciousness, Judeo-Christian concepts of good and evil, and the gift of a great dump.
Mullen, 43, grew up on an organic farm in Vermont and made his mark on the New York food world with the inventive Spanish food he created at his restaurants Tertulia and El Colmado He’s been nominated for multiple Beard Awards and cooked on television shows from “Chopped” to “The Martha Stewart Show” to the late “Megyn Kelly Today.” But in recent years, the chef has also become an authority on health, wellness, and their connection with what you eat.
He is the author with Genevieve Ko of “Real Food Heals: Eat to Feel Younger and Stronger Every Day.” It includes the things you might expect in a health-focused book – a 21-day “reboot” plan to eliminate sugar, introduce exercise and focus on “real” foods. And some things you might not – a reminder to find flavor and joy in the food you eat.
In the book, Mullen draws from his own experiences with autoimmune disease and rheumatoid arthritis, both of which he has brought under control over the past decade. Before landing in the hospital in 2007 with bacterial meningitis, Mullen ate like many chefs. “It was as much Kobe beef, foie gras, pork belly as you could handle. There was an element of machismo in eating it all,” he says.
But after his most serious in a string of health scares, the chef began working with Dr. Frank Lipman, an integrative medicine practitioner in New York and focused on learning as much as he could about nutrition and how to use the tools he had as a chef to improve his health. Mullen, who is now an avid bike racer, writes in the intro to the book that with the overhaul to his lifestyle, “I’m totally transformed, body and soul. Each day, I feel a little bit stronger, a little bit more complete.”
When we spoke in Fall of 2017, Mullen was recovering from a problem of a different sort: rotator cuff surgery. Mullen crashed his bike on a visit to Boston where he prepared a dinner with chef Tony Maws at The Kirkland Tap and Trotter. He then injured the other shoulder while leading a cooking and cycling tour in Italy.
Michael Floreak. Have you always been interested and involved in learning about health?
Seamus Mullen. This is not at all who I was. In many ways, I was the ostrich with my head in the sand for a long time. I would try to ignore or deny medical issues until they became so big that it was impossible not to. Getting really sick with RA (rheumatoid arthritis), being on tons of meds, having several near-death experiences was a pretty major wakeup call. There’s nothing like confronting your own mortality to really kick you in the ass and wake you up.
When I came out of the last really significant near-death experience where I had a fever of 106 degrees and bacterial meningitis, that was when I pretty much promised myself that I was going to dedicate my own life to figuring out what was going on with my health. In doing so I realized that I’ve learned a lot and tried a lot of shit that hasn’t worked, but I’ve learned a lot and realized that there’s a lot I could share with other people who are in similar situations and might be feeling despair or might be suffering unnecessarily or people who simply could be doing a lot better with a little bit of guidance and support.
MF. Was rheumatoid arthritis your main health problem?
SM. When we talk about arthritis we’re usually talking about osteoarthritis, which is basic wear and tear on the joints. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the arthritic element is really just the symptom of an underlying problem. For me, I was sick for a long time and I think in many ways the erosion of my health started in infancy. It kind of came to a head to when I was given a label for it in my early 30s.
MF. What did that decline look like?
SM. I grew up on a small farm in Vermont where my parents were making the best decisions they could around food based upon the dominant wisdom of the time, which was lots of carbohydrates and whole grains and tofu and soy and not so much meat. Every single meal I would end up with a bloated stomach, a distended abdomen, and horrific gas pain. I pretty much had diarrhea from childhood to my early 30s. I just accepted that as being normal.
What I didn’t realize until much later in life is that the gut is obviously a huge part of the immune system and my immune system was being slowly chipped away because of the foods I was eating. Then in turn, it left me much more exposed to infections. For a lot of these infections, the treatment protocol is pretty much the same: prescribe antibiotics and call it a day. What that was doing was furthering the destruction of my gut and my immune system. That in conjunction with eating foods which even though we thought were healthy – a lot of legumes, a lot of fruit, a lot of whole grains – were eradicating my gut bacteria and leaving me more exposed to infection and then having more antibiotics.
I was setting myself up to be the perfect candidate for autoimmune dysfunction, which is what happened.
Coming next: How a bout with meningitis and near-death experience changed Seamus Mullen’s relationship with food.
Interview was condensed for length and edited for clarity.
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