How a famed chef's Vermont roots saved his life

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STRATTON — Seamus Mullen can tell you how he went from hating the bumps of growing up on a small Vermont farm ("try skateboarding on a dirt road") to hitting it big as an award-winning New York chef, restaurateur and cookbook author.

And how, near death five years ago with a 106-degree "brain-boiling" fever, the rocket ride struck back.

The 43-year-old Vershire native, raised on an organic, off-the-grid farm, can boast to opening a string of high-profile restaurants frequented by the likes of Beyonc and Jay-Z. But he fueled that success with enough 90-hour workweeks to cause a neighbor to call 911 after hearing him scream from the stabbing pain of rheumatoid arthritis.

"By the time I got to the hospital," the chef recalls, "it was clear that something had to change."

And so Mullen, returning to his home state over the weekend for the annual Wanderlust wellness festival at Stratton Mountain Resort, is sharing his story of personal and professional transformation.

"I had to take lessons from my childhood," he says, "and apply them to my adulthood."

Mullen usually names his home as Vermont rather than Vershire, population 730, only because he figures no one has heard of the tiny Orange County town where his grandmother — schooled in culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu yet skilled in the rough-and-tumble raising, butchering and preparing of meat — taught him how to panfry the brook trout he caught in the Ompompanoosuc River.

"It's bucolic and romantic," he says of farming, "but it's a tough existence."

Mullen escaped to Spain and San Francisco before rising to national prominence in 2006 as a partner at Manhattan's Boqueria restaurants. Soon the man the Village Voice deemed a "heartthrob" (while asking him about sexism) was a finalist on the Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef," a featured judge on the channel's "Chopped: Beat Bobby Flay," and a frequent guest on the Today and Martha Stewart shows.

Mullen opened his first solo restaurant, Tertulia, in 2011 and won two stars from the New York Times, whose review lavished praise on the "bearish young Vermont-raised chef with a sleeve of tattoos" seen serving Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow. (The James Beard Foundation, for its part, named Mullen a semi-finalist three years in a row for its title of the city's best chef.)

Mullen played as hard as he worked. He recalls the van that hit him while he was motorcycling over the Brooklyn Bridge and the vampire bat that bit him while he was hiking the jungles of Venezuela.

Then came the eating and drinking, causing the onetime competitive cyclist to feel his immune system and body balloon with pain.

"I made a commitment to myself to fight," he recalls of his resulting hospitalizations. "I decided I would no longer be a sick person."

Reading books by journalist Michael Pollan and nutritionist Marion Nestle, Mullen saw how the inflammation behind his rheumatoid arthritis could also drive such ailments as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

"I came to believe that food had made me ill — but food could also heal me."

Mullen published his first book, "Hero Food: How Cooking with Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better," in 2012 and is set to release his second, "Real Food Heals: Eat to Feel Younger and Stronger Every Day" in August.

He summarizes their lessons in three quotes:

1. "Eat foods that provide us with all the nourishment our bodies need": Citing favorites such as olive oil, parsley, garlic, almonds, stone fruits and small, oily fish such as sardines and anchovies, Mullen advises cooking with seasonal ingredients, favoring vegetables over proteins, increasing healthy fats and decreasing refined sugar, simple carbohydrates and processed food.

2. "Move every day": Getting back on his bicycle, Mullen lost some 70 pounds and raced in the 161-mile, five-mountain range La Ruta de los Conquistadores, billed as "Costa Rica's premier mountain bike race and one of the most difficult athletic events on the planet." That said, he's also happy to stay in place and, as he demonstrated in Stratton, stretch on a yoga mat.

3. "Recover from an active life": Simply put, Mullen now regularly stops and sleeps, too.

"Part of fighting inflammation," he says, "is joy versus stress."

That's why the chef would rather present options (including dessert) than preach obligations.

"Celebrate food rather than think of it as just fuel."

Writing on his website seamusmullen.com, the chef is clear he required help from physicians, prescriptions and patience to regain his health. But he has learned he's ultimately responsible for his own well-being.

"This journey didn't happen overnight, but then again, neither did my illness," he says. "I kind of had to go backward. My grandmother believed 'you are what you eat,' but a lot of the modern things we've come to crave are very toxic. When I say real food heals, I really mean it."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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