Handle With Care: Bill Telepan's Success Has Been in Building Community
Nadine Anderson courtesy Telepan
When I ask Bill Telepan what he'd like his legacy to be, he gets uncharacteristically bashful. "I suppose I'm honored to even be asked that question," says the chef, punctuating the admission with a much more typically enthusiastic, barking laugh. "I guess it would be that I'm someone who gave a shit," he answers.
That's a legacy that's more or less been signed and sealed for the chef, who has owned beloved Upper West Side restaurant Telepan (72 West 69th Street, 212-580-4300) for almost ten years. He's worked hard to build a community there, one that includes both his staff and his regular customers. Outside of work, he's been a national leader in getting healthier food into schools via Wellness in the Schools (WITS).
Telepan's first real restaurant job was as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant owned by a Greek family in his hometown of Sayreville, New Jersey, a position he took because he was a high schooler trying to save money for a car. Before he worked there, he'd flipped burgers and made sandwiches at a local deli, so when the Italian restaurant needed a cook, Telepan said he had experience in the kitchen. The family believed him and put him on the line. "I really took to it," he says.
After that restaurant closed, he moved to another local spot called Garfunkel's, which was "a glorified Friday's run by two Culinary Institute of America graduates," he says. Those owners convinced him to apply to their alma mater. He got in, and a year after graduating from high school, he headed up to Hyde Park.
Upon graduation, Telepan trailed at the River Café with Charlie Palmer, who helped him get a job with Alfred Portale at Gotham Bar & Grill, then just a three-year-old restaurant. Telepan liked that crew, but he soon realized many of the chefs he looked up to — Palmer and Portale, for instance — had spent time cooking in France. "So I said, hey, maybe I should go to France," he says, explaining to his parents that it was like getting a master's degree.
He wrote every two- or three-star Michelin chef in the country — there were 30, at the time. "Twenty said no, five wanted me to pay them, four didn't respond, and one said yes, come work for two years for nothing," he says. He had no intention of staying two years, but he put in six months, then returned to New York City and landed at Le Bernardin. A stint at Le Cirque followed, and then he became sous chef at Gotham. He presided over the Ansonia (which had, he says, "a meteoric rise and fall") and later the Judson. In 2004, he began putting together plans for Telepan, which opened in 2005.
Telepan, he says, was inspired by a restaurant in Florence called Cibreo. "It isn't the gastronomic center of the world, but the food's very good, the wine list is very good, the service is very good, and you walk out happier than when you walk in," he says. "The chef knew all the people who came in. It was like a Cheers version of a high-end restaurant. That's the kind of restaurant I wanted to have." The Upper West Side was an ideal neighborhood for such a venture, he says, because when he opened, there was no real fine-dining spot to keep people in the area — and the families who'd moved in wanted to stay in the neighborhood. He composed a menu that would invite people in for a variety of occasions, whether they wanted to sit and have a quiet snack at the bar, pop in for a pre-theater meal, or celebrate a special occasion. And he instructed his staff to know the restaurant inside and out, but also to be relaxed and fun. Hosts remembered names and preferences, which was key in getting people to want to come back.
Come back they did. Nine years into his run, Telepan says, his community of regulars is thriving — and extends far beyond the borders of his neighborhood. "I have one customer who comes in from Virginia four or five months a year, and always eats here," he says. "He sends me an email two months ahead of time and tells me he's coming."
Last year, Telepan attempted to expand to a second restaurant, opening Telepan Local down in Tribeca. While he says the mechanics of opening haven't changed much — "You still have to pay the rent, get the liquor license, file permits...all those things are the same" — the media climate has made the process a far cry from what it used to be. "You get mentioned in Eater when you sign the lease, put up the paper, start construction," he says. "Then all the media outlets cover your opening."
The media coverage, and the accelerated review cycle, made it hard for Telepan Local to find its footing. "When I opened Telepan, Frank Bruni came in five times in the first five weeks," he says. "Fifty-nine days later, we got reviewed. And now we're a totally different restaurant. But at Telepan Local, we were trying out a new concept, and we just didn't have the time to get it right. We were getting customer feedback and evolving. But you get reviewed, and three months after you open, it's done. [The Times] was in within the first two months, and that's it — three or four weeks later, the review came out."
That cycle seems especially egregious, says Telepan, when you consider the economics of doing business in the restaurant industry these days. "There's a perception that restaurateurs are out to gouge you, but the reason we charge that much is that we have a certain number of cooks, we pay taxes, we pay for insurance, we pay large rents — there are so many costs when it comes to running a restaurant. And food's expensive. So when critics start writing about how much things cost, I don't get it. It's like they want to run restaurants out of town. I'm not looking to build an empire. I want to do the best I can and employ people."
Still, the chef is optimistically plotting future restaurant projects, and he admits that his job comes with a lot of perks. "We get to go to the best restaurants all over the world, and we get great treatment, great wine, and odd food that normally wouldn't be served," he says. "There are a lot of fun things, too."
When he's not running his restaurant, Telepan works with WITS to get healthier food into schools. He began collaborating with the organization nearly a decade ago, when it was in just three schools. "WITS is an organization that brings cooks into the cafeteria to get kids a healthy lunch, and brings coaches into the recess yard to get the least active kids active," he says. "It's a whole new lunch experience, and it gets kids going into the second half of the day energized rather than sleepy." The organization also targets low-income schools, where students are on free or reduced-price lunch, because getting those kids at least one healthy meal per day is vital, and providing nutrition education can make a big impact on their future well-being.
Telepan designed menus for many of the schools in the early days, then helped enlist other chef volunteers as the program grew. He helped initiate a program that hired culinary students to work alongside cafeteria workers and train them to cook nutritious lunches. And he still gets involved with cooking labs, which provide cooking classes to the kids. "They cook something that they're eating in the cafeteria," he says. "So maybe they won't try the vegetarian chili, but then they cook it, and they're willing to try what they made."
This year, WITS celebrates its tenth anniversary — it's in 60 NYC schools now, and it advises schools in other states. It's looking to expand a bit more nationally, too, Telepan says. "We feel like we have a program that can be replicated anywhere, and we want to be there for people who are looking for help." The organization will host a fundraiser on May 5 at River Park to work toward that goal.
Telepan is dedicating much of his time to that push right now. He's also pondering a cookbook. And he's focused on continuing to push his restaurant forward. "I still come to work saying, 'What can I do better today? For the staff, for the customer,' " he says. "A restaurant that's been around awhile needs love, too."
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