Bill Telepan arrives to meet me in his namesake restaurant on NYC’s Upper West Side, looking a little winded. “Sorry I’m late,” he says, “I just came from a workout.” The chef and restaurateur practices what he preaches. Classically trained, Telepan began his remarkable career at Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill and went on to work under Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque and in Lyon, France under the legendary Alain Chapel. He has spent the last few years not only satisfying diners at his upscale restaurant, but encouraging kids to start eating and living healthier while in school.
In 2008, three years after he opened Telepan, the chef, restaurateur and father signed on as executive chef for the program Wellness In The Schools, a non-profit that works with educators to improve the quality of ingredients and meals that are served to children.
And on Sunday, Oct. 2, Telepan will team with caterers Great Performances to host the 100-Mile Brunch at the New York City Wine & Food Festival (sponsored in part by Food Republic), which will showcase his local and seasonal-driven cooking — not to mention his love of brunch!
Let’s start with a look back at your career. How much did you learn from Alfred Portale at Gotham, first as a line cook just out of culinary school and later as executive chef?
The great thing about working with him is the amount of time I put into one place. Everyone’s like, I want to work six months here and six months there, and I can’t stress enough to young cooks to go work in a place longer than a year.
But today’s chefs want instant gratification. Is this because of the rise of cooking competition shows and celebrity chef culture?
It totally is. Kids, their goal is to get on Chopped or these other shows. And you see what happens with some of these guys: They go on these shows and they win and then next thing you know they’re opening burger joints, and people flock to them because it’s just like seeing a movie star.
There’s a lot of talk about culinary school and whether it’s worth it…
It’s totally worth it. Any further education is worth it. CIA opened my eyes to New York City. I knew about Lutèce and La Côte Basque, but I met this one chef who took a liking to me. And he said when you graduate, come see me, and I’ll send you to Charlie Palmer. Next thing I know I’m at the River Café doing a trail with Charlie Palmer. He didn’t have a job opening but he sent my resume to Alfred and that’s how I got the job. I mean, Alfred didn’t even trail me. He called me in for an interview, we met and he said start tomorrow.
What were you doing there, at your first job working in the kitchen at Gotham?
It was crazy. He put me right on the line, and I was working the hot app station. And I worked two days with the guy who was leaving and next thing you know I was on my own and I was like, “Holy shit.” And for years, my back was just…killing me because you were just hunched over for so long. It was such a busy place — it still is — but my back straightened up and I worked every station there before I went to France.
What inspired you to keep this restaurant, Telepan, so straightforward and seasonally driven?
Food-wise, from my time in France, I knew I wanted to cook seasonally, because Alain Chapel’s a hyper-seasonal dude. But over the years, I realized that restaurants shouldn’t just be about the chef; it should be an experience. The place that I want to emulate is a place called Cibreo in Florence. The food is terrific, the wine list is terrific, the staff is great. You walk in there, and you’re so freaking happy to be there and they’re so happy to have you there, and when you leave, you have this giant smile on your face. Every aspect of the restaurant is brilliant. All the locals go there as well as tourists, and I think that’s the place I aim to be.
One thing people seem to love about Telepan is the brunch. Do you like brunch yourself?
It’s my favorite meal, man. As a cook, when you’re going out partying, you don’t want to have to wake up and do brunch. But when I was opening on the Upper West Side, I was like, you have to open up for brunch, and I had so much fun putting together a menu. We had these pancake soufflés. I had wanted these puffy pancakes, but they kept falling every time we made them, and I was like, “Oh shit, they’ll never work,” but we decided that we’ll just call them fallen pancake soufflés, and it became a signature dish at brunch. They’re really delicious because they look like these giant fallen muffins, but they taste like pancakes. We serve it with this brown sugar bacon, and it’s just yummy…. And the thing about brunch is it’s all that wonderful easy food that you love to eat as a chef, but never wanted to cook, so I got into it very quickly.
Seasonal and ingredient-driven cooking is a hot trend, but it’s part of your DNA. Who influenced you to cook this way?
Everybody I worked with has some sort of influence on me, but the common ingredient is, well, the ingredients. And you know, working with Alfred, it was very important what we were using, and with Daniel too. They were both very seasonal chefs. Alain Chapel would go to these markets in Lyon and pick out the stuff himself. And then Le Bernadin, it’s just this temple of fish and we were getting pristine ingredients. If you have this great quality product, you don’t have to do too much to manipulate the great flavor out of it. So that was the direction I wanted to go, knowing that in the Northeast, the best food you’re going to work with is what’s in season. It’s just that simple.
So you started developing relationships with purveyors right out of the gate?
I was going to the green market with two hand trucks, a prep guy, when I was the sous chef at Gotham back in ’91/’92. I got to know these people. I’ve been through [their] marriages, divorces. I’ve seen their kids born; they’ve seen my kids born. There’s always that personal handshake you have, or that kiss on the cheek. But I was lucky to be in there at early times, so I got to know what they produced, how they produced.
Has the attention, not only on the part of the restaurateurs and chefs, but also the consumer, carried over to meaning that there’s more of a supply? Are there more people, and thus more organic farms?
Yeah, just look at the heirloom tomato. In 1996 we were sort of introduced to it by Tim Stark of Eckerton Hill Farms, out in Pennsylvania. Before, it was beefsteak tomatoes and yellow tomatoes. I might be mistaken and I don’t want to insult anybody, but before that you maybe saw a few [heirloom tomatoes], but they were ugly. Tim really upped the game. I mean, now we have purple, orange, white and yellow carrots. You’ve got 16 different kinds of radishes. It’s really opened the eyes of the consumer, and that helps me out that people are more savvy to ingredients and to good quality food.
People will come up to me and say, “I’ll eat your meat here because I know you get it from a thoughtful person,” or “I know you get your vegetables from this guy and they’re great.” Again, it’s something that’s taken a long time to do, and as far as the fad, it’s been the way people have cooked for hundreds of years, and it wasn’t until you were able to ship things by airplane from foreign countries or from the warmer parts of the U.S. that people were starting to eat asparagus year-round.
We’ve had chefs on the website who’ve said they don’t care about seasonality — that’s it’s not the way some of the best restaurants cook. What do you say to that?
That’s fine, people want to cook the way they want to cook. I just think my job is not only as a chef, but as a human being, and giving back. I think eating locally is one way of supporting the earth and the area, which is very important.
[Chefs who don’t cook seasonally,] I don’t think they’re getting the best ingredients. I can get anything shipped also, but if you buy a tomato in January, it’s not going to be good. If you buy asparagus in January, it’s not going to be good.
Is this move toward seasonal ingredients a generational shift?
I think through the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, there was this front to make the housewife’s life easier. We have frozen food, all this processed food that made everyone’s life easier, and now it’s easy to add on 500 to 1,000 calories a day by opening a bag or popping a can of soda, and I think that’s part of the reason why people are heavier than they have been at any moment in time. So I think we’ve realized, in our generation, as we have kids, we didn’t want that to be for our child.
Is that what inspired you to get into Wellness In The Schools?
Yes and no. What inspired me to get into the program is knowing that I have the ability to give my daughter a better life, but there are many children out there who just don’t have that choice.
You’ve had some other chefs get involved too, like Zak Pelaccio?
Yes, and he’s also doing a wonderful program. They took over a science class that had gas, so they have a gas stove in the school and they do these wonderful classes for the kids. Jonathan Waxman was at his kid’s school, and would come in and help out. John Fraser from Dovetail, Mary Cleaver, Sue Torres. Michael Anthony came aboard this year. … we have a really good cast of chefs who are helping out.
Between this restaurant and the programs you’re involved in, I imagine it keeps you busy, but are you looking to open something else or are you satisfied where you are?
It’s always something we’d like to do, but given the last couple years, it’s been very hard to move forward on something. When I was getting out of culinary school, I used to adore André Soltner and Lutèce and the idea that here’s this guy with one restaurant where he’s able to work every day and he can go ski on the weekends and really focus on this really great restaurant. I used to wish that I could have something like that, and now that I have my own place that I can work in every day and be a really part of, yeah I would like to do other things, because there are other stories I’d still like to tell with food, but I’m very satisfied with this. And it’s given me the time to do the Wellness in the Schools program, which is totally rewarding.