Seamus Mullen may be one of the only chef in New York City who went to Spain and did not come back with delusions of modernist grandeur. “I’m so disgusted by the whole idea of deconstructing things; if it’s good, why would you try to take it apart and present it in its elements? It just annoys me.”
He did the grand tour, alright, with stints in the kitchens of Mugaritz, in Michelin-swagged-out San Sebastián, and at Àbac and Alkimia in Barcelona, but what he took away from those two years was an almost old-fashioned respect for ingredients and classic technique. “It was exciting—particularly because I was a lot younger—seeing new techniques that everyone’s writing about, but I really fell in love with real cooking: making stocks and braises and really good roasts. I remember at the height of it, when people were serving food with pipettes and bags of aroma that you were supposed to smell when you took a bite and all that horse crap, I knew that pretty soon the next trend was going to be, like, who could make the best risotto. The pendulum always swings back and forth.”
That seeds of that skepticism may have been planted during his first trip to the country 20 years earlier, when he was a high school student still wrapping his head around the idea of quail’s eggs and ElBulli was just a madman’s hideout in the hills, not yet an international status symbol. Or maybe he developed it because, as a farm kid in Vermont, he grew up with a pragmatist’s view of food and its origins. It wasn’t until a post-collegiate trip to Sonoma and some well-timed drunken advice that Mullen ever considered cooking could be a career, rather than a dead-end job. “I didn’t want to finish my degree, I didn’t want to be an academic. I was lost and confused about what I did want to do. My grandmother and I spent four or five days driving around Sonoma, getting totally wasted and eating, and she was like, ‘Listen, you should just cook, because that’s what makes you happiest. You’ve got to do something for the rest of your life, you’ve got to make a living, and you can make a living cooking.’”
So he did—first in San Francisco and New York, then back in Spain, where he returned to chase the flavors he’d fallen in love with as a student. On his return he put that knowledge to use, opening Boqueria in the model of the classic tapas bars of Barcelona, then Tertulia, which transplants the cider halls of Asturias to the West Village. His cooking today continues to wrestle with those classic ideas, deploying an ever-evolving variation on themes that focuses on incorporating new techniques and influences while still tasting unmistakably true to its roots.
Here, the chef relives the experiences that continue to drive him forward, from a friendship with O.G. sushi chef Eiji Ichimura, to snacks at a Spanish Communist Party clubhouse.