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Seamus Mullen on Spain and the Question of Authenticity

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seamus-mullen-300.jpgSeamus Mullen made a name for himself in New York City as the first chef at Boqueria, a tapas restaurant in Flatiron that was among the first in a wave of Spanish or Spanish-inspired or vaguely Iberian small plates restaurants to pop up in the city in the last five years.

After a much publicized break with his business partner last summer, Mullen is now striking out on his own with Tertulia, a restaurant meant to evoke the great cider houses of Asturias that nonetheless draws from nearly every region of Spain and from the experiences and background of its American-born chef. In the following interview, Mullen discusses how he fell in love with Spain, how he developed his style, and whether or not what he does can be considered "authentic."

For those that might not be familiar, what's your background?
I've been cooking professionally for sixteen years. I grew up on a farm.

In Vermont. Both of my parents are excellent cooks, as were both of my grandmothers. My father's mother was from California and was very much a part of the gourmet movement there in the 1960s.

My grandfather was the editor of Sunset Magazine for forty years. I remember going to their house as a kid and they'd be doing photo shoots for the publication. One of the pieces was about building your own wood-fired oven, so they built one for the shoot in the backyard. They used to do roast chicken on there, and I'd eat truffles with my grandmother. I always was around really good food.

When does Spain come into the picture?
I went to Spain when I was in high school for an exchange program and totally got into the food there. I lived with a family, and like most Spanish families, they cooked all the time.

Where in Spain?
In Burgos. The thing that's amazing about a place like Burgos is that even though it's not near the coast, people still eat a tremendous amount of seafood. I grew up in Vermont, which is completely landlocked, so suddenly I was in the middle of a different country eating paella and squid and peeling prawns. I totally fell in love with the flavors. Olive oil completely changed my life.

I came back from Spain and started cooking much more on my own. I still remember how for my senior project I created a fake tapas bar in my school. I made tons of tortilla and pinchos and the cojonudo.

The cojonudo was one of the most popular things at Boqueria, right?
Yeah, that was one of the first things I had in Spain. It was so simple. I was at this shitty hole in the wall bar called the PCE, the Communist bar in Burgos, and my host father told me, "You have to try this." So they brought out a little quail egg on a slice of chorizo — I had never seen a quail egg before — and I absolutely loved it. So great. Literally, cojonudo means "fucking great." No wonder the Communists lose in all of the elections, since they're hammered and eating that stuff all the time.

Let's go back to the rest of the story.
So I kept cooking on my own and eventually in some kitchens in California.

Any experiences worth mentioning?
Not really. I worked mostly at Mecca and learned a lot — it was high volume and intense. But most of my learning came when I decided to go back to Spain.

When did you decide to go?
It was when elBulli was really hot, around 2003, and at that point everyone was still going to France and not Spain to learn. And after cooking in San Sebastián at Mugaritz and in Barcelona, I came back to New York, worked at Brasserie 8 1/2 for a bit, and then went on to do Boqueria. At that time, not that many people were cooking Spanish food.

What did you take from the experience at Mugaritz?
Andoni [Aduriz] is an amazing, generous guy. One of the things that I am always blown away by — I've eaten there plenty over the years and seen it change — is how much more Basque it is than avant-garde, in a lot of ways. Even if he is always pushing the envelope with technique and philosophy. The flavor profiles are very Basque. If you have a pil-pil there, it tastes like a pil-pil, but it's just refined. We have a wood-fire grill here at Tertulia, and that's very much inspired by the grill at Mugaritz, which I always loved using. I always loved how we'd be working in a "progressive" restaurant with all these gadgets, but then you'd walk outside and find that grill.

What I really took away from that experience was how Andoni could take really traditional food and bring it to an intergalactic place. It's not really what I aim to do exactly, but the notion of approaching something traditional with dexterity — a deft touch — is definitely something I aspire to. I love the idea of taking really great product, not fucking with it too much, but just respecting it and preparing it in the best way possible. Sometimes you'll find taverns and restaurants that have access to excellent product, but then they overcook it or something like that.

How about the experiences in Barcelona?
I cooked in Barcelona at ABaC and Alkimia. They both get labeled as "avant-garde," but I was amazed when I got to Alkimia at how rooted in Catalan food it is. Jordi Vilà is amazing. He views Catalan food as something that is progressing and changing, sort of in the same way Wylie does American food. All of what Vilà did was recognizably Catalonian. You have a dish like cap i pota, a braised, really gelatinous stew with veal cheek, face, and trotters, and he'd do it in a way where you'd taste all of those classic flavors perfectly, but it would be cleaner, more refined.

Sounds similar to what you were describing about Aduriz.
Jordi was even more product-based than Mugaritz. Mugaritz I'd describe as more intellectual. Jordi would take us to the Boqueria Market in the morning, and he'd also be really on top of what his purveyors would get him.

