In his kitchen, chef Seamus Mullen is cutting up avocados as he recalls a time when it felt like he was the one getting sliced.
“Initially, I just felt like my whole body was achy. It went from that to acute attacks, like having a knife stabbed in my shoulder. Then I would get a pain that felt like there was a nail going through my joint. I had no idea what was going on.”
He tried his best to work through the pain, chalking it up to exhaustion from long hours in the kitchen. For a new chef trying to break into the industry, 16-hour work shifts and 90-hour weeks were the norm.
“It was really brutal, but that’s sort of how you cut your teeth and learned how to become a professional chef. We worked hard. Unfortunately, we didn’t necessarily work smart.”
But the hard work was paying off. Mullen’s star was heating up in the culinary world. Outside of his restaurant work, he began appearing on shows like “The Next Iron Chef” and “Chopped.” He didn’t have time for the mysterious pains to derail his career.
The long hours and physical labor, however, began taking a bigger toll on Mullen’s health. He was gaining weight and suffering more acute attacks as the chronic pain spread across his body.
Then, one morning, he woke up with hip pain so bad, he couldn’t move. A trip to the ER and an MRI revealed that his hip was full of fluid. Mullen was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease.
“I, like many people, thought arthritis was a disease or an affliction of the elderly. That was shocking to learn that it was a debilitating disease that would have a long-term, permanent impact on my life and my well-being. It was really scary.”
Fearing that his disease could leave him in a wheelchair or with hands no longer able to cook, Mullen was up against the wall.
“I had to make a choice about whether I was going to just accept being a sick person or if I was going to crawl my way out of this somehow. I made a promise to myself that I was going to change my life. I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I was going to take control of my health.”
So Mullen began cooking up ways to improve his health, starting with his diet.
“I came from a professional background of knowing how to make food really delicious, but I didn’t really know what happened to that food. So many of the foods that I was eating were having an inflammatory impact on my body.”
Mullen stopped eating processed foods and any foods known to be inflammatory. With everything he ate, he would ask, “is this helping me or harming me?”
The ones that helped, he labeled “hero foods.”
On the day of this interview, Mullen let CNN film him making lunch: a small plate of hard-boiled eggs and a salad of kohlrabi, radish, cucumber, shallot, avocado, anchovies and extra virgin olive oil.
“It’s a simple salad that’s really tasty and full of great stuff. Healthy fats from the extra virgin olive oil and anchovies as well as the omega-3s and tons of vegetables.”
Though these foods check the “hero” mark, he points out that everyone should find the right mix of food that works for them.
“For me, it might be avocados; for someone else, it might be almonds. I think it’s really important for everyone to start to understand the foods that make them feel really good.”
The change has been dramatic.
There was a time when even getting out of bed was a challenge for Mullen. He’s now pain-free and practices yoga, lifts weights, bikes and cooks without fearing an arthritic attack.
“I’m glad that I got sick. I’m glad that I went through this really difficult and horrific period of my life, because I came out of it with a greater sense of purpose.”
He’s now trying to be a hero for others with similar pain. In his cookbooks, “Real Food Heals” and “Hero Food,” Mullen shares ways he’s rediscovered his joy of cooking and eating.
“It’s very important to remember that you can eat really well for health and at the same time eat well for pleasure, indulgence and joy.”