Treasured: Seamus Mullen's Spanish Iron
Interview and Photos by Melanie Dunea / CPi / My Last Supper
Seamus Mullen: "If I had to run out of the restaurant for good, and I had my brothers with me to help, I would take my grill. I'd need a jackhammer and a really big dolly because it's massive. But in lieu of that, I would take my treasured Catalana iron. It is a traditional tool used in Spain for making the caramelized sugar on top of the crème brûlée instead of using a torch. Here at Tertulia, we use it for everything from searing a big piece of pork belly to using it on raw fish. It's a great way of just caramelizing the fish skin, shrinking it up and giving it a smoky flavor."
"The Catalana is a simple tool, just a disk of iron with a handle. It's to be left in the fire all night long to get really hot. When you are ready to caramelize something, you just take it out of the fire and go for it."
"I brought a bunch of irons back from Spain, but they usually don't last that long. The one that I have now, I had made by a blacksmith in Pennsylvania and it has lasted a couple of years. I gave him the dimensions and sketched it out exactly the way I wanted it to be. He made it with a handle, which promptly fell off so now it looks like a medieval weapon. But who cares, because it works really well!"
"The first time I ever worked with something like this was at the restaurant Àbac in Barcelona with the chef Xavier Pellicer, one of the great classic Catalan chefs. He used an electric iron in all sorts of ways since we didn't have a wood fire in the kitchen. So when I first came back to New York I brought back a bunch of the electric irons that I had to have an electrician rewire. Sadly, they would last for only a few months and then die. Every time I returned to Spain I would buy more because they were impossible to find in the US. When I opened Tertulia, I really liked the idea of embracing the old-fashioned way of cooking. We also found that a wood fire is a lot more dependable then electricity, as witnessed when we lost our power during Hurricane Sandy and we could still cook. Also, wood fire doesn't have any issues because it runs on our same electric currents. Fire is the universal currency."
"We had to jump through major hoops to get a wood fire in Tertulia. It was very important because it's key to the foundation and the flavors of our food. Almost everything passes through the grill at some point in this restaurant—all of the dishes; even something as simple as a deviled egg. The egg white and the yolk are smoked on the grill. I think of it as this ephemeral spice that weaves through all of the food. You can't touch it, you don't really sense it, but you can taste it. Sometimes it's more pronounced and sometimes more subtle."