Talking Sustainable Meat with Chef Seamus Mullen
Seamus Mullen is an award-winning local chef, and owner of Tertulia, and El Colmado, a tapas and wine bar at Gotham West Market. Chef Seamus is known for coupling an inventive approach to Spanish cooking with a passion for high-quality ingredients. His 2012 cookbook, "Hero Food," documents his journey living with Rheumatoid Arthritis and how changing his diet has helped him manage his symptoms in a holistic way. Read on to learn more about his take on healthy eating and quality ingredients.
Tell us about your unique journey with food and healing.When I was growing up in rural Vermont, we lived on a small farm where we grew our own vegetables and baked our own bread - we had real, whole foods. I had very little exposure to industrial food until my teens when I went to boarding school. When I was 16, there was an outbreak of salmonella, and I got very sick. In retrospect, I don’t think my body ever truly recovered from that. Over time, my personal relationship with food was going downhill without my realizing it. I would get sick over and over again, and eventually was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, an incurable autoimmune disease that I believe was brought on by a series of infections from garbage food. I lived with chronic pain for a long time until I met a new doctor a few years ago, who encouraged me to make changes in my diet and lifestyle, and embrace real, whole foods again. I eliminated alcohol, gluten and processed sugar from my diet, and embraced good fats, vegetables and meat. Eventually, my body was able to heal itself.
As a chef and restaurant owner, what role does the source of your ingredients play in your food? I can’t make good food without good ingredients, period. And good ingredients come from good sources. Wherever possible, we try to buy from local or regional farms and purveyors - we want to support local farmers, but also the ingredients just taste better. As a chef, of course I only want to use the best quality ingredients that are in season. But I am also running a business, so sometimes it can be a tricky dance figuring out the right combination of quality ingredients, availability, and price.
How do animal proteins fit into your personal diet today? Animal proteins are a very important part of my diet. Good quality meat is an excellent source of good fats and proteins that we need in order to function efficiently; but we don’t need lots of it. It’s definitely a matter of quality over quantity. Typically, I might have some bacon with my eggs in the morning, a hearty salad for lunch topped with grilled skirt steak, and braised chicken with lots of vegetables for dinner.
In your own words, why is it important to educate people about sustainable meat? I think people need to better understand the negative impacts of raising industrial meat, from environmental and health standpoints, both ours and the animals’. Industrial farming practices have taken our food so far away from what it really is - and this goes for produce and grains, too. We need to return to growing and raising our food in a responsible way because it directly affects our health. The problem with consumers choosing less expensive, conventional meat is that they are unknowingly paying for it later in life when they develop health problems, and thereby incur more healthcare costs. By eating foods laden with hormones, antibiotics and chemicals, we are making a short-sighted choice based on the wrong economics.
For example, grass-fed beef may be more expensive per serving, but it is also much healthier per serving. The fat in grass-fed meat is better than the fat in conventional beef. It’s not about being lower fat, it’s about it being a different kind of fat, one that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. But consumers are not educated about these differences and grass-fed beef is not recognized as a healthier alternative; it’s just known for being more expensive, or perhaps a more humane choice.
Which brings me to my next point, which is that we also need to better educate consumers about why good meat costs what it costs. Meat shouldn’t be wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic and sold for $3.50 at the supermarket. It takes time and resources to raise meat properly, and consumers need to understand that. Hopefully over time, with more and more businesses embracing responsible, sustainable farming practices, prices will eventually become more accessible for more people.
What differences can cooks anticipate when cooking with grass-fed meat as opposed to conventional? And what can diners expect when tasting it? The main difference is that grass-fed beef is leaner, so grilling or roasting cuts cook more quickly. It also requires gentler cooking for braising cuts. It has a richer, wilder flavor that comes from both the grass and the roaming life quality of the animal.
I would argue that grass-fed tastes better, but I understand and concede that it’s an acquired taste. For those who think it is too gamey, the flavors can be truly enhanced by buying the right meat, performing a few quick techniques, and crafting the right recipes.
You’re home and you have the night off. What are you cooking?
Miso-braised short ribs, rice noodles, and lots of vegetables.
This post was originally published by the Natural Gourmet Institute. Learn more about today's Natural Gourmet Center.