A Vermont-raised chef may not be the likeliest candidate to serve the most sought-after tapas in New York City, but ever since Seamus Mullen and his slow-grilled turbot scored a rave from the Times, it’s been nearly impossible to score a seat at his restaurant, Tertulia. If you have eaten there, you know why it’s nominated for a Best New Restaurant award. Read on to see what Mullen told us about the lessons he learned while cooking in Spain, the challenges of cooking authentic Spanish cuisine in America, and where he likes to nosh on his days off.
JBF: What’s the story behind the name Tertulia?
SM: In Spanish a tertulia translates to a chat or a get-together. It's usually accompanied by wine and, inevitably, food. When I was in college studying Spanish literature, we had a weekly tertulia at my professor's house. He would cook traditional food and break out Spanish wine, then we'd sit around the table eating, drinking, and talking about Cervantes. It was the best part of my college career and I wanted to create a restaurant that captured that feeling of enjoying the company of good friends, eating good food, drinking good wine, and celebrating life.
JBF: What’s your favorite dish on the menu right now?
SM: We've been doing a slow-roasted lamb shoulder on the grill with creamy polenta, ramp pesto, and spring mushrooms that is pretty amazing. We get whole lamb from my friend Ben Machin—Ben and I grew up together in Vermont and he has a sheep farm called Tamarack Tunis. Pretty much anything that combines the tastiness of his lamb and the smoke of our wood-fired grill is delicious.
JBF: You spent several years cooking in Spain. What lessons from working in restaurants across Spain have you brought back home with you?
SM: A reverence for ingredients: we always used the best ingredients we could find and really tried to celebrate them and make them shine. I also learned how to work hard. In Spain you don't go into the hospitality field to become rich and famous—you do it because your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did it before you. There is a beautiful tradition of legacy and mentorship in restaurants in Spain that we don't have as much in the States. I love seeing my sous chefs take our young cooks under their wings and really mentor them; it's incredibly rewarding.
JBF: What are some of the challenges of cooking Spanish food in America? Are there any ingredients that you would love to cook with but are impossible to get your hands on?
SM: The biggest challenge is not having the same variety of shellfish. We have wonderful seafood here, but I really miss the gambas de Palamós (these amazing scarlet prawns from Catalunya) and the tiny cockles from Galicia. And I really miss the morcilla from Asturias—it's extraordinary. Otherwise, we have most things.
JBF: What are your favorite places to eat in the city right now? Any particular dishes that have really knocked your socks off?
SM: I really love the meatball soup at Kin Shop: it's delicate, rich, unusual, and has a perfect balance of sweet, salty, spicy, and sour. And I have always loved Kyo Ya in the East Village, but they just received a glowing three-star review in the New York Times—I'm afraid I'll never be able to get in again!
JBF: What’s your go-to recipe when you’re cooking at home?
SM: Roast chicken on Sundays! I love roasting a chicken on Sunday and then having leftovers for chicken salad.
JBF: What’s your favorite cookbook and why?
SM: The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. I grew up cooking out of it with my mom and grandmother. If you want to know anything about food (well, almost anything), the answers are in those pages. It's an amazing, seminal reference book.
JBF: What’s your earliest food memory?
SM: Watching Julia Child lop off a chicken's head on PBS with my grandmother as she cooked braised chicken in white wine sauce, which is still one of my favorite dishes to this day. My grandmother is 91 and I still make her cook it for me when I go home to visit.
About the author: Elena North-Kelly is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.