Five years ago, Seamus Mullen, the energetic 42-year-old James Beard Award-nominated chef of Tertulia and El Comado in New York City, was sick—really sick. Every morning went like this: he sat up in bed and let his feet dangle over the edge for 10 minutes to let the swelling in his hands and feet subside. Then he stood up and hobbled to a lounge chair where he sat for another 15 minutes before hobbling to the shower. Sometimes his hands were too swollen to button his shirt. He wore slip-on clogs because it hurt too much to tie his shoes. This was devastating for a Vermont kid who was a mountain bike racer through his early 20s.
Mullen has rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease in which his immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in his joints. Despite taking a cocktail of medications—injectables, chemotherapy drugs, painkillers, you name it—and getting monthly blood transfusions, that painful morning routine was still his day-to-day reality. For eight years.
On top of all this, he was frequently in and out of the hospital. Some of the medications he took suppress the immune system, leaving him more susceptible to other illnesses. After bacterial meningitis landed him in the hospital for two weeks, he decided that something had to give.
"There's a really amazing Buddhist proverb that goes: when you're ready for a teacher, he appears," Mullen says. For Mullen, that person is Frank Lipman, M.D. He practices functional medicine, which combines Western medicine with other complementary treatments, at Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City. After running a battery of tests, Lipman suggested an imbalance in Mullen's gut bacteria was contributing to his sickness and started him down a path to heal it.
It wasn't easy. Mullen's regimen included conventional medicine, supplements, herbs, yoga, meditation and acupuncture. He slept more. But the biggest change was his diet. Mullen loaded up on foods to feed the good bacteria in his gut
, especially lots of fibrous vegetables and dark leafy greens. "The stuff that we don't break down goes into our large intestine and those good little bugs that live down there have a frickin' party on that stuff," he said. Lipman also instructed him to eliminate alcohol, gluten, grains and sugar and limit dairy—a way of eating that not all health professionals agree with but one that Lipman believes works for some people.
Six months later, Mullen climbed out of bed and walked down the circular staircase in his Brooklyn apartment. Halfway down the stairs, he realized he wasn't in pain. "Everything in the world went from black-and-white to color," he said. The first thing he did? Pumped up the tires on his old bike. "I rode six miles. I was fat and out of shape and exhausted but I had a shit-eating grin the whole time," Mullen said.
Mullen has been asymptomatic for four years now. He says his markers for rheumatoid arthritis are now negative. Today he's as much a cyclist as he is a chef. He's tackled about 30 cycling races in the past three years, including La Ruta de los Conquistadores in Costa Rica, a grueling 161-mile mountain bike race. And he has no plans to stop cooking or cycling. Recently he's teamed up with the charity No Kid Hungry to help create a program called Chefs Cycle, bringing together food and fitness to raise money to end childhood hunger in America.
For a chef like Mullen, eating more vegetables isn't about depriving yourself. This recipe for Sugar Snap Pea Salad makes vegetables exciting. "As soon as sugar snap peas show up at the farmers' market, I'm instantly happy," he says. "Sweet, crisp, snappy and sugary! This salad is all about the sugar snaps, plus a little Aleppo pepper for some heat, some creamy sheep- or goat's-milk cheese for richness and edible flowers for color. It's gorgeous, delicious and really tough not to love."
Seamus Mullen's next book is Real Food Heals: Eat to Feel Younger and Stronger Every Day (Avery, Aug. 2017).