Award-winning chef, cookbook author, owner of three New York restaurants and overseeing a fourth in London, Seamus Mullen, 40, seems unstoppable. But just a few years ago, he was battling pain from sometimes-debilitating rheumatoid arthritis (RA) – a disease that threatened his career and his future.
When Arthritis Today first talked to Seamus in 2010, he was executive chef and partner of a trendy Spanish restaurant in New York City. It was a cloudy spring afternoon, and Seamus was in the kitchen prepping for the evening rush, facing the task of cutting up a 35-pound lamb.
He mentioned that his hands were hurting that day – the only hint besides a slight limp that the talented, up-and-coming chef had been diagnosed with RA a few years earlier. It had been a bolt out of the blue – he has no diagnosed family history of the disease – and had turned his world upside down. But it also fueled his determination to continue doing what he loves.
With the precision and patience of a surgeon, he used two knives, a Japanese meat cleaver and a saw to separate the lamb, gently placing each part – the rack, neck, shoulders, and so on – to the side. By midnight, when the restaurant closed, he had worked 12 hours, though too often he worked 15 or more.
Seamus was already known for his trademark tapas – standard fare in Spanish bars, such as marinated olives and cheese, cured sausage, fresh seafood and produce, dates, savory herbs and spices, and antibiotic- and hormone-free lamb.
His cooking wowed finicky food critics, with one crowing that Seamus could “cook his butt off and still decorate a plate prettily and poetically like an artist.” Rising to the top ranks of chefdom, Seamus in 2009 was a finalist on the Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef, and in 2010 he was a semifinalist for the title “Best Chef: New York City,” by the prestigious James Beard Foundation – an accolade he has earned twice more since then.
It’s heady stuff for a guy who grew up in Vermont and learned organic farming from his grandmother.
His love affair with Spanish food began in high school, when he spent his senior year abroad. He studied Spanish language and literature in college and returned to Spain for his junior and senior years.
After graduation, he trained with top chefs in California, New York and Spain and worked as a sous chef in New York City until launching his first restaurant in 2006.
A New Challenge
In April 2007, as he was savoring his success, RA changed everything. After sporadic bouts of pain that landed him in the emergency room – and one bout at home that was so severe he was unable to phone for help (a neighbor heard his cries seven hours later) – he was diagnosed. “I was scared. I wondered, ‘How much longer am I going to be able to work?’” he said. “That’s the scary thing about this disease.”
In 2009, during one stressful episode of The Next Iron Chef, Seamus experienced a flare so severe that he was wheelchair-bound between scenes. “The producers didn’t know I had RA until it became apparent,” he said. “I thought if I could do the show, it would be an incredible accomplishment for me and an inspiration to others with RA.”
For a while, low-level malaise was more the rule than the exception for Seamus. When his RA flares, he feels it in his right hand, arm, shoulder and ankle, his left knee and hip, and when it’s really bad, in his feet, too, he said.
But Seamus learned to be resourceful. “I try to avoid bending down and reaching inside the refrigerator. I don’t pick up heavy things, like stockpots. If my hand bothers me, I don’t use a knife. I try to do more teaching than hands-on stuff,” he said.
He also tried to work less than 15 hours a day, which wasn’t easy. “When I tell colleagues I have to go home, I can tell sometimes they feel like I am letting them down,” he said. “But I need to be very clear about what I can and can’t do.
“I may look like a completely healthy, got-my-stuff-together young man,” said Seamus, then 38. “But every day is trouble for me when I get out of bed. If you are physically disabled in a way that is visible, it’s easier for people to understand. There is this expectation that I am fine.”
Feeling Better, Giving Back
Since Seamus first spoke with Arthritis Today, his health has improved markedly.
He was taking a biologic drug in addition to a traditional disease-modifying antirheumatic drug and a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication as needed. But in early 2013, he began seeing a doctor who worked closely with him on diet and lifestyle changes, and by the end of that year, he was off all medication for the first time in 11 years.
And he has scored many more successes. After leaving his first restaurant in 2010, he opened a new one on his own in 2011 – Tertulia, in Manhattan’s West Village, showcasing Spanish-inspired dishes. He has since opened three more – El Colmado in Hell’s Kitchen and El Colmado Butchery in the Meatpacking District, both in New York, as well as Sea Containers at Mondrian London.
He also released his cookbook, Seamus Mullen’s Hero Food: How Cooking With Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better (Andrew McMeel Publishing, May 2012).
Seamus is committed to a healthy lifestyle, including a healthful diet and exercise, which he credits in part for improving his RA and his overall health. He bicycles – a lot – riding 45 to 50 miles per day six days per week. “Once I started exercising, I felt better and stronger,” he said.
That’s how he feels when he’s working in the kitchen, too.
“The best part of being a chef is that I get to do what I love,” Seamus said. “Nothing gives me greater gratification than making someone happy through food. I could have been a dentist or lawyer, but those things didn’t satisfy me in the same way it does to cook for someone and see the smile on their face. Giving someone delicious food helps me deal with the physical stress and intensity of the job. While being a chef can be difficult, challenging and painful, it is never a chore.”
Rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t have to keep you out of the kitchen. Here are Seamus’ tips for easy, pain-free cooking:
- Use a cheater to open jars. Seamus swears by Good Grips.
- Get a food processor or a manual vegetable chopper. Instead of slicing and dicing by hand, let the machine do the work.
- Choose large-handled utensils and knives with ergonomic handles for easy gripping.
- Keep appliances on the counter at waist-height instead of in a cabinet below. “That way you don’t have to bend down,” says Seamus.
- Buy lightweight cookware with two handles for easier lifting.
- Carry water to your pot in a light container. It’s easier than filling a metal pot and then hoisting and carrying it to the stove.
- Line roasting pans with foil for easy cleanup.
- Store spices on the counter or in a drawer at hip level instead of in an overhead cabinet.
- Stand on a rubber mat to lessen stress on your feet and legs.
- Keep a stool handy so you can sit when you need to.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Seamus Mullen’s Top Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Chef Seamus Mullen believes food that’s fresh, grown locally, is in season and is free of pesticides and antibiotics can fight inflammation. Here are a few of his favorites:
- Shell beans, both fresh and dried. “They’re an incredible source of protein and omega3s,” he says. “They are also delicious and versatile.”
- Sweet potatoes. “They’re packed with protein and potassium – all sorts of good stuff.”
- Squash. “I love hubbard and kabocha,” he says, including the nutrient-rich skin and seeds.
- Strawberries. Seamus favors berries that are fresh, organic, in season and vine-ripened. Freeze them fresh for year-round eating.
- Green leafy veggies. Kale, collard greens, mustard greens and Brussels sprouts are packed with folic acid.
- Anchovies. These “unsung heroes” are high in omega3s.
- Parsley. “It has incredible flavor and eases inflammation,” says Seamus. When his hands hurt, he drinks parsley juice; he tosses parsley in a juicer and adds lemon juice and apple slices for sweetness.