In the United States, St. Patrick's Day is an equal-opportunity kind of holiday. If you have an Irish name or happen to know whether your family came from Cork or Clare, then great: Time to eat some corned beef and down a pint or two. If not, well, also great: Time to eat some corned beef and down a pint or two.
Chef Seamus Mullen has closer ties to the Old Country than many Irish-Americans, but his cooking style is more expressive of the American melting pot. The smashing success of Boqueria, the Manhattan tapas restaurant Mullen opened with partner Yann de Rochefort in 2006, established the chef as a master of Spanish techniques and flavors.
Before that, among other appointments, Mullen was executive sous chef at New York's French-inspired Brasserie 8½. The first restaurant Mullen opened, Crudo, boasted a Mediterranean-inspired menu.
"People ask me all the time, 'Oh, what is an Irish boy doing cooking Spanish food?'" Mullen said in a recent interview at Boqueria Soho, the offshoot of the restaurant's original Flatiron district location. "And a lot of it -- I mean, I don't really feel like I'm an Irish boy by any stretch of the imagination.
"I have an Irish name and an Irish heritage, but I grew up very removed from the Irish community or the Irish-American community. ... So I was a little bit removed from it. But there are some parallels between Spanish cuisine and Irish cuisine."
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Mullen does still cook Irish, and, on the occasion of St. Patrick's Day, he proved willing to share his secret recipe for colcannon and other favorites of his youth. He also talked about growing up on the farm, the allure of the big city and what doing food right means at this late stage or our urban alienation.
Mullen grew up on a Vermont farm, the grandson of a soldier and a naturalized American citizen.
"My grandfather was born in Ireland and he came to the States as a teenager," said Mullen. "So that would have been back in the 1930s, I would say, right around -- yeah, during the Depression. He ended up in New York and then eventually was drafted into the army during World War II, and gained citizenship through that. So the Irish lineage comes through my grandfather."
As a kid, the chef scooped stalls and helped to butcher livestock. The experience, he said, gave him an appreciation for locally sourced food and firsthand knowledge of where your meat comes from.
"I grew up on a small farm in Vermont, which sounds very idyllic, but as a kid getting up at six in the morning to muck out stalls and haul water and feed the animals -- [it] isn't exactly what you want to do before going to school," Mullen said. "In hindsight, I learned a lot about animal husbandry and about raising meat naturally and just being around food, which inevitably set the course for my career, and doing what I do."
On a lot of farms, the meat leaves alive, headed for the slaughterhouse and then the butcher. Mullen got to see the full cycle up close, from lamb to lamb chop, at a young age.