If there is any word that could define the work of prolific chef, restaurateur, author and school food transformer Bill Telepan, it would be seasonal. His renowned New York City Upper West Side restaurant, Telepan (with a second NYC location opening soon), has menus based exclusively on local, seasonally available ingredients, and he sees this as the only way to cook. His 2004 cookbook, Inspired by Ingredients, contains a year’s worth of recipes created around seasonality. His work within the New York City Schools and beyond is aimed in part at bringing fresh, seasonal cooking to every child in a classroom. And his regular customers pay attention to those seasons as well; they will begin calling the restaurant in advance of a season to find out when, for example, the ever-popular pea pancakes will be on the menu again.
Lessons from a Legend
The seasonal approach began for Telepan during a six-month stint in France, early in his culinary career, apprenticing under a legendary chef. “The turning point for me was when I was working in France with Alain Chapel, who used to drive to the markets a couple of times a week,” Telepan told Organic Connections. “He’d come back and we’d bring all the food in, and I would see all this great produce and I was amazed. It just looked well cared for. I remember bringing these strawberries in, and I basically ate two pints of them because they were so delicious.
“We talked about it a lot, the cooks and the chef, and he would change menus monthly. It took me a few weeks to realize what he was doing, because I was first of all just overwhelmed by being in a different country and not really speaking the language that well. But once I started getting into a rhythm I realized he saw seasonal as best because the produce is best, and local is best because it’s fresher.
“That’s half the battle. If you can start off with a quality product, you have a better shot at producing a quality product.”
For Telepan, the lessons called to mind fond memories of produce at home. “I grew up in New Jersey, where there were always Jersey tomatoes and Jersey blueberries. A tomato was never as good as the one that came out of my father’s garden in August. The blueberries were always best when we were driving home from the shore and stopped at the roadside market to pick up a pint of these berries. And that was all coming back to me.”
Telepan returned to the East Coast to cook for some of New York City’s finest eateries, including Le Cirque, Le Bernardin, Gotham Bar and Grill, and Ansonia. As executive chef at Judson Grill, he earned it a three-star rating from the New York Times.
But to fully bring his approach to fruition, it seemed only natural that Telepan would open his own restaurant. Obviously there is much more to operating such an enterprise than great cooking; but like seasonal ingredients, the right things started to fall into place at the right time.
The primary factor was a partner who shared common values with Telepan himself. “When I was first talking to investors, I met my future partner, Jimmy Nicholas,” he related. “We hit it off and realized we had a common interest in a restaurant in Florence, Italy, called Cibreo. When we asked each other about our favorite restaurant in the world, that was the place we both came up with, which was kind of funny. The brilliant thing about Cibreo is that it’s one of these places where they greet you with a warm smile, and when you leave you’re happier than when you came in, whether you were miserable or happy to begin with.”
The next important ingredient was a location for the restaurant—and it was there that a bit of magic happened. “I had been living on the Upper West Side at that point for fifteen years and knew this space well,” Telepan said. “Every time I would ride down Columbus Avenue in a cab, I would look at this building and say to myself, ‘Oh, that would be a great spot for a restaurant.’ When it became available, I was like, ‘Awesome!’ It just felt right when I first walked in.”
The restaurant opened in 2005 and Telepan has never looked back.
Sourcing the Ingredients
Of course, if you’re going to open a restaurant with cuisine based on locally produced ingredients, sourcing is critical. Fortunately, Telepan had been developing these sources for some years.
“I’ve been doing it for a long time,” said Telepan. “Back in 1992, when I was sous-chef at Gotham Bar and Grill, was about the time I really started to get to know people in the market. There weren’t a lot of chefs and Greenmarket wasn’t the big thing. But some great chefs bought heavily from there—David Bouley, Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges. I was a young guy, and I would talk with them and got along well with them. I developed experience over time getting to know who supplied the right stuff and had the nicest stuff.
“Then after a certain point there were articles written about me, and producers would come to me. There was also word of mouth: ‘This guy has great stuff—you should buy from him, Bill’; so then you try that person. It was just a matter of time, of getting to know people and talking to people about things you like.”
Even after all those years of cultivating relationships, Telepan never stops seeking new sources. “It’s much easier for me now, since I’ve known a lot of people for a couple of decades,” he said. “I feel they take care of me better than others might, but there are always new suppliers to seek out. Even though you buy lamb from one guy, there’s inevitably somebody else who brings you lamb to try. It’s kind of like cooking: you’re continually learning.”
