In America, Thanksgiving is the one day each year where we unabashedly bust out our culinary skills and eat to our heart's content. And celebrity chef Seamus Mullen, owner of Tertulia in New York City, is no exception.
Though he’s creating off-the-charts Spanish cuisine daily in his Manhattan restaurant, this Vermont native—who was a finalist on “The Next Iron Chef” and featured judge on Food Network’s "Chopped"—is as all-American as it gets when it comes to one of his most cherished holidays. Thanks to his experience growing up on his family’s organic farm, Seamus inherently understands and appreciates the value of farm-to-table cooking. He also went to college in Spain where he further developed his passion for food by engrossing himself in the country’s traditional cuisine and food-focused customs. He brought these ideals back to the U.S. where he opened Boqueria, for which he received a coveted two stars from the New York Times.
But despite the chef’s busy schedule and successes in the culinary world, he always makes time for his health. And he has to; in 2007, he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes swelling and loss of function in the joints. He’s keeping the disease in check through medication and a heavy focus on diet, which he chronicles in his new cookbook “Hero Food." We caught up with the super-star chef to see how he’ll be celebrating his day of thanks with some international flair and a focus on healthy eating.
CULTIVATE: What is your favorite Thanksgiving Day memory?
SEAMUS MULLEN: When I was a freshman in college, I spent my first Thanksgiving away from home. My brother was a senior at another college a few hours away, so I took the bus to spend the weekend with him. We cooked together, making a huge feast for all the other collegiate “orphans” who had nowhere else to go. The whole day was spent cooking in my brother’s tiny apartment kitchen where we made roast capon, squash soup, chestnut stuffing, sweet potatoes—the whole nine yards. At that point I wasn't cooking professionally, but I already knew that I loved cooking more than anything else. We cooked and drank questionable wine starting early in the morning, only breaking in the afternoon for full-contact football and leaf fights.
CULTIVATE: Fast forward to today—how to do you like to celebrate the day with guests?
SEAMUS MULLEN: Potluck. I love big gatherings with everyone bringing different dishes, especially when the boundaries of "American" cuisine are stretched to include Chinese, Indian, Mexican, etc. Thanksgiving is about coming together over an abundant table of food and loved ones. I just moved so this year my fiancée and I will celebrate at our new apartment with my brother, his wife and kids, my mom and a few stragglers in need of feeding. Lots of food and fun will no doubt ensue.
CULTIVATE: How do you like to cook your Thanksgiving turkey?
SEAMUS MULLEN: I really like to brine my turkey, which requires making some space in the refrigerator. I usually do this at the restaurant in the walk-in fridge. I like to roast it low and slow in a convection oven so the skin gets nice and dry. Towards the end, I turn up the heat and baste the turkey. That’s how you get a perfect golden bird.
CULTIVATE: If you could spend Thanksgiving anywhere, where would it be?
SEAMUS MULLEN: New York City, baby! I love my town and I love that the streets are vacant on Thanksgiving. It feels like I have the whole city to myself. It’s a perfect day for a long walk in Central Park or a stroll through the Village.
CULTIVATE: Since being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, you've been managing the symptoms through diet. What foods will you be serving this Thanksgiving with RA in mind?
SEAMUS MULLEN: There will definitely be kale and mustard greens in the mix, which are great sources of Vitamins A, K, folate, and other antioxidants, and sweet potato soup with some pan-roasted scallops. In my family, we eschew the turkey for a pasture-raised capon and a heritage ham on the bone. Since I'm cutting gluten out, I'll also be making a cornbread stuffing rather than traditional stuffing. Roasted squash, which is chockfull of antioxidants like beta-carotene, will also find its way onto our table. And dessert will be a baked lady apple with cinnamon ice cream. We plan to stuff ourselves silly just like everyone else, but we like to do so with things that also happen to be healthy.
CULTIVATE: Above and beyond Thanksgiving, what foods do you recommend people try to work into their diets?
SEAMUS MULLEN: There are a lot of wonderful ingredients out there that have great benefits for everybody. I call them my hero foods. Some of my favorites, which I highlight in my cookbook, are olive oil, anchovies, parsley and almonds. Inflammation is at the heart of so many health conditions, not just RA, and these ingredients have powerful anti-inflammatory properties, amongst other benefits. Grass-fed butter is also high on my list of secret power ingredients. Butter gets a bad rap, but grass-fed butter is good for you. It has all sorts of important nutrients, including Vitamins A, D, E, and K, beta-carotene, antioxidants, and is a balanced source of Omega 3 and 6.
CULTIVATE: How has your love for Spanish cooking influenced your options for incorporating these anti-inflammatory ingredients into amazing recipes that the general population will enjoy?
SEAMUS MULLEN: Fortunately, it’s a natural extension of what I already do. As it so happens, the Mediterranean diet is already full of the things I should be eating lots of, like olive oil, anchovies, fish, beans, whole grains, nuts, etc., so I have a lot of experience working with these ingredients. I think people are still apprehensive about cooking with some of these things, like beans or anchovies, but what I hope to achieve with “Hero Food” is to show that these ingredients are easy to cook with and delicious to boot.
Seamus' book; available at: BarnesandNobel.com, $20