A star in his native New York, chef Seamus Mullen's tapas restaurants have become celebrity magnets. Now he has launched his ‘healthy fine-dining' in London at Sea Containers, the flagship restaurant at the gleaming new Thameside hotel Mondrian London. Tom Vaughan meets up with him and his right-hand man, executive chef Luke Rayment
But it really shouldn't be so, says Seamus Mullen: "For too long, healthy food has fallen into the camp of being bland and flavourless. But I think we are starting to prove that you can cook exciting, dynamic, flavoursome food that is also healthy."
The owner of celebrated New York restaurants Tertulia and El Colmado, he has been tempted over the pond to launch Sea Containers, the all-day restaurant in one of the capital's biggest hotel openings of the year, Mondrian London. He has the vision, and executive chef Luke Rayment is the man responsible for executing it on the ground.
We visit just prior to the hotel opening and the pair are seated in the only quiet corner amid the hubbub of launch week - builders snagging the property, managers steering groups of staff around their roles and chefs feverishly prepping in the open-plan kitchen. Amid it all, Mullen gives off an almost Zen-like calm; well-built and focused, like a boxer before a big match, ready to shed the dark-rimmed glasses and go 12 rounds. We're talking healthy eating; something that has come to define Mullen's Mediterranean-inspired cooking.
"I don't think indulgence should mean you have to pay a penance," he says. "You shouldn't have to feel guilty because you had wonderful food, then the next day stand on an elliptical trainer to try and create a zero balance. You should be able to enjoy the food, then enjoy it all the more because it is good for you."
It's a subject close to the New Yorker's heart. After opening his first restaurant, Boqueria, in 2006, Mullen was struck down with an autoimmune disease that caused his joints to swell. After taking traditional medicine for years, he met a "remarkable" doctor who said that a lot of the problem lay in his diet. After that turning point, he ate himself towards good health.
"If you saw me two years ago, you wouldn't believe you were talking to the same person," he explains. "I was inflamed, in and out of hospital and very unhealthy. But over 18 months I saw all the markers of rheumatoid arthritis, which is an incurable disease, disappear from my blood. Now I feel better at 40 than I did at 28."
The professional outcome wasn't just a bestselling cookbook, Hero Food, focusing on the 18 ingredients that helped him overcome his condition, but a systematic shift in the DNA of his cooking in his next two restaurants, Tertulia and El Colmado.
Now, he is bringing that same ethos to London. The 180-cover restaurant couldn't boast a better position, sat on the South Bank overlooking the Thames and Blackfriars Bridge.
The all-day operation is one of the jewels in the crown of Mondrian London - a 359-room hotel built out of the shell of 1970s office block Sea Containers House (see above). And its decor, courtesy of designer Tom Dixon, reflects this heritage, with exposed concrete ceilings an
homage to the area's brutalist architecture, nautical touches including a yellow submarine hanging over the central bar and the tail-end of a huge copper wall shaped liked a hull that sweeps through the ground floor.
The restaurant's menu is built around Mullen's 'hero foods', which include good olive oil, almonds, berries and quality proteins.
Not since Horridge, who won a Michelin star at Bath Priory in 2006 for his take on fine-dining, has a top-end UK chef so overtly billed themselves as healthy. Is the London market ready for it?
"I certainly hope it's time in London," says Mullen. "I've seen it elsewhere - that eating well and eating healthy food that is delicious is incredibly important to a lot of people."
A change in attitude
Next to him, the genial Rayment, a fixture in high-end kitchens such as Claridge's and the Savoy Grill since he moved to London from Australia nine years ago, is nodding.
"I certainly believe there has been a massive shift in the time I have been cooking in London. Now people are quite happy to go out and eat vegetarian. They want to know if it is full of butter and fats. They want to know they can go out and eat and not destroy all the good work they did in the gym the day before."
Those who associate healthy eating with bland spa-day salads will be in for a shock at the sight of the Sea Containers menu: "The key is to cook and not destroy the pleasure of eating out," says Mullen. "Eating for wellness doesn't involve eschewing flavour."
Dishes include smoked lamb's breast with ricotta and almonds; and tuna crudo with artichoke, NiÁ§oise olives and avocado (one of a selection of raw fish dishes that the duo think will be a particular hit).
"There's nothing on there that I couldn't eat," says Mullen. "And I am still incredibly careful about how I eat."
"Who isn't going to want to sit in the den and look out across the Thames?" asks Seamus Mullen. "Or go upstairs and look at St Paul's with a cocktail in hand? Or hang out in the lobby? Or go to Dandelyan [the cocktail bar]?" The culinary director at Sea Containers, the stylish new restaurant on the ground floor of the equally stylish new Mondrian London hotel, is waxing lyrical about the property. Formerly an office block known as Sea Containers House, the distinctive 1970s property on London's South Bank is one of the capital's biggest hotel
openings of 2014, and arrives courtesy of the US-based Morgans Hotel Group.
It is full circle for the building, which was originally designed as a hotel by American architect Warren Platner, but a global recession meant it was instead divided into office blocks. It marks the fourth opening under the Mondrian brand - the company already operates Mondrian hotels in Los Angeles, New York and Florida, with two further openings planned for Doha, Qatar and Nassau, Bahamas.
Designer Tom Dixon - the iconic name behind Jamie Oliver's Barbecoa and Shoreditch House, both in London - was brought in for his first ever hotel project. His aim was to make it feel "like a transatlantic liner that's just docked". Beginning kerbside on the hotel's exterior, a handcrafted copper hull sweeps through the property, forming the reception and flowing through into Sea Containers. It's the most striking feature of the overtly maritime theme - a life-size statue of an anchor sits in the lobby, adjacent to a model of the Queen Mary, while a yellow submarine hovers above the restaurant's bar.
The 359-room property - which will operate under a 25-year management agreement with the owner, Archlane, with two 10-year extension options - also includes a cocktail bar called Dandelyan, a rooftop bar with stunning views across London, a 56-seat cinema, a spa and 5,500 sq ft of meeting space across six rooms. The starting room rate is £195.
As well as tempting one of New York's most celebrated chefs to Mondrian London, Morgans Hotel Group also pulled off a coup in recruiting one of London's biggest up-and-coming names in mixology, Ryan Chetiyawardana, to run its cocktail bar. The brains behind mega-hit White Lyan in Hoxton, he caused quite a stir with a cocktail selection that not only contained no perishables, not
even ice, but was pre-batched, meaning prices could start at a bargain £6.
At Dandelyan, the offering is equally as inventive - although more traditional in its use of fruit and herbs. Divided into four categories - cereal, mineral, vegetal and floral - each one contains four cocktails that draw heavily on these characteristics.
For example, the puffed grains and chocolate (cereal) mixes scotch with CuraÁ§ao, toasted grain soda, chocolate and pink peppercorn, or how about the gimlet gin with house lime cordial and hops?
Here, Tom Dixon's design steps away from the hotel-wide maritime theme to create a more sultry, art deco space, complete with a glamorous curved bar, pink banquettes and emerald green walls.
Meanwhile, small food plates, such as crispy cod cheeks or aged beef sliders, service those who - quite rightly - might fancy making a night of it.