Tying Menus into Seasonality
All the planning at the restaurant is done with an eye to the seasons. “For example, we know that summer is coming and there are tomatoes and corn and zucchini and green beans and plenty of good greens,” Telepan explained. “A lot of it has become instinctual, like, ‘I want to do this; I feel these flavors go well with this particular ingredient that I know will be available, and so how do I broaden the scope?’ Some of it is that I know something pairs well with this fish, or this pairs well with that meat, or I want to turn this into a pure vegetarian dish.”
Produced with Care
While Telepan admittedly knows little about raising crops, soil cultivation or animal husbandry, he has seen a definite correlation between the care put into production and the quality of the resulting ingredients. “I don’t know too much about farming, honestly,” he commented. “I base it more on taste. But it’s like any business—you manage your business well, you pay attention to it, you make sure it’s looked after and you’ll have a good business. [pullquote]I also think if you manage your land well, grow things well, and don’t do too much to it but let nature take its course, you’re going to have a better product[/pullquote]. That’s the great thing about buying locally—you really get to know the people who do it.”
Turning Attention to School Lunches
A couple of years after opening his successful restaurant, Telepan discovered another important area to which he could bring his talents: school lunches. He didn’t exactly plan it that way. “I had never thought about school lunches because there was no way my daughter was going to eat that stuff,” he said. “It’s highly processed; it’s chicken nuggets and french fries. I’ll eat those with her once in a while, but I want to have them with her in places that I know are good. We sent her with food from home.
“But one day at a parent-teacher conference, members of a group called Wellness in the Schools were there handing out these wraps that they wanted to put in the school lunch service. They told the attendees what their goals were. Changing obesity and everything you hear about now, this group was talking about before anybody else. One woman, Nancy Easton—a former principal in a Lower East Side school and the founder of Wellness in the Schools—had seen kids coming to school with (she liked to say) ‘a bag of orange something and a bottle of orange something to wash it down.’ After lunch she would observe kids nearly passing out, they were so tired. She and her group set out to change eating habits.
“I tasted the wraps and they were delicious, and I asked them how I could help. I started going to the meetings and hearing what they were doing, and realized that with my skills I could cook. We did what we called café days at my daughter’s school—cooked from scratch—and recognized what a possibility it was. Then we did them at two other schools, and the following year it became eight schools, me with a staff of about forty volunteers.
“After getting the go-ahead from the Board of Education, we expanded to eighteen schools. Instead of doing all the cooking myself, we hired culinary graduates to go in the schools and work alongside the school cooks to train them in scratch cooking and change the whole thought process about food.
“Well, eighteen schools became thirty, which became forty-two, and now going into the next year we’re at fifty. My job today is more the development of recipes and the menu, and we enlist chefs to come and work in the schools.”
Another approach Telepan took was to actively engage children in their own eating. “We realized that everyone enjoys watching a chef cook and everyone likes getting involved,” he continued. “Kids are great in that respect—they love to cook and they love getting their hands dirty. We also found that once they started cooking they were more willing to try things. So we developed ten classes during the last couple of years that we teach over a three-year period in the schools, based on the food that we serve in the cafeteria.”
Telepan’s work in this area is now spreading beyond New York. “We’ve actually done the program as a pilot in Florida,” he said. “We’ve taken our cooking classes to Kentucky with Save the Children, in Appalachia and rural mountains. So we’ve been busy, and I’m very proud of it.”
Getting Everyone on Board
Telepan would like everyone to experience the pleasure of cooking based on local, seasonal ingredients but realizes that it’s a process you can’t force.
“I don’t like to push people into it,” Telepan concluded. “I always like to tell them, ‘The first step is to just cook.’ I think it’s best to even buy a Perdue chicken with some broccoli, potatoes and salad from your local food market and simply start cooking again. Take the processed food out of your diet. That’s the first step. If you can only afford to do that once a week, then do it once a week.
“But also look at your priorities. What are you spending your money on? Everyone thinks, ‘Oh gosh, food is so expensive!’ But there are things we spend a lot of money on that we could do without; maybe we could manage with a 27-inch television instead of a 52-inch television.
“Then also visit a green market. The perception is that a lot of it is more expensive than your local grocery store, but sometimes it’s not.
“Take baby steps. Don’t jump into it, but slowly try to change your eating habits. Challenge yourself once a week or once a month and just go about it that way, if you can.”
For more information on Telepan restaurant, please visit www.telepan-ny.com