Photo Courtesy of Seamus Mullen
Anyone who knows me knows that I love food- cooking it, eating it, or watching shows about cooking it and eating it. If it has to do with food, chances are I’m going to enjoy it, so you can imagine my delight when Seamus Mullen, the talented chef from my favorite restaurant in New York City, appeared as a contestant battling it out on season two of the grueling Food Network show, The Next Iron Chef America.
What made his participation on this show extra meaningful to me was the fact that Seamus has rheumatoid arthritis. I watched eagerly week after week as he succeeded at each of the cooking challenges on the show, knowing the additional challenges he must also overcome from RA in order to make it through to the next week. It felt exciting and inspiring to see someone with RA on TV, and as the season wore on, he spoke about the difficulties of rheumatoid arthritis on the show.
That was back in 2009; these days, Seamus is working on some very exciting projects of his own, and I was lucky enough to catch up with him to talk about his experiences with RA in a job that can be very unforgiving and find out his views on food and rheumatoid arthritis.
Like many of us, Seamus didn’t have a clue about RA when he was diagnosed with it in 2007 after an excruciating flare up in his left hip landed him in the hospital for days. Unable to figure out what was causing ‘the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life,’ as Seamus put it, the doctors were at first clueless as to what was going on; they even suggested that Seamus was making up the pain since there were no outward signs of trauma. But when he collapsed after they tried to make him walk, it became evident that he wasn’t exaggerating and that something was severely wrong. Finally, after several misdiagnoses, his doctor finally figured out the culprit was RA- and not a moment too soon since Seamus had been scheduled to go under the knife.
All of this coincided with a big break in his career as one of New York City’s up-and-coming chefs, so when Seamus learned he had rheumatoid arthritis – and learned what that might mean – he worried he was not going to be able to cook, that he would land in a wheelchair and wouldn’t be able to do his job.
Never one to walk (or limp) away from a challenge, Seamus persevered. His career continued to flourish even as he struggled to get his RA under control. A combination of hydroxychloroquine and naproxen helped, but he still suffered from some of the hallmarks of the disease: a general feeling of malaise, overall achiness, morning stiffness, and fatigue. Getting onto a biologic meant a battle with his insurance company, but eventually, he was able to start one and felt ‘immediately better.’ Unfortunately, the relief didn’t last, so prednisone was recently added to the mix to help manage the symptoms and flares he continues to have.
The ups and downs of the disease and the permanent damage Seamus has sustained, particularly in one of his shoulders, has meant that he’s had to adapt. In the kitchen, he tries to keep moving as much as possible and has learned to delegate. He uses tools like a mandolin instead of a knife for slicing and keeps what he needs at waist-level to cut down on reaching for pots and pans.
Still, Seamus revealed that one of the hardest parts about RA in a physically intensive job is that he looks perfectly fine, so to some, he seems lazy. ‘Even open-minded people will forget,’ he says, but ‘the body absorbs all of these little discomforts. It zaps a tremendous amount of energy to cope with the pain,’ he adds. ‘It’s exhausting – emotionally exhausting.’
Not that that has kept Seamus from aggressively tackling some big opportunities such as competing on Next Iron Chef America. Though he knew it would be tough on him, Seamus hoped he could be an inspiration. ‘You don’t have to give up your dreams. It might be more difficult, but you don’t have to give up hope’ he said. Plus, he saw this as an opportunity to give people watching the show who don’t have RA an idea of what it’s like to live with the disease.
And that’s just what he did; viewers of the show could see the physical toll the demanding challenges took on him. While Seamus didn’t talk much about his RA at first, his condition began to deteriorate, making his physical struggles more and more obvious. ‘I was having chronic flare ups towards the end,’ he revealed. ‘The last three days, I was in a wheelchair between filming.’ In fact, he was in so much pain that he had to get a shot before one of the final cooking battles that took place in Tokyo.
After the show wrapped, Seamus returned to his life in New York City to recuperate and begin a new chapter in his career. Seamus parted ways with his two restaurants and decided to write a book that would pair his passion for food with his experiences with RA. While there are plenty of books out there that talk about the benefits of some foods on inflammatory conditions, many of them can come off as preachy or overly prescriptive – telling people what to do, how to live, or that they must cut certain foods out entirely. Seamus realized there was a real opportunity to tell a story in the form of a book that would focus on foods he loved that can have a positive impact on health but, more importantly, a book that would also provide delicious ways to integrate those foods into your diet.
He’s careful to note that the book won’t be a recipe for treating RA. Seamus shared that it’s ‘much more about delicious things to cook that can be good for inflammation, that are healthy by the nature of what they are and the quality of the ingredient.’ He goes on to say that ‘as a responsible consumer, all of these things we should be doing also coincide with what we should be doing to take care of ourselves.’
Seamus refers to some of these foods, such as kale and parsley, as ‘hero’ foods, in part because of their nourishing qualities nutritionally, but also emotionally. He notes that ‘emotional wellbeing has a lot to do with our ability to deal with a disease. If we eat something delicious, we are preparing our body to better fight off disease. Celebrating with food and friends is really fulfilling, and it goes a long way to helping direct that energy away from depression and into wellbeing.’
All of this sounds pretty delicious to me and mirrors many of my own feelings about food, overall wellbeing, and life with a chronic disease like rheumatoid arthritis. For now, Seamus is busy finishing up his book and has a few other exciting projects in the works, so we can be sure that he’ll continue to be an inspiration as he spreads the word about rheumatoid arthritis one tasty dish at a time.
To tide us over until his book is released, Seamus has shared one his favorite ‘hero food’ recipes for all of us to enjoy!
Crispy Tuscan Kale on the Grill
courtesy of Seamus Mullen
Makes one healthy stack of crispy kale
1 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 bunches Tuscan kale, washed and spun dry
Zest and juice of a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the grill. In a large mixing bowl, combine the olive oil, garlic, vinegar, zest and juice of lemon, and kale. Season with salt and pepper, and gently toss until kale is evenly coated. Carefully lay the kale side-by-side in a single layer on top of the grill, and grill until crispy, about 2 minutes. Turn over and grill on the other side for another 1–2 minutes.
Pile in a big stack on a large plate or cutting board and serve immediately.
To find out more about Chef Seamus Mullen, visit seamusmullen.com.
Sara is the author of the blog The Single Gal's Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis.