With a newly appointed Michelin star, Chef Bill Telepan opens his highly anticipated TriBeCa restaurant and still finds time to run a NYC school lunch program
Tornado warnings flank the city and the sky hangs ragged and low over the Upper West Side, but on this recent evening at Telepan Restaurant the staff is cozy in its newly refurbished dining room, eating a family meal between lunch and dinner service. They load their plates from hotel pans of seared broccoli and crushed potatoes, salad and roasted meat. There is talk of apple picking and weekends spent watching The Godfather—they seem cared for and happy, as they ought to be: these folks just won a Michelin star, officially honoring them as one of the best restaurants in the city. But in an adjoining room, owner and chef Bill Telepan isn’t feeling it.
"I didn’t have any plans. This wasn’t my dream, to open a place,"
At 47, Telepan looks boyish, effortlessly genial, upbeat. But today he is frustrated. Angry even. He’s just off the phone with someone about his new restaurant, Telepan Local, which is in the works to open this fall in Tribeca. “Everything takes too long.” Landlords, the buildings department, the landmarks commission—they say they’ll do something and they don’t. “It’s like these people don’t care.” And that, I sense, is what gets him, because he really cares. He wears his intensity lightly—he’s quick to laugh—but every detail absorbs him, as he pauses to point out a smudge on the wall to his floor manager. Talking about the new restaurant, though, starts to bring his mood around.
Telepan Local will be a fun restaurant for him, casual and a little experimental in a way that Telepan is not. It will feature small plates of market-driven food, re-imagined versions of the kinds of dishes he does at Telepan: “We realized if you break those dishes apart there’s two to three great small plate dishes in there.” He’s excited about the design—totally different from Telepan, “kind of like a barn, lots of wood, some tile,” old stoves, handwritten recipes from his mother’s Hungarian repertoire. When it opens it will cap off decades of work in Manhattan’s best kitchens and be the final achievement in a stunning year that’s already seen a renovated Telepan, strong growth at his school food project, Wellness in the Schools, and a Michelin star.
All this success has been the result of years of hard labor, but Telepan makes it sound like it was mostly happy accidents. He didn’t set out to become one of the city’s best chefs. “I didn’t have any plans. This wasn’t my dream, to open a place,” he says. “I was just interested in working and doing it.” For someone who stumbled into it, he has strung together an exemplary career, and has worked in some of the best kitchens in New York and France, including Gotham Bar and Grill, Alain Chapel and Le Bernadin.
He says he just stumbled into his role with Wellness in the Schools, a nonprofit organization that works to reintroduce healthy, scratch-cooked food to lunch menus in the city’s public schools. In 2007, Telepan was waiting for a parent-teacher conference at his daughter’s elementary school when he bumped into Nancy Easton, the Wellness program’s Executive Director. Easton was handing out sandwiches she’d made and that she hoped to get on the school’s menu. He ate one and liked it. “I said, ‘How can I help out? Just let me know’.”
That off-the-cuff moment turned into planning meetings and revamped school food recipes, which led to a recipe book, which led to a citywide alternative menu. He and Easton developed a Teach-for-America style corps of young chefs, fresh out of culinary school, who work in school cafeterias alongside lunchroom workers and help them embrace healthy, honest cooking. The program has blossomed, and is now in 50 schools in New York City. Michelle Obama took note, and called Telepan to Washington to develop Chefs Move to Schools, part of the Let’s Move program. He seems as astonished as anyone at the program’s success: “It’s a lot, right? But it’s great—it’s wonderful.”
"As chefs we do a lot for people. This one? I was just like, I could help."
It’s one thing to put in a few hours a month on a charity project—every chef worth his or her salt does it—but to helm a massive school food effort while running a high-wire-act of a restaurant? Why? “We were kind of poor growing up, but my parents were great parents,” he says. “We felt really loved, we felt really well taken care of. But there are a lot of kids that don’t have that. So if they don’t have that and then they have a shitty lunch and then they’re just sitting around—you know, it’s just not gonna happen for them. As chefs we do a lot for people. This one? I was just like, I could help.” And so he does.
Toward the end of our conversation, we walk out the back of the restaurant, down a set of corrugated metal stairs, and through a paved courtyard to a cellar entrance under a neighboring building to get to the prep kitchen. On the way, we pass two large industrial metal containers, beaten up from long service in the kitchen and now overflowing with peppers and basil. “My grease trap garden!” Telepan laughs. Grease traps are the lowliest, foulest piece of equipment in a kitchen, and it would be the sane impulse of anyone who took one out of service to throw it straight in the garbage. But Telepan looked at them and saw a container garden. “I kind of fucked them up, but look—there’s one or two good peppers in here!”