One of New York’s first and most acclaimed devotees of “greenmarket cooking”, utilizing the freshest ingredients from local markets; Bill Telepan is committed to showcasing the season’s bounty through his cuisine. He insists on understanding where his ingredients come from, how they’ve been cared for, and using the best of what is available—a thoughtfulness that’s reflected in the vibrant dishes he creates at his namesake restaurant.
What's Your NativeAdVice:
How did you get into the Culinary industry?
Food was a big part of my upbringing but I never cooked or thought about cooking until later. My mother’s Hungarian and a great cook, so we grew up eating a lot of that kind of cuisine.
When I was in high school, my friend worked at a deli. He ended up quitting so I took over as the counter guy, flipping burgers and making sandwiches. I left when baseball season started but soon after, accepted a job as a part-time cook at an Italian restaurant where my friend was a dishwasher. I ended up working at one other restaurant in town for a year before graduating high school. The Chef and General Manager were both graduates of the CIA and encouraged me to apply…so I did!
Tell us about Telepan. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the restaurant?
In terms of food, I knew from my time in France working under Alain Chapel that I wanted to cook seasonally and locally. I learned that if you can start off with a quality product, you have a better shot at producing a quality product.
Throughout my career, I’ve also come to realize that the success of a restaurant isn’t just about the chef but also about the overall experience. There’s a restaurant in Italy called Cibreo. I absolutely love it. It isn't the gastronomic center of the world, but the food's very good, the wine list is terrific, and the staff is great. All the locals go there as well as tourists. Most importantly, you walk out happier than when you walked in. When I first started planning to open my own restaurant, I knew I wanted to evoke that same kind of feeling.
What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Telepan's success?
My partner Jimmy Nicholas and I have had the same vision for the restaurant since the beginning and have really focused on becoming part of the community on the Upper West Side. I’ve lived here for over twenty years, my daughter has been raised and educated here, and I’ve had the chance to really get to know people in the area. Working as the Executive Chef of Wellness in the Schools has also strengthened that connection. It’s nice to be part of the neighborhood and know the people who come in to dine. It’s not just about the food but about the relationships you have with the people and your community in general.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
I’ve always been focused on the greenmarket and cooking with seasonal and local ingredients, even before the term “farm-to-table” surfaced as a trendy concept. Now farm-to-table is considered passé. But it’s never been something I’ve thought twice about because it’s simply who I am (and always have been) as a chef.
Trends come and go. My goals are still the same for the restaurant and for the customers that come in. In the end, it’s about hospitality. That’s the focus I’ve always maintained with staff – to know the restaurant inside and out, remember names and preferences, but also be relaxed and have fun.
Your greatest success as Proprietor of Telepan?
This coming December we’ll be celebrating the restaurant’s 10-year anniversary, which I’m really proud of. It’s made me think a lot about how much has happened over the years and all of the people I’ve met and worked with: From training staff and watching them grow and improve, to celebrating births, toasting to those who have recently departed, all the while maintaining our standards in the kitchen. It’s really been quite a ride.
Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
Definitely the recession in 2009. I learned that you have to stay true to yourself and in doing so your biggest supporters will stand by you.
Your advice to an aspiring restaurateur?
Don’t be afraid to push for answers and make sure you understand everything that is going on clearly.
How important are architecture/design to the success of Telepan?
When we decided to remodel the restaurant in 2013, the idea was that we wanted to make it a little more sophisticated without it becoming too intimidating but also keep the relaxed feel that we wanted guests to experience when dining with us.
How do you motivate your employees?
Hear what they have to say. Don’t micro-manage. Let them grow and learn. Let them have the ability to gain some hands-on experience. Be kind.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
Hands-down my mom’s roast pork and kielbasa with sauerkraut. To drink, probably tequila.
What literature is on your bed stand?
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, American Pastoral by Philip Roth, and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.
Role model - business and personal?
My parents. They’re the hardest working people I know, raised four kids, and genuinely care about people.
Wellness in the Schools (WITS). WITS is also celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year. Being part of that positive change and seeing how much we’ve grown has been incredibly rewarding. We’re now in over 60 New York Schools, have launched successful pilot programs in both Florida and rural Kentucky, and each day we serve over 30,000 children our revised school lunch menu!
Favorite travel destination?
The mountains of the west including Montana and the Sierras in California. I love the big sky and escaping the city. It’s amazing to see how nature has created something so beautiful and vast that hasn’t been touched by man.
What’s next for Telepan?
Celebrating our 10-year anniversary with Telepan’s friends & family.
With the desire to make his cuisine accessible to the home cook, Telepan penned the cookbook Inspired by Ingredients (Simon & Schuster), published in 2004. The following year, he opened Telepan restaurant on the Upper West Side. The restaurant allows Bill to showcase his simple and balanced approach to cooking and has earned him a loyal following and accolades including a 2014 Michelin Star, a glowing two-star review from The New York Times and the title of “Best Newcomer” in the 2007 Zagat survey.
Since 2008, he has been the Executive Chef of Wellness in the Schools (WITS), a non-profit organization dedicated to making school food healthy. As the first chef to join the WITS team, Bill has served as a leader of the WITS Cook for Kids program by developing nutritious school menus, training cafeteria workers and teaching culinary and nutrition concepts to students, parents and teachers. In 2009, Bill was honored with a selection to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to School task force and preliminary conferences. Bill currently lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and daughter.