"My grandmother and mother were both kind of involved in the butchering on the farm when we were -- when I was a kid," he said. "So when we'd dress a hog in the fall or lambs, they'd drag them into the kitchen and plop them down on the dining room table and my mom would go through and my grandmother would hold the shoulders apart, and my mom would saw it apart. And we were always involved. My brother and I were there, kind of taking the pieces out and helping them packaging everything up, and we'd label everything and it'd get frozen and we'd go through the whole animal bit by bit through the rest of the year."
Mullen credits his grandmother with showing him the dish that first got him interested in food in a serious way.
"I think the most poignant food memory, and the one thing that I recall ... When I look back [at] what set my career as a cook, [it] was probably cooking trout with my grandmother when I was 5 or 6 years old," he said. "And I caught brook trout and she taught me how to panfry it with a little bit of dusting and a little of flour, and making some brown butter and lemons and capers, and it was delicious. And I remember even at that age really, really appreciating what went into making it, appreciating the ingredients.
"And I always go back to the dish, and I think about it anytime we have trout in the summer or in the late spring, I love to take just one piece of fish and just make some brown butter and a little bit of lemon, some capers and do it just the way my grandmother showed me how to do it when I was a kid."
In case her lessons in the kitchen weren't prod enough, Mullen's grandmother took the extra step of explicitly encouraging him to follow his happiness and become a chef, he said.
"I didn't really know that I wanted to be a cook until after I was finished college," said Mullen. "I cooked when I was in college, but I didn't think of it as a career until I got out of school and realized that it's the one thing that really makes me happy. So I was pushed into doing it by my grandmother. She said, 'Listen, Seamus, this is what makes you happy, you should do what makes you happy.' And for the most part it was pretty good advice, it's not always the easiest career, but I'm pretty fortunate to love what I do."
Two years abroad during college, at the Universidad Autonoma de Extremadura in Caceres, Spain, first gave Mullen his taste for Spanish cuisine. Mullen took a couple jobs stateside before returning to Spain in 2003, where he worked for six months at Mugaritz, Andoni Luis Aduriz's Basque country outpost boasting two Michelin stars. Next for Mullen was Barcelona, where he worked in two of the most respected restaurants in the city, Abac and Alkimia.
In addition to discovering Spanish food, Mullen said his time abroad taught him about the business of cooking, drudgery and all.
"There definitely have been times when I'm -- I remember at one point when I was in Spain and I was preparing for a wedding banquet and I had to clean 150 pounds of squid and I literally just had this gigantic box of squid and two-and-a-half hours into it, I kind of started thinking, 'What am I doing?' I'm just like, 'This is like a factory.' And by the 85th pound, I realized that my mind was completely somewhere else and I was just doing it and I was just doing it and I was doing it, and now if you put squid in front of me, I can clean it like that, so the value is there.