Chef Seamus Mullen on Finding Health (and Joy!) in the Kitchen

The Spanish chef shares tips and a recipe from his book, Real Food Heals.

Staying healthy is a notoriously tough task for any chef. After all, the demanding hours, late nights and body-punishing work that come with working in a kitchen aren't exactly conducive to a balanced lifestyle. (Never mind the constant need to do "quality control" by tasting all those decadent restaurant dishes.)

But for Seamus Mullen, chef of Tertulia and El Colmado Spanish restaurants in New York City, being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis — a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease — in his early 30's took his struggle for good health to crisis mode. While he followed all the recommended treatments for RA, he still felt sick and miserable. "I was seventy pounds overweight," says Mullen. "I would wake up in the middle of the night completely soaked in sweat, and I needed a lot of medication to soldier through every day. Plus my feet were so inflamed, I was in pain from the moment they hit the floor every morning." He "shuffled around like an old man," and eventually had to stop wearing shirts with buttons and shoes with laces because he couldn't manage them on his own.

After a near-deadly infection landed him in the I.C.U., Mullen had a realization. "My options were to change my life, or not live very long." And so change his life he did…dramatically. Mullen prioritized his fitness and wellbeing, and drastically changed his diet with the help of renowned integrative medicine expert, Dr. Frank Lipman.  Together, they rid his diet of processed foods, grains, refined sugars, dairy and factory-farmed meats, and ramped up his intake of vegetables, high-quality fats, wild fish and foods that support a healthy microbiome. He ate meat sparingly, and when he did, it was good-quality, pastured meat.

"Six months later, I swung my feet off the bed, walked down the stairs…and didn't feel pain," says Mullen. "It was like I'd been watching a movie in black and white, and then switched to Technicolor."

Mullen credits his revised diet as the biggest factor in turning his health around. And ten years into cooking with wellness in mind, he's sharing his learnings in Real Food Heals. The cookbook and health manifesto has 125 nourishing, Paleo-inspired recipes centered on eggs, veggies and quality fish and meats, plus snacks and tonics made with fruits and herbs. Every single recipe is beautiful and "chefy" enough to be Instagram-worthy, yet is easy to make at home.  

In the book, the chef also shares his eight simple tenets of eating right, including "pursue joy in the kitchen." Why is being joyful important? "When we lose our sense of joy, cooking becomes a chore, and we create an antagonistic relationship between ourselves and food," he says.

Another tenet is "forget metrics." Mullen feels counting calories is also counter-effective to a good relationship with food. Why? "First, it's important to recognize that not all calories are created equal," he explains. "Also, if you look back, we never got into trouble as a society weight-wise until we started counting calories. It's a broken system that sets us up for failure." Instead, chef Mullen gauges his health through other barometers: "Much better metrics are how fast you can run a mile, beating your old record deadlifting weights, or your smile in the mirror."

Zucchini Noodles with Garlic Scape Pesto

Serves 2

Barely cooked zucchini noodles taste almost like al dente pasta. Their subtlety benefits from a punchy pesto, salty cheese, and aromatic dill.


Kosher salt

2 medium zucchini, spiralized into spaghetti-like noodles, or julienned lengthwise

1/4 cup Garlic Scape and Pistachio Pesto (see below)

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon dill leaves

1/8 teaspoon Jacobsen flake finishing sea salt

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil


Bring a large saucepan of generously salted water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with generously salted water and ice. Drop the zucchini into the boiling water, let it sit for 5 seconds, and transfer to the ice water. When cold, lift it into a salad spinner. Spin dry.

Put the noodles in a large bowl and drizzle the pesto on top. Gently toss with chopsticks until the noodles are evenly coated.

Divide between two serving plates. Grate Parmesan on top, then scatter with dill and finishing sea salt. Drizzle with olive oil and serve immediately.

Garlic Scape and Pistachio Pesto

Yields 1 cup

1 small bunch garlic scapes, tops and tough bottoms trimmed

1/3 cup shelled unsalted pistachios

3 tablespoons packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

3 tablespoons packed fresh mint leaves

3 tablespoons packed fresh dill

Zest and juice of 2 lemons

9 small anchovy fillets

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Fill a bowl with ice and water. Cut the stalks of the garlic scapes into 2-inch lengths. Add to the boiling water and cook until bright green, about 30 seconds. Drain and immediately transfer to the ice water. When cool, drain again. Dry in a salad spinner or by patting with paper towels.

In a small skillet, toast the pistachios over high heat, shaking the pan often to prevent the nuts from burning, until golden brown and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Let cool completely.

In a food processor or blender, combine the blanched scapes, parsley, mint, dill, lemon zest, lemon juice, anchovies, olive oil, and a pinch of pepper. Puree until smooth, scraping the bowl occasionally. Add the pistachios and pulse until the nuts are very finely chopped. Season with salt.

Serves: 2; Calories: 248; Total Fat: 20 grams; Saturated Fat: 4 grams; Protein: 9 grams; Total carbohydrates: 10 grams; Sugar: 6 grams; Fiber: 3 grams; Cholesterol: 14 milligrams; Sodium: 692 milligrams

Recipe adapted from Real Food Heals by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2017, Seamus Mullen

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