Jordi made me think a lot about food. He'd make me look at a protein or any product and make me think about the best technique to use to bring out its pure flavor. But most of all, he was super anal about la plancha, and that's something that really shaped who I am as a cook.

Can you talk a little bit more about that?
I have lots of pet peeves about the plancha. When we opened Boqueria in 2006, there weren't that many kitchens in New York that were using them. But suddenly you'd start to see all of these things pop up on menus that said "a la plancha." But I've seen how people treat it like a griddle, sloppily, with griddle spatulas and all that stuff. Jordi taught me to respect it, to view it as a lady. The plancha is a delicate woman. You have to keep it meticulously clean. Every time you pick up a dish on the plancha, you wipe it down and buff it with a kitchen towel. You have to use delicate amounts of weight so things evenly sear on the plancha, you have to let things cook in their own fat and not over oil them. Things burn right away, it's not about intense heat. It's about medium intensity thing.

Do you keep on top of what's going on there? Or do you consider yourself more of an American chef who cooks his take on Spanish food?
I wouldn't say that I keep on top of what's going on in Spain, much as I'm fascinated by it. My style of cooking is not about following a trend or being part of the latest movement. I'm much more interested in older world technique. I'm not Spanish, but I lived there for five years and have a relationship with it that's been going on for twenty years. All of the flavor elements that you find in my cooking are Spanish: you really taste a lot of olive oil, spices, and vinegars that are very traditional and very Spanish.

What we try to do, though, is make it a little bit more refined and relevant for New York. Don't get me wrong: traditional food in Spain tastes great and it has a sense of place. The thing about Spanish food is that it can be heavy and monochromatic — it's much more about the experience often than it is about the actual food. If you were to directly take that food and drop it in New York, you'd maybe say that the tortilla or the croqueta was a little bland, a little greasy. There's something very important about eating it there. For example, Tertulia is inspired by the Asturian cider houses, but if we were to recreate a cider house exactly in New York, it wouldn't work. It's going to feel kitschy, gimmicky, like it doesn't belong.

What I really want to do is capture that incredible, fun feeling, but I want the food to be a little more — I don't want to say "elegant" — but celebratory. When we update a traditional dish here, we'll do it with recognizably Spanish flavors, but there might be texture contrasts that are new or a visual vibrancy that you might not necessarily find in the traditional restaurant.

How do you view the question of whether what you do is authentic or not?
It's hard to say what is authentic. To me, this place is authentically New York. It is authentically a Spanish restaurant in New York. When I get a call from my fish purveyor and he says that he has amazing fresh bonito from Long Island, of course I'm going to say I want it. It won't be the fish I would have access to in Asturias or Galicia, but if one of those Spanish chefs were to come here and have access to that product, they'd probably use it.

Our menu is about 30 percent traditional dishes I'd say. The other dishes sort of have the aim of contributing to the greater canon of cuisine. It's pretty much the same at a lot of the restaurants in Spain we were just talking about. Or to give a different example: go to Michael White's restaurants and there will be some things that are distinctly Italian or distinctly inspired by Italy. But I remember having a pasta at Marea that had langoustines and sea urchin. In that case he's still cooking and channeling Italy, but that's a Michael White dish.

Authenticity has much more to do with the flavor profile thing we've been talking about. You can taste a heritage, a soul there. We didn't disassemble a country restaurant from Asturias, build it here, and bring in an Asturian chef. The times that people have tried to do that, it hasn't worked. New Yorkers are too skeptical. What flies in Spain isn't going to fly here.

Can you elaborate on that?
Well, everyone knows that jamón ibérico is the best ham in the world. But most Americans aren't going to get a full leg of it in their house, as happens in Spain, where it's been a tradition for three-hundred years. It's ingrained in their collective unconscious and culinary memory. But you can celebrate that and turn people onto those things, which in a way is very authentic. To give you a better example, no restaurant in Asturias will serve paella. But I will. This is a Spanish restaurant in New York, and there's the expectation that we will. Initially I wanted to focus on the richness of Asturias, which is kind of undiscovered still — the best beef in all of Spain, so many varieties of cheese. But then I realized that I didn't want to limit myself and decided that that area, those flavors would be a launchpad for me to develop my own style, which has taken me a while.

How do you think Spanish people view what you do? Has the feedback been positive?
You'd be surprised. It's amazing how many we get. They leave Spain... and they want Spain. We would get droves of Spanish tourists at Boqueria SoHo — a family that was here for two weeks would come in four or five times. They are very culturally proud, and going to the greatest city in the world and seeing that their food and culture are being represented is a great thing. It makes them really happy, and I've gotten a tremendous amount of support from them. Some Spanish people have told me, "Hey, you do this better than a Spaniard would because you understand what the other side is." One of my strengths is that I'm able to identify the things that really appeal to an outsider and hone in on them.

· All Seamus Mullen Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Tertulia Coverage on Eater [-ENY-]
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