August 12, 2016

Seamus Mullen is an award-winning New York chef, restaurateur and cookbook author known for his inventive yet approachable Spanish cuisine, and a leading authority on health and wellness.

Seamus opened his first solo restaurant Tertulia in Manhattan in 2011, which was awarded two stars from The New York Times and a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant.

In 2013, he opened El Colmado, a Spanish tapas and wine bar at Gotham West Market, a food hall in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. He has been named a semi-finalist for Best Chef NYC by the James Beard Foundation 3 years in a row.

An avid cyclist who raced competitively in his twenties, he was diagnosed in 2007 with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that forced him to rethink his relationship with food, and led to his first cookbook Hero Food, published in 2012.

Through food, exercise and lifestyle changes, Seamus was able to successfully turn his health around. He shares his story through numerous speaking engagements around the country, and has been featured in major publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Chicago-Tribune, and The Guardian. He has written about his experience for The New York Times and through his bimonthly column in Men’s Journal.

As a testament to his newly reclaimed health, in November 2014 he raced in La Ruta de Los Conquistadores, one of the most challenging mountain bike races in the world and is currently making a documentary about his journey called “Back on the Bike.”

Growing up on an organic farm in Vermont, Seamus learned from a young age the value of eating real, whole foods. After cooking throughout Spain, New York and San Francisco, Seamus first rose to national prominence in 2006 with Boqueria, one of the first critically acclaimed and highly successful Spanish restaurants in New York. In 2009, he was one of 3 finalists on the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef.” He can often be seen as a featured judge on the popular Food Network series “Chopped” and “Beat Bobby Flay,” and is a frequent guest on programs such as The Today Show, The Martha Stewart Show, and CBS This Morning. We chat with him on the intersection of cycling and cooking.

Your story is a study in extremes and it seems that after ups and downs of health and the intensity of being a well known chef, the bike has lent you balance. Is that right? How do you organize cycling within your life?

Cycling has been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up riding in Vermont, racing in my late teens and early twenties and then I was forced to give up riding when I got sick with, Rheumatoid Arthritis. I was sick for years and just came to accept that I would never ride again. After literally going through hell and hitting rock bottom with my health, I was extremely lucky to meet Dr. Frank Lipman who turned me on to Functional Medicine and the notion that I could in fact effect positive change in my own health. It took a few years, but through lifestyle and dietary changes, I started to see improvement in my health and one day I woke up without the chronic pain in my body I had come to accept. I did what any cyclist who had been forced to abandon the bike for years would do: I pumped up my tires and went for a (very short) ride. Over the next few weeks as my health improved, I continued to ride every day. I’ve been back on the bike for nearly 5 years now and I can’t imagine my life without bicycles. I commute by bike, logging an average of 80 miles a week on my town bike and I try to ride 5-6 days a week on the road or on my mountain bike. Its become a non-negotiable part of my daily life- If I don’t ride, there is a major void in my day. Riding was my first independence and has become my untouchable escape.

There's a blend of self indulgence and asceticism in both cycling and cooking. In your work, how do you keep disciplined without loosing the soul, the fun of your work. What is a good marker for creativity as a cook? When you were researching a push into healthier cooking, how did you balance that with what tastes, feels and looks good?

We eat with our eyes first. What we eat should be pleasing visually, but when the the palette trumps the palate, we’re in trouble. Creativity in cooking is a tricky subject- I don’t think of chefs as artists, though there is art to what we do, we are first and foremost artisans or craftsmen. That said, the marriage of new ideas, techniques and flavors is what pushes our craft forward. For me, the basic tenant is that it must be both nourishing for the mind and nourishing for the body. The two should never be mutually exclusive and should always go hand in hand. As I’ve gone deeper down the rabbit hole of nourishing food, I feel more and more with conviction that for it to be truly nourishing, it must also be crave-ably delicious. In that sense there is no real balance, it simply IS.

Similar question for cycling: you've found the extreme ends of the sport, racing La Ruta, riding big rides and making big efforts. Those are sharp, often unpleasant rides, especially for a guy that has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis - Where does the joy fit into it for you and what are some of the tastiest parts of riding amidst the low simmer of big efforts (if you'll pardon the puns)?

Even in the biggest rides, the slow simmer is a challenge. I recently rode up Mount Vountoux in Provence, chasing Romain Bardet up the first 7KM and then I had to remind myself that there was a lot of climbing still to do and while the suffer would come no matter what, it was best to be smart about it. My mantra on nasty long bits like that is always: “Settle and Pedal.” I have lots of little mind tricks I use to get over the big efforts, but the one that has always helped me most in my life, was something my grandfather’s best friend, Tatsuo, taught me when I was young. Tatsuo was a bonsai master and zen gardener. I remember once seeing up gardening on his hands and knees, working backwards and when I asked him why he went backwards, he told me: “I can only see all of what I have accomplished and none of the daunting task ahead.” That was one of the most important life lessons I’ve ever been taught and I apply it to so many aspects of my life- cycling being no different. There is so much joy and celebration in accomplishing seemingly insurmountable obstacles and I find that to be incredibly motivating. Even the suffering is joyful!

You've been lauded for cooking health into your own life. What advice would you give to cyclists looking to eat well, live and ride better? Related: what foods do you take with you when you ride? 

This is a big can of worms!!! Well….first and foremost I think we (as in Americans in general) eat far too many refined carbs. My first suggestion to any serious athlete is to look into and experiment with a low-carb, high fat diet. In the adjustment/adaptation period, it’s important not to workout too hard, but once you become what’s called “fat adaptive” (meaning your metabolism is keyed into burning body fat rather than depending upon glucose), you need much less fuel on the bike. I typically only eat slow burning carbs before I ride…on the bike I eat mostly almond butter mixed with coconut oil. On an epic long ride, I’ll take whole foods with me like beef jerky and even the occasional can of sardines! Unless I’m riding more than 3-4 hours, I generally don’t need to eat much. Anything with sugar (dried fruit, etc) I save for the last hour of the ride. Wayside stop? Hmmm……i’ll have a bite or two if we stop on a long ride….and if it’s really hot, I’ll even have some salt and vinegar potato chips (egads!!!! I know it’s not healthy, but I’m only human!) After long rides hot rides, I always have some chilled pickle juice in the fridge to stave away any potential cramps. To the non-cyclst pickle juice may sound like the most disgusting thing to drink, but I assure you if you’ve sweat as much as we do on the bike in the Summer, cold pickle juice is a magical elixir after a ride.

What's next for you on the bike? Where would you like to ride but haven’t?

Let’s see….later this month I’m doing the D2R2 in Massachusetts….it’s 180KM mostly on gravel with a lot (like 15,000 feet I believe) of climbing. That should be fun. Fun’ish. In September I have a few things coming up, a gravel grinder in Oregon and a 7 day trip through the Stelvio and the Dolomites with Duvine I actually think there is still one or two spots left if anyone wants to join me. It’s going to be an epic ride on some of the most incredible roads in the world. Where would I like to ride? So many places!!! I’m dying to get back to Japan- I’ve never ridden there, but the countryside is so gorgeous and I can imagine it would be an amazing place to ride. I also really want to do the Trans-Andes race in Chile, it’s supposed to be otherworldly.

Thanks Seamus!

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