When Bill Telepan opened his eponymous restaurant at the end of 2005, then-New York Times critic Frank Bruni noted that the food at the seasoned chef's new business wasn't flashy. Instead, Bruni wrote, "it [can] warm hearts and sate appetites, more surely and faithfully than vainer suitors might." You get the idea that's what Telepan is going for just by talking to him. He avoids any sort of high-minded gastronomic talk in favor of sharing memories of Cibreo, in Italy, and how that restaurant's unassuming warmth is what he aspires to evoke at his own place. He doesn't mind that it's a bit harder to sustain a restaurant's hotness on the Upper West Side, as long as he keeps his neighbors coming back. And even though he has his eyes set on a space in TriBeCa for a potentially buzzy new project, he's much more eager to talk about what he's done to help the cooking programs at public schools in New York City. Here's the full interview:
What was the idea behind Telepan?
God, it was so long ago! I was hitting 10 years at Judson Grill, and I was looking for things to do on my own. There's Cibreo, in Italy. I love it. It's not like you're going to get tremendously wowed by the food. The staff is warm, the wine is terrific, it makes you happy. I knew I wanted to evoke that kind of feeling.
I always cooked seasonally and bought locally from the time I was at Ansonia. I had always gone by this space when it was a restaurant called Santa Fe, and I thought it was perfect. It's split up and in a brownstone. I liked the feel of it.
And I wanted to do the Italian thing with the menu, cut into four parts: antipasto, primi, secondi, and dessert. I felt that being near Lincoln Center, we could do an American take on that style. I wanted to do plenty of vegetarian dishes and pastas, because I love that. With four sections, you can do a tasting or just mix around as you like.
Are there challenges to this area, where it seems harder to maintain something of a hot spot compared to downtown?
Honestly, I had Ansonia before the real estate thing hit, and it was tough. It didn't make it. That was at 76th and Columbus. But I've come to think that 72nd Street is kind of like a barrier. If you're south of that, it's easier. Lincoln Center is a big deal. Here, on days when there are shows, we could fill up.
It is tougher, in general, but I'll let you in on something that Tom Valenti [chef of Ouest], who also has made it up here, told me: the way you capture the neighborhood, don't block them out. Even though you might be super hot, keep 20 percent of your book open specifically for the people in the neighborhood that want to drop by. Get to know them, and over time, they will know that they can call in with short notice and make it in. So, I have a large base of regular customers, a good chunk of which don't make reservations until the very last moment.
We're not so hot anymore, so the key was making those connections. I was really adamant about that, because it's different up here.
How are things these days in terms of business?
Before the recession, we'd have people coming in here three times a week. Now, it's one or two. The great thing about the Upper West Side, though, is that there's this audience, whether it's people like me with kids or newly married folks, who don't necessarily want to head downtown all the time for dinner, since it takes longer and the cabs are more expensive. Those are the kinds of people that will drop in for a solid meal at Telepan and then be home sooner than if they took a longer trip.
Does it upset you that it's harder to attract people here?
No. It's expensive to live in Manhattan. Cooks, too, live either way downtown or in the outer boroughs, and it takes a really long time to get here. There are some really good things happening up here — Fraser at Dovetail, Boulud's new places, the Time Warner Center, Lincoln, and a lot more — but I think people still see it as a distant place.
I started working at Gotham in 1987. They were three years old and smoking hot. Jonathan Waxman, Lidia, Bouley, and Vongerichten were starting out. Tom Valenti worked at Gotham, Wylie worked at Gotham — those big-time restaurants had really good cooks working for them, so now you have many, many more places to eat than back then. There are so many options, so it's more competitive. And the customer is way more savvy, by the way. I remember when I'd cook salsify at Ansonia, and people wouldn't know what it was. Now, it's way different. It's exciting.
Were you suggesting that it's also hard to get cooks to work here?
There's so many more places to go and work. A lot of these kids who can't afford to live in Manhattan live in Brooklyn, so why would you travel all the way up here? I shouldn't say that, but it's true. We've been lucky here, since I like to promote from within. I'll call the schools and get someone started on garde manger, and little by little move them up.
People tend to hang around here. I don't see kids leaving after six months. If I get them in there early, train them like I want to, it keeps them here. That's how I was out of school: I went to Gotham for a couple of years to learn as much as I could. But it's hard to ask a kid from Brooklyn to travel an hour to get here and then schlepp all the way back. You also want to create a good environment in the kitchen.
How are you in the kitchen?
I'm a little Jekyll & Hyde in the kitchen. I was much more high strung when I was 30. Now, I'm 46 and you chill out. But, any of that stuff — that heat — comes from the desire to not disappoint the customer. We've been talking about just how many restaurants there are in this city, so why are they going to come here and spend money on something crappy?
So when something isn't right, it's not about calling the cook an idiot or worthless. It's more like, "Dude, this person is paying a good amount of money for this dish, which includes ingredients we've taken time to source, so we probably shouldn't mess this up." I try to make the cooks aware of that, so it's not about them just satisfying me. They should think about the person you're putting the food in front of. I've been learning how to handle that differently and really emphasize that.
The chemistry in the kitchen here is great. They almost get along too well, but it works. I want to like everybody, and I want them to get along with each other, since we spend so much time here. And these days, the little things, as long as they are corrected, don't bother me as much as they used to.
What's the status of the new restaurant downtown?
We're trying to finalize the lease on a space in TriBeCa. We're working it out now. I think we're in a pretty good place on it now. I do want to go downtown.
What do you want to do in that space?
I'm looking to do a casual spot, sort of tapas in the American way. Instead of having ten ingredients on the plate, I'll have around two to four. I think people are looking to try more things, so the tapas format is good. I get a lot of whole animals, so I'll be able to do more of that with the new place. I'll use the primal cuts at Telepan and do funkier stuff downtown.
So you wouldn't mind having the hot spot again.
Yeah, everyone wants to have the hot spot.
Before we finish, can you talk a little bit about your role in Wellness in the Schools?
I'm also the executive chef of Wellness in the Schools. We try to inspire healthy eating and healthy minds — that's the motto. We'll go into schools and work in the cafeteria with a culinary graduate who will train the food workers in the school to do cooking from scratch. We also have a fitness program and cooking classes. We're in 40 New York City public schools, and friends like Michael Romano, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Jonathan Waxman help us out and participate.
We're throwing a party on April 23. It's kind of a big deal for me. When we started, it was just eight schools. I'm not going to the farmers market for any of this — it's all from what you can do with the schools' procurement list. You realize how so many kids really on that one school meal a day, and the impact that can have on their learning. If they're eating something that's worthwhile, odds are they'll be able to learn a lot better in the second half of the day. And if we can capture some of them so that they are bringing some of those ideas home with them, that's a very good thing.
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