Although he doesn’t know it, Chef Bill Telepan and I go back a long time. I remember being so excited when Ansonia, the first restaurant at which he was the “star” chef, opened in our Upper West Side neighborhood in the early 90s and we quickly became frequent diners. The neighborhood was considered a culinary wasteland and Bill’s apprenticeship with the world-famous Alain Chapel indicated that we were in for greatness – which, in fact, was true. Ansonia didn’t have a terribly long life and we lost Bill to midtown and further culinary honors when he gained 3 stars from the New York Times at JUdson Grill. But, in 2005 Bill returned to the UWS with his very own restaurant, Telepan (72 West 69th Street, 212-580-4300, www.TELEPAN-NY.com) and we were once again treated to his signature dishes prepared simply and elegantly from fresh, local ingredients.
One of the first New York chefs to promote seasonality through working directly with local farmers, as chef-owner of Telepan, Bill does much of the farm to table marketing himself throughout the week. Taking time from running the restaurant, shopping the local farmers markets, being a very involved father, and leading the culinary program for Wellness in the Schools, Bill very kindly took the time to chat with me while sitting in his getting-ready-for-service dining room.
We talked a bit about his career and the focus of Telepan which will be celebrating its 5th anniversary in December. “I have lived on the Upper West Side for 20 years and had coveted this space for my own for years before it actually happened. I very much wanted to create a welcoming, easy-to-experience neighborhood restaurant which, as it turns out, is exactly what Telepan has become. We do get a fair number of Lincoln Center attendees but mainly we have developed a loyal neighborhood crowd, many of whom I now consider friends not just customers.”
Knowing that Bill is most known for his support of local farmers I asked him how he would describe his seasonal cooking. “I cook a simple style of American food; individual, drawn on my life experiences, what I like to cook, where I’ve cooked, my favorite cookbooks (his own Inspired by Ingredients), each season’s bounty, and the melting pot that defines New York City.” He continued, “Personally, I eat far less meat than I once did and I find that my customers follow suit. I think that from this moment on vegetables are going to be the new pork belly.” “Has much changed since you first began your career in New York City?” I inquired. “Very much so,” Bill answered. “We have many more local ingredients with which to work – meat products as well as vegetable. This allows us to change our menu more frequently than we once did. I now present new items monthly instead of seasonally. Sometimes I bring back dishes that I particularly loved in the past – often as they were, but sometimes with a new twist. Coming up, we are going to feature an all artisanal cheese menu as well as a take on the old classic, cordon bleu, using pheasant. I am always learning new techniques working with new products. Cooking is still fun!” What more could one ask for in contemporary dining?
Bill and I talked a bit more about food than I had intended as I really wanted to hear about his involvement with the Wellness in the Schools (WITS) project (www.wellnessintheschools.org). Having watched Bill’s sweet daughter, Leah, grow up I knew that somehow it was her attendance at our local public school that must have been the catalyst for his participation. And, it was, in fact part of it. He met Nancy Easton, a fellow parent at a PTA meeting at PS (for those non-New Yorkers, Public School) 87 who had, with a couple of other moms, formed a wellness committee to improve their children’s lunches. The moms had, themselves, made 200 to 300 healthy sandwiches to distribute to the children on a weekly basis. Bill suggested that they get into the hot food part of the school lunch program and as soon as he made the suggestions, he was inducted.
Although the beginning days were difficult dealing with an entrenched bureaucracy, rather than give up, Bill decided to devote 3 days a month to making the program work. His determination, along with the devotion of Nancy Easton and other volunteers, has taken the program from 1 school and an enhanced salad bar to 19 schools with a defined culinary program of 1)Tex-Mex Monday, 2) Pasta Tuesday, 3) Chicken Wednesday, 4) Sandwich Thursday, and 5) Pizza Friday. All of these meals are created using the procurement list (see my NOTE) provided by the city school system but worked into only healthy recipes. Each school’s cafeteria staff is aided by a part-time culinary school graduate along with volunteers from WITS.
Not only does Bill help Wellness in the Schools develop recipes, he actually goes into the schools and cooks alongside cafeteria personnel. The program also brings cooks into the classroom to show children a specific ingredient, explain how to prepare it, give the children a taste, and then offer recipes to take home and share with their parents. And, in conjunction with Share our Strength and City Harvest, WITS is beginning a new project that will help teach adults how to shop and cook.
It is Chef Telepan’s hope that Wellness in the Schools will be a required program in all of New York City’s schools before too long. And, that the current program working in 19 schools can be taken to other school systems since its size is basically the same as many school districts across the country. I asked him if help was needed to expand the program. “Definitely,” he eagerly answered. “We need volunteers with some basic cooking experience who are willing to travel to a specific school to help with prep work in the kitchen. This is a program started by volunteer moms and will expand in the same way. Plus we just need people to spread the vibe about what we are doing.” Although many chefs are known for their generosity and do offer their expertise to many programs, I happen to know that Bill is the only New York City chef devoting what could almost be called part-time job hours to this exceedingly important not-for-profit program.
I thanked Bill and told him that I would try to urge my readers to join the WITS team – I even suggested a motto – “Keep Your WITS About You!” Sorry for the pun, but I couldn’t resist. Please email Signeg@wellnessintheschools.org to volunteer time or go directly to the website to donate money to support their programs. I can think of no better way to help conquer obesity, diabetes, and heart disease before each of these tragic diseases has a chance to take hold.
NOTE: The USDA provides schools with commodity foods, ordered through a prescribed list. Many of these foods are prepared items like breaded chicken nuggets, although there are fresh fruits such as apples also on the list. In what would generally be termed minimally-equipped kitchens, New York City schools prepare lunches for almost one million students a day and are reimbursed a little over $2.00 for each reduced-price lunch and about 25¢ for each paid lunch served.