A Near-Death Experience Redefined This Chef’s Relationship With Food

Food is my life. It made me who I am, it nearly killed me, and it saved me.

I was born and raised on a farm in Vermont, where my parents and grandmother, whom I called Mutti, fed me freshly prepared whole ingredients. When I went to boarding school, I devolved into typical teenage boy behavior, shovel-ing junk food into my mouth. Even in college, when I began cooking seriously, I kept eating crap. Once I realized I wanted to be a chef, I started eating better, but my diet still revolved around carbs. Most of my professional training happened in Spain, where bread, rice, and noodles ruled my diet.

When I moved to New York City, I kept cooking and eventually opened two of my own restaurants, Tertulia and El Colmado, which I run today. As much as I loved cooking and the restaurant industry, I started to experience a lot of physical pain and my general health began to rapidly decline. Initially, I wrote off feeling like crap to the notoriously difficult life of the professional kitchen, but eventually it became clear that there was something seriously wrong with me and I needed help. After several trips to the emergency room, I was finally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease. I struggled for years with RA, even while following the conventional treatment of disease management, and generally felt horrible. After a few years, I hit an all-time low. At the end of a day filming a food show, I could barely stand and felt feverish. I was being treated with immunosuppressant and anti-inflammatory drugs—as well as pain meds, to which I had become addicted—and I had gotten used to the severe flare-ups and awful side effects, but this time was different. I knew I needed to get to a hospital. By the time I arrived at the emergency room, my temperature had hit 106 degrees. The only thing that kept my brain from frying in the intensive care unit was plunging in and out of an ice bath.

I developed a cyclic headache so severe that I couldn’t even see, and I slipped into unconsciousness. In that murky pain, I began to feel as if I were floating up in some sort of elevator shaft, and at the top of the shaft, a celestial sunlight glowed. I started drifting toward the light in this peaceful, effortless ascent. As I got closer to the light, I could feel that I was dying. In that moment, it would’ve been so easy to just give up and go into the light, but I told myself not to. I dug my fingers in and started pulling myself back down the shaft. As I got farther and farther away from the light, I started hearing beeping noises and voices, and eventually, I regained consciousness.

That’s what it took for me to completely change my life, my diet, my fitness, and my overall well-being. Shit happens, and you can either get in the way of your body or you can get out of the way. I knew that something had to change or the next time this happened, I wouldn’t survive. Through this experience, I began to learn the importance of being an active participant in my own well-being, and in doing so, for the first time in years I no longer felt helpless. Instead, I came to understand that the decisions I made directly affected the quality of my health. I sought out others who had gone through similar experiences and immersed myself in the world of Functional Medicine, which is an approach to health that addresses the root causes of illness rather than treating the symptoms of the illness, as is done in traditional medical practice. I met and became close friends with forward-thinking doctors, including Dr. Frank Lipman, and I realized that my poor health was directly linked to my carb- and sugar-driven diet.

I started exercising and eliminated gluten and grains, refined sugar, factory-farmed meat, and dairy from my diet, instead eating mainly vegetables and good proteins and fats. Over the past five years, I’ve fed my microbiome—the complex system of bacteria that lives in and on us—with foods that support a healthy and diverse population of bacteria, not with food-like substances that have a damaging effect on health. Not only have I avoided the emergency room, I’ve shocked doctors and everyone who knows me with my great health. At every checkup, the biomarkers of my disease are now non-existent. And I’ve experienced this incredible joy throughout the process, because my transformation has revolved around mindfully cooking and eating delicious food.

I want my experience to inspire you to live a fuller life through delicious food and 360 degrees of good health. I feel better than I ever have thanks to my new way of eating and living and want you to feel the same thrill—without having to suffer first the way I did. In fact, my philosophy rejects any suffering, including the deprivation typical of diets, and champions joy in eating. My approach to nutrition starts with excellent food because I am, first and foremost, a chef. I want to change the way we eat with chef-quality dishes that are easy and fast enough to cook at home. I’m going to show you all the tricks of cooking like a chef—without the unnecessary fireworks—to give you the real value of streamlining your time in the kitchen.

For ten years, I worked, clawed, climbed, and finally dragged myself out of a pit of aches, pains, sickness, inflammation, broken bones, hospital visits, medications, count-less hours in doctors’ offices, and, most terrifying, two near-death experiences. With tremendous help from an amazing team of loved ones, colleagues, and doctors, the walls of this pit have gotten less and less slippery. And with a complete overhaul of my diet to one that celebrates vegetables, good fats, and proteins, and the joy of cooking and eating, I’m totally transformed, body and soul. Each day, I feel a little bit stronger, a little bit more complete.

This experience has been nothing short of a miracle for me. However, unlike miracles, which have neither rhyme nor reason, this change is the result of hard work, diligence, experimentation, and exhaustive research. In this book, I’ve put down what I’ve learned, from the recipes I’ve created in my home kitchen to the tips I’ve picked up from years of cooking and the guidelines I’ve adopted through research, work with doctors, and living a new life. I hope my food and my stories will not only inspire you to change, but actually lead you to a new, delicious way of eating that makes you feel stronger, younger, and better every day.

Redefining Healthy Food

It’s time for us to redefine what constitutes healthy food. For too many years in America, what many have considered to be a healthy diet has actually been a formula for poor health. Take breakfast. The conventional wisdom has been that a healthy breakfast consists of a bran muffin, a juice, and a nonfat latte. This is simply one of the unhealthiest ways you can start you day.

This initial meal of sugar and carbohydrates sets up your metabolism for a roller coaster of sugar dependency that will last throughout the day. Just a few hours after breakfast, your energy sags and your hunger returns, causing you to reach for a mid-morning snack before lunch. You’ll probably grab another carb- and sugar-heavy snack, since that’s what your body craves and what’s most available. You’ll get some relief, but only until lunch. That two-hour cycle of hunger keeps your blood sugar rising and falling all day long and keeps you eating nonstop. Even if you’re consuming “low-calorie” meals and snacks, you end up eating a lot of total calories, few of which are beneficial.

This vicious cycle results in unnecessary cravings, fatigue, inflammation, mood swings, and weight gain. So much of the advice we’ve been given to take control of our health has resulted in us getting sicker. This has to change. The foods that provide the greatest health benefits and are the most satisfying are vegetables, good fats, and proteins. Those powerhouse staples form the foundation of how I cook and eat. 

Remaking Healthy Food

People often think healthy food is gross. Probably because much of so-called healthy food is gross! Plain steamed spinach doesn’t exactly sing with flavor, but sauté it in olive oil, throw in some pine nuts and roasted garlic, and it’s amazing! The other main problem with traditional “health” food is that it relies so heavily on the metrics of counting calories and fat grams. I believe that when making a lifestyle change, it’s more important to consider the quality of calories than the quantity.

In these recipes, I stay away from all the fake garbage you see in diet books. You won’t find gluten-free vegan grilled cheese or soy protein meat substitutes that a poor attempt to remake unhealthy comfort food. Those substitutions often end up being unhealthier than the originals. They don’t taste good, and they don’t satisfy. Instead, I rely on lots of vegetables, good fats, and proteins, including a moderate amount of meat. A breakfast of scrambled eggs with mushrooms, okra, and bacon will keep you full until it’s time for a lunch of kale salad with sardines, avocado, and herbs. That will keep you going until you sit down to a dinner of roasted quash and Brussels sprouts with pork chops. Not only are these types of food better for you, but they showcase the complex tastes and textures usually reserved for restaurant meals. You’ll feel totally satisfied and happy eating truly healthy food.

Reprinted from Real Food Heals by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2017, Seamus Mullen

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