Seamus Mullen is an award-winning New York chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author. He is known for his innovative approach to modern Spanish cuisine, and for being one of the leading chefs in the country. His first solo restaurant, Tertulia, has been highly acclaimed by top food critics and was a finalist for one of the industry’s highest honors, the James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant. He has recently released his first cookbook “Hero Food: How Cooking with Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better,” which discusses 18 key ingredients that improved his quality of life.
What made you want to be a chef?
I had loved cooking ever since I was a kid. When I was 21 years old and didn’t know what I wanted to do, my grandmother said to me, “You should cook. It is what makes you happiest and it is a beautiful thing to feed other people.” Then it finally clicked and my career path became very clear. Since that decision I haven’t thought about doing anything else.
Do you have a mentor or chef who particularly inspired you?
I have a lot of mentors, the first person being my grandmother, who taught me how to cook. But I have learned from so many different people along the line and have so many people that I look up to. The most influential in my own cooking is the owner chef of Alkimia in Barcelona, Jordi Vilà.
What about cooking keeps you in this industry?
One of the things I love about cooking is that its the perfect marriage of art and science. I don’t think of us chefs as artists at all, I think of us as artisans. We’re more like craftsmen. You need to understand the principles of cooking which is the science aspect, but you have to be able to interpret, to react, and to create which is the artistic side of it. As a cook it is really important to always get better at what you do. It’s a part of why I’m so fascinated with Japanese culture. There is a sense of integrity and desire to improve regardless of what you are doing. There are signs throughout the kitchen here that say, “The best way out is through,” “taste taste taste,” and “Is this dish as good as it could be?” It is good to always remind ourselves that we want to strive to make each dish better than the last dish and strive for excellence.
What is one of your favorite things about the hospitality industry?
One of the wonderful things in our industry is that we are very supportive of each other. You would think that we would be very competitive, but there have been so many chefs who have been generous about sharing their knowledge and their experience. We always learn from each other.
What do you think of the importance of having cooking experience in foreign countries?
I remember a quote from what Chef Michael White, the owner chef of Altamarea Group, in regards to the all of the Italian restaurants opening up. He said “go to Italy, work for seven years, wash your clothes in a bucket, sleep in a room with twenty other cooks, and then come back here. Pay your dues and really work.” I understand that not everybody could do that, but regardless of what country you are cooking in, it gives you a new perspective on how you cook. Certainly, for me cooking in Spain has taught taught me discipline, hard work, respect for ingredients, and tradition, which is what is hard about this country. Because we are a very young country, instead of having one tradition we have many different traditions, but they tend to not be as deeply rooted as other cuisines. Spain, France, Italy, Japan and China have very old cuisines. Learning from very old cuisines and immersing yourself in it from the outside is an invaluable experience.
What do your knives mean to you?
The best advice I could give is to buy the best quality knife that you can afford, because if you take care of your knife, it will take care of you. I see kids in culinary school and they get these big kits with all of these different knives, but you only need a few.
What is your most nostalgic dish?
The first dish I ever cooked was taught to me by my grandmother when I was 6 years old. It was a trout in browned butter with capers and lemons, and that still is a very nostalgic dish. Another dish my grandmother always cooked was braised chicken. She would take chicken legs and braise them in white wine with artichokes, carrots, and celery. That is still my favorite comfort food.
What’s your philosophy towards hospitality?
It starts with respect. Have respect for the ingredients, the process, the guests, the team, and the experience. Try to be humble, but also try to be excellent. Try not to say no and to accommodate people. There will always be times when you have difficult guests and it may not be necessarily rewarding, but you will have other guests that are very rewarding to make up for it. Always treat guests with reverence, because they are here for you to take care of them. Remember that people have a choice to dine in many many restaurants and they made a decision to come into your restaurant.
What is your goal for your profession?
To improve as a cook and grow my business by opening new restaurants and creating new opportunities for the guys in the kitchen and the front of the house. I want them to be challenged and to be successful.
What is your advice for aspiring chefs?
Work with as many chefs as you can and when you have time off go stage in other kitchens. Even if you are a line cook in a restaurant, start thinking about how you would cook if you were in your own restaurant, then start writing dishes and menus. If there is something you don’t know how to do because you are not in charge of that particular station, come in early and ask if you can help. Take every opportunity at work as a chance to learn and get